[WARNING: The above interview contains spoilers about “The Woman King.”]
There are several reasons Dana Stevens has been tapped to write the screenplay for “The Woman King,” the new historical epic that opens in US theaters on September 16. But chief among them was this Oscar winner Viola Davis (“Fences”), who stars in and co-produces the film, was already attached to the project before the writer joined the project.
“I’m a massive Viola fan to the point that when she was first nominated for the Oscars, I really wanted her to win, and I was a voter. It was Presidents Day or something. like that, and I was afraid that my ballot would not be counted, that it would not arrive at the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]. So I drove it to the Academy and put it in a box, because I just think Viola is the most dynamic actress working in film right now,” Stevens recalled during his recent online chat with Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above). “So straight away I was like, whatever Viola would give me, I would watch it – and then I was blown away.”
SEE our webchat with producer Cathy Schulman (“The Woman King”)
Realized by Gina Prince Bythewood and inspired by real events, “The Woman King” is about an elite military unit of all-female warriors called Agojie who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey – which was located in present-day Benin – in the 18th and 19th centuries. Set in 1823, the film stars Davis as General Nanisca, a fictional leader of the Agojie who trains the next generation of warriors to fight their enemies, as well as Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and Jean Boyega.
Most telling (and frustrating) for Stevens in reading the material sent to him before he signed on to the project, including several articles and a lookbook featuring images of the Agojie, was the realization that Americans know of it. generally very little on the all-female military regiment. Even her own knowledge of warriors didn’t extend far beyond the fact that they were the inspiration behind “Black Panther” Dora Milaje — a troupe of female warriors in the fictional 2018 film Wakanda — she admits. But once she delved into the material, she became convinced that Agojie’s story would make for a story that was, in the writer’s words, as “juicy, epic and textured” as that of the HBO phenomenon. “Game of Thrones” or Oscar for Best Picture. winner “Gladiator” (2000).
Although the 1890s was originally considered for the film’s setting, Stevens ultimately chose not to depict this phase of Agojie’s 200-year history. This is because the warriors suffered devastating losses at the hands of the French in the Franco-Dahomean Wars that took place in the first half of that decade, and she was more interested in depicting a period in which they were triumphant. The year 1823 offered just that, plus an opportunity for the writer to dig into Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade, which was in disarray at that time.
“The English forbade [slave trade], and they patrolled the waters, they brought down the slaves from the ships and brought them home. So the slave trade was basically illegal,” says Stevens, who was also fascinated by the fact that the king of Dahomey at the time, Ghezo (played by Boyega in the film), had been brought to power by a coup organized by the Agojie. “So, I just thought, what an incredible relationship between Nanisca…as a battle-torn warrior, and this sexy young king, [where] she thinks, “Maybe it’s a chance that I can advocate for change.” (In the film, Nanisca confronts Ghezo about the immorality of selling Dahomey slaves to the Portuguese and offers the kingdom to turn to palm oil production for trade instead.)
SEE In honor of “The Woman King”: a look back at female warriors in cinema
In our chat, Stevens also explains how she came up with the backstory of Nanisca – who turns out to be the long-lost biological mother of Nawi (Mbedu), a new volunteer recruit, with whom she became pregnant after being raped in Captivity of Oyo – and how she used the character to explore what leadership would look like from someone who had decided to quell the emotions stirred up by her traumatic past.
“What [Nanisca]’s fact is to cut yourself off from your young self, from your injured young self, ”describes the writer. “Then because she connects with Nawi as a young trainee, all of these emotions come to her. And then Nawi is actually the girl. So it’s about how Nanisca opens her heart to her younger self and to her daughter, and is able to heal and even be a better warrior because she actually has the fire in her belly to save Nawi. And I think for me, one of the things that what I absolutely love about this movie is that the women feel really pushed back and pushed against the wall and I just wanted this movie to be an empowering story about women fighting back – because we don’t get those [types of] action movies.”
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