“We want Braveheart. We want Gladiator. We want that for our women, our stories, and our history.” Director Gina Prince-Bythewood discusses the magnitude she sought when shooting her latest film, The Woman King. Rarely do big-budget, large-scale historical epics centre the stories of Black women, and in The Woman King, Prince-Bythewood offers a more than welcome departure.
Based on true events that took place during the 1800s, the film follows the tremendous story of an all-female unit of warriors in the African kingdom of Dahomey. When an enemy threatens the kingdom, General Nanisca, played by Oscar-winner Viola Davis, prepares the warriors for battle, declaring that “some things are worth fighting for.”
Throughout her remarkable career, Prince-Bythewood has consistently waged a battle of her own—fighting tirelessly to centre the stories of Black women in television and film. “It’s hard to get a movie like this made, for obvious reasons, in Hollywood,” she says. “It was a tough process to get that green light, and it was a constant fight.”
This film represents the latest in a body of work that has long contained an unwavering sense of intention, from her start as a writer on A Different World to writing and directing features like Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and Beyond the Lights. “It absolutely feels like a natural progression in that I hope that my work has, through the years, helped reframe what it means to be feminine and female and encourage women to embrace their fight,” she says.
When asked what draws her to a particular story, she responds, “It is a very simple thing—everything I do is gutteral, and I need to feel a have to, there’s a hundred things that I want to do, but what do I have to do?” She continues, “When I first heard about this story, and then when I started to read the script, it was a have to; I have to tell this story.”
This sense of purpose is also reflected in her casting choices. “I was so intentional in how I wanted to put this cast together with women with incredible chops but also an incredible passion to tell the story,” she says, “and I wanted to make sure that our ensemble reflected our whole diaspora.” Alongside Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, and John Boyega create a fiercely triumphant film.
To give the story the aesthetic magnitude it deserved, Prince- Bythewood chose to shoot in South Africa. “I wanted scope for the film,” she says. “I wanted it to be a historical epic.” It also allowed the film to pull its background artists and crew from the continent. “It’s important to me that my crews are reflective of people who are so talented but don’t often have the opportunity,” says Prince-Bythewood. “It was an inspiring set to be on because everyone was passionate about telling the story of
Although her oeuvre has secured her status as a living legend, her own personal measure of success seems largely tied to creating opportunities for others. “I want doors slammed open,” says the director. She credits Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman for opening the door for her, and similarly hopes that The Woman King enables “other women—and other Black women—to be able to tell these stories in this big space.”