Action movies are the foundation of cinema. Whether it’s sci-fi, superheroes, revenge or historical, they’re a driving force in the industry. What they don’t usually do is center the action on Black women. That’s one of the reasons The Woman King is such an important movie that, much like everyone else, I can’t wait to see.
Films like Gladiator, Braveheart, 300 and Troy are exclusively focused on how white men saved history. They’re the ones who rally a ragtag group of warriors to fight back against a more powerful army. Don’t forget their sidekick, who is usually a person of color, dying heroically to ensure the white guy saves the day. And obviously, the man must protect some poor damsel in distress.
White men don’t have to be special to be action stars. If their wife, child or dog is killed, that’s all that’s necessary for them to be the center of the story. For women, the world literally has to be at stake for them to take the reins as the hero. And for Black women specifically, they need to have magical powers or be the only choice left in the room.
In The Woman King, the all-female Agojie warriors are the ones fighting to save their people from white colonizers. The groundbreaking movie is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) and stars Oscar-winner Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and BAFTA-winner John Boyega. Even with Viola attached to star and produce, it’s no surprise that it was a struggle to get the film made.
Per The Hollywood Reporter, Cathy Schulman, one of the film’s producers, recalled the studio wanting to give the film a much smaller budget and cast more well-known light-skinned actresses, something Schulman, Davis, fellow producers Maria Bello and Julius Tennon all felt was historically inaccurate.
There’s this long-held (completely wrong) belief that Black films don’t travel. Basically, even if a movie does well in the United States, it can’t make money overseas. Of course, when said out loud, it sounds like the nonsense that it is, but it’s what studio executives think. On a completely unrelated note: for the majority of the film business’ existence, white men have been running the show.
Since this ridiculously stupid idea has been a thing for so long, movies like Get Out, Girls Trip and even Black Panther are always considered surprise hits. And because they’re a surprise or a one-of-a-kind success, a production like The Woman King isn’t worth the investment.
“The part of the movie that we love is also the part of the movie that is terrifying to Hollywood, which is, it’s different, it’s new,” Davis said. “We don’t always want different or new, unless you have a big star attached, a big male star. We didn’t have that going on for The Woman King. [Hollywood studios] like it when women are pretty and blond or close to pretty and blond. All of these women are dark. And they’re beating the shit out of men. So there you go.”
Make no mistake, this is a drama that takes itself seriously. However, there is also a joy and empowerment in the way these women unapologetically own their power. They are not looking to be saved, they are the saviors. It’s impossible not to feel like you can take on the world after seeing how these women handle themselves in the film’s intense battle scenes.
Viola’s General Nanisca takes it upon herself to tell the king that they need to take action now before the colonizers continue enslaving and destroying their people. She knows she’s the one to protect her people and she’s not shy about it. Black women often have to calibrate their confidence and power based on who’s in the room and how uncomfortable it will make them if we’re a little too badass.
Nanisca and the Agojie do not have the time or inclination to make such adjustments and it’s beautiful to see that on the big screen.
The Agojie warriors are the real women Black Panther’s Dora Milaje are based on. The connection has led to inevitable comparisons, but Prince-Bythewood thinks it’s a testament to how much people want these stories that both films are able to thrive at the same time.
“I love the fact that we are in a time when we both exist, it’s a beautiful thing,” the director told The Hollywood Reporter. “Their success absolutely had a hand in us finally getting a green light. They changed culture.”
The Woman King hits theaters Sept. 16.