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The Joys and Struggles of Making “The Woman King”

This week Sony Pictures held a Downtown Manhattan screening for their awards contender The Woman King, at the Roxy Cinema. With its handsome below-the-line offerings and the true actor/producer star wattage of Viola Davis behind it, The Woman King looks to be one of Sony’s top contenders as we head into the intense first phase of Award Season. With the critics groups beginning to announce, and many major awards bodies entering their voting periods ahead of nominations, now is the time to grab the metaphorical crown, as it were…

Now that we’ve seen Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pounce onto the screen, it’s a particularly interesting time to see The Woman King. With its successful launch at the Toronto International Film Festival and subsequent box office success in September, it’s amazing to see two films featuring ensembles of black female warriors connect with audiences and head side-by-side into the Best Picture conversation. These are two very different films, however, with vastly different resources at their disposal, and a different scope and approach to their portrayals of female empowerment and dimension on the African continent. The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who was on hand at Tuesday’s screening, spoke in a Q&A moderated by fellow director Kasi Lemmons (of this season’s upcoming Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody) of the mountains she had to climb to bring this story to the screen.

When meeting with Viola Davis, already attached as star and producer, Prince-Bythewood spoke of being unusually nervous and turned to her personal connection to the material to convince Davis she was the right person for the job. The film she’s “wanted to make for her whole career”, Prince-Bythewood’s love of historical epics, background as an athlete, and personal history as an adoptee beget from likely tragic circumstances, combined to form an intense connection to the screenplay. She believed that she could innately connect with the actors to guide them through this story. Feeling that she perhaps was too vulnerable in her pitch, she thought she had blown the opportunity. But then she heard from Viola who was impressed by that very passion and thought Prince-Bythewood would “fight like a warrior to direct” the film. And a partnership was born.

The casting process also developed unusually. Prince-Bythewood was taken by personal statements made by some of the actors: a speech made by Lashana Lynch at an event Prince-Blythewood attended about what she wanted to “put in the world” embodied powerful training commander Izogie in the film, and a speech John Boyega made during the Black Lives Matter groundswell in 2020 about “wanting to protect Black Women” informed his casting as benevolent King Ghezo. At the center of her version of an action epic, Prince-Blythewood prioritized heart from the earliest stage.

But not everything fell perfectly into line. After months of training (6-7 hours daily of fight training for the actors, who primarily did their own stunts), in November 2021 shooting in South Africa was shut down after just a few weeks due to the emergence of the Omicron Variant of Coronavirus. During the shutdown and subsequent holiday break, both Prince-Bythewood and Davis stayed on location afraid “if they left, they wouldn’t come back.”

Luckily, the variant subsided and shooting resumed in early 2022, but now with a hungrier focus. “You have to believe what’s on that screen” stated Prince-Bythewood when asked how she makes sure her finished films retain her DNA as a director. After a painstaking editing process with frequent collaborator editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, realizing “whole scenes or pages of dialogue can be accomplished with just a look” Prince-Bythewood delivered a director’s cut of the film only 8 minutes longer than the theatrical result. “Your north star is your vision”, said Prince-Bythewood.

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