You’d think having award-winning actress Viola Davis attached to star in The Woman King would make it easier to get the film made. Turns out, her star power wasn’t enough to overcome decades of racism.
Based on a true story, the movie focuses on an army of women warriors in the 18th and 19th century kingdom of Dahomey who protect their people from white colonizers.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, as the Fences star and producer Cathy Schulman pitched the project to multiple studios, they were given every possible variation of the word “no.”
“Everybody looked at me like I was insane to even think this could be a commercial movie,” Schulman said. “I remember them saying, ‘You’d need a lot of money to do that, with the battles, but it’s the kind of movie you should make for $5 million.’”
The idea of a movie centered around an army of African women warriors was unfathomable to studio heads who couldn’t understand or refused to see the vision.
“We talked to a lot of people and got rejected. We were trying to reason with them,” Davis said. “What is it that is standing in the way of you saying ‘yes’ and accepting this movie and giving us a proper budget?”
When Nicole Brown became the boss at Sont TriStar, the first Black woman to head a live-action label at a big studio, someone finally saw the story for the historical epic it was.
“I could see the movie. I was so mesmerized by the thought that these women existed in the world and I hadn’t heard of it,” Brown said. “It had all the makings of a huge theatrical story, epic emotions, and incredible thrills and hero moments. And it had landscapes that I just wanted to see. And it had never been told.”
While there wasn’t an instant connection between Davis and director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the miscommunication stemmed from their mutual admiration for one another. The two previously met at a dinner for the drama The Secret Life of Bees, where things didn’t quite go as either of them planned.
“Everyone thinks I’m hostile, which sometimes I convey,” the Suicide Squad star said. “But with Gina, I told Julius, I was like, ‘That director from Love & Basketball, she don’t like me. I’m talking to her. She’s not saying nothing.’”
In actuality, The Old Guard director was just shy during that first meeting. But after helming the Netflix hit, Prince-Bythewood was ready for her next big challenge.
“What was normal to me growing up was women who went after it, who were aggressive, who had that mentality of wanting to be the best,” Prince-Bythewood said. “To outwork everybody, to leave everything out on the floor. Those lessons were normal to me. And then, as I got older, it was fascinating when I started to learn how few women had that. I truly believe that everyone has this innate athlete, innate warrior within them. I’ve been in a ring, I’ve gotten hit in the face, I’ve hit back. To be able to bring those kinds of nuances to scenes—what does that feel like before you’re about to fight? How you stand, how you think? Just knowing those types of things, I think, was very helpful.”
In the end, the film’s biggest obstacle was the COVID-19 Omicron variant. An outbreak on the movie’s South African set led Brown to temporarily halt production.
“I was like, ‘I can’t let you guys keep shooting,’” Brown said. “The patterns of COVID were different this time. We realized that we needed to take a break and understand what we were dealing with.”
As production resumed the Beyond the Lights director felt a deep responsibility to the entire cast to make sure the movie was as close to perfect as it could get.
“There was incredible pressure I was putting on myself,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I could not fail these other actors who trusted me to get this right. That kind of pressure drives me and keeps me, hopefully, outworking everybody.”
The Woman King starring Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega hits theaters Sept. 16.