“Sometimes you’re in a project that’s bigger than you are,” says Viola Davis, who covers the September digital cover of ESSENCE with her co-stars.
On September 16, audiences will witness the history of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that protected the African kingdom of Dahomey from its enemies in the 19th century. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Adrienne Warren and Thuso Mbedu, The Woman King not only uncovers and reframes a significant chapter in West African history. It renews a sense of pride and purpose for Black women of all walks of life throughout the diaspora.
“Sometimes you’re involved in a project that’s bigger than you are,” says Davis, who is covering the September digital cover of ESSENCE with her castmates. “You don’t think about the box office. You don’t think about success. You think of transcendence.”
The film follows General Nanisca, played by Davis, as he trains the next generation of recruits with the blessing of King Ghezo, played by John Boyega. The concept was first pitched to Davis in 2015, but the idea that such a project could actually happen took years for the Oscar-winner to grasp.
“The important part of this story is – I’m saying this now because it’s been almost eight years – I would say it didn’t hit me then. Not the story. The story hit me. The possibility of the story seeing light didn’t cross my mind,” Davis shares. “I think that’s important to say because we’re kind of pushed into this business. We’re also kind of a push in the world, but that’s a whole different conversation. But we’re pushing into the business and automatically assuming something isn’t going to happen if it’s never been done before. There will be no endorsement, no one will want to do it, no studio will give the green light, and who would want to see me like that? And that’s how I was personally thinking about it until Kathy Schulman came up with the script by Dana Stevens and I was like, ‘Oh, okay.'”
Getting the green light from the studios was only part of the struggle to make this film a reality. Portraying the warriors in this historical epic required a tremendous amount of physical training and mental stamina to execute, which the actresses talked about at great length during our cover story roundtable discussion. Each of them passed on their ability to hold on to the understanding that what they would ultimately achieve was greater than any of them.
Gina Prince-Bythewood in the cast commits to doing her own stunts.
“It was imperative because for me, the best action is personal, character-driven and plot-driven, and that’s very difficult when you’re dealing with doubles. You all looked me in the eye and said that you would do anything for it, even those who have never done it. It’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to actually do what you’ve done. I don’t think anyone can ever really tell how hard you’ve worked.”
Viola Davis on being seen as a black actress.
“There are no words to describe the journey, the sweat, the blood, the war, that’s being a black artist and a black artist. If people understood what was going on in the room, what was going on in the studio, what was going on in a heart, what shit dies in us sometimes.
“When you see the slaughter of all the black actors that was out there, even during the Sydney-Poitier years, it couldn’t even have an agent because it wasn’t out there for them. When they see the blood, sweat and tears it has taken, not just for this film but for our journey. Then they would be on board. They would be on board because they would understand the absolute importance of it. And whatever petty jealousy is, which is very human because it’s jealousy. It’s envy. I want to be there. It’s that basic human instinct to put someone down because I have to be better than you to make something else matter. This is secondary to raising the ultimate goal of being seen.”
Lashana Lynch on the lasting effect The Woman King will have on her life.
“I feel like I’ll always have a little bit of the spirit that was conjured up in us for filming, and I don’t even know what it is. I feel like I encountered this energy in a way and now I don’t know what to do with it. Because will I ever get a chance to practice it again? What does that mean? how do i talk to it how to use it But honestly, I’m really grateful that all of my experiences and all of the no’s and all of the complications and all of that “We’re going with a white girl, a lighter girl, a little girl, a more experienced girl –” We’re gonna make up for all of these Girls decide because they make more aesthetic sense than the tall, black, curvy, short-haired, dark-skinned girl from London who doesn’t cross her i-points and her t-points all the time. and who has an opinion [got me here]. I cannot understand how this will affect our whole life. Let alone all over the world. The world is one thing, but there is something in our lives that we can have forever. And I’m so excited to see what that collective experience will be like.”
Thuso Mbedu on Gina Prince-Bythewood and Viola Davis believe in her.
“My greatest realization is that I really am stronger than I think or believe or let me. And that there is a greatness that you have seen that I was not allowed to see in myself that I must absorb. Thank you for seeing me. Because even now I don’t think I see myself.”
Sheila Atim on working with black women across the diaspora.
“Personally I felt so enriched to be able to work with people who weren’t Black Brits or even Black Brits but have a different heritage than mine so we’re all in the same place. I learned from everyone and I hope people learned from me too. I think that’s a big part of what we can do for people outside of us. And what we can do together before we present what we have created.”
Adrienne Warren on the sisterhood that grew out of this film.
“Our togetherness is resistance. We are so much stronger together. Little did I know I had sisters in places. That’s what it felt like to be on this set. My sisters have multiplied. And the beauty in that, and the beauty of what we’ve learned from each other because of our individual lived experiences, and the beauty that we present when we come together, we present what the world has never seen before. They love, they mean the system, mean everything else out there, they love to divide us because if you divide us then you can conquer us. Try to penetrate us. You won’t because we’ve been through so much and because in every way we’re not superheroes, we’re warriors. We are Black women.”
The ESSENCE x The Woman King The roundtable discussion will air on September 12th.
Photographed by: Lelanie Foster, @lelanief
Styled by: Corey Stokes, @coreytstokes
Adrienne Hair: Tym WallaceuseRED by Kiss Edge Fixer Hair Wax StickatMastermind Management Group, @tymwallacehair
Adrienne Makeup: Rebekah AladdinatPR collective, @rebekahaladdin
Gina Hair: Tiffany’s daughteratCelestine agency
Gina Makeup: Leibi CariasatCelestine agency
Lashana Hair: Cynthia AlvarezatThe Wall Group, @cynthiaglam
Lashana Makeup Jessica SmallsatThe Wall Group, @jessicasmalls
Sheila Hair: Coree MorenouseR&CoatA-frame agency, @theonlycm123
Sheila Makeup: Paul BlanchuseDanessa MyricksatThe Wall Group, @paulyblanch
Thuso hair: Sharif PostonuseOribeatThe agency for visionaries, @sharifposton
Thuso makeup: Rebekah AladdinuseSET TOatPR collective, @rebekahaladdin
Adrienne + Thuso Makeup Assistant: Eliven Q
Viola Hair: Jamika WilsonatEpiphany Agency, @jamikawilson
Viola Make-up: Sergio Lopez-RiveraatCloutier remix, @sergiowastaken
Nail Technician: Temeka JacksonatA-frame agency, @customtnails1
Assistant nail technician: Christa Cole
Set Designer: Carlos Anthony LopezatWinston Studios, @winstonstudios
Set Design Assistants: Julia Choi and Diego Lopez
Photo assistants: Jesse Belvin and Alexis Sotomayor
Styling Assistants: Sam Knoll, Nash Koshiro, Anika Desai
Produced by Perris Cavalier and Taylor BrownatThe Morrison Group, @themorrisongroup
Production Coordinators: Alaura Wong and Jacqueline Dufwa
Production Assistant: Mariana Garcia
Shot at: DUST Studios, @duststudiosla