• Festivals

TIFF 2022: The Real Impact of “The Woman King” with Viola Davis

The Woman King is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, and stars Viola Davis and South African Thuso Mbedu, along with Sheila Atim, Lashana Lynch and John Boyega.

To describe it as an action film might be true, but it leaves out the social significance that might not be immediately obvious to people who are accustomed to seeing themselves represented on all levels of society.

For anyone who would quash that conversation, it’s important to listen to the filmmakers.

While appreciating the entertainment factor of the film which had the audience in Toronto yelling at the screen and spontaneously applauding, the journalists’ questions at the press conference for The Woman King at the Toronto International Film Festival focused primarily on why the film resonated with the cast and filmmakers alike – and why it not only set out to entertain but to also expand dreams.

Director Prince-Bythewood shared, “As a black female artist, every time I go in a room with a script, it feels like I’m hustling for my worth. I just feel so grateful to be able to go on this journey with this story. It took on a life of its own. It’s a world, it’s a story that we’ve never seen before. As a filmmaker, that is hellishly exciting to do.”


Indeed, The Woman King may do for action films what Black Panther did for super heroes, or what Patty Jenkins did for female directors when she helmed Wonder Woman break down lazy stereotypes of who can lead an action film and what makes a profitable movie. In this case, the glass ceiling shattering is with the story and cast focusing on black women. Why is that relevant?

The 2021 McKinsey report concluded that movies and television play an outsize role in shaping and reinforcing cultural beliefs and attitudes about race, both in the United States and internationally.

If we do a casual search for films that starred Black women action heroes, everyone settles on Lola Falana as Lola Colt (aka Black Tigress – 1967), Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown (1974), and more than a decade later, Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary (2018). More recently, Black female action heroes have popped up in films like Lashana Lynch in No Time to Die, Zazie Beetz in Deadpool 2, or Danai Gurira in Wakanda Forever.

The point is that there has never been an all-Black, all-women cast of action heroes who were the protagonists. In The Woman King, they were not adjuncts.

And let’s note that these women are not a fantasy, but spring from history – a history rarely covered in Euro-America – the story of indigenous people overcoming, taking the honorable route, refusing to be pawns or to be subjugated by foreigners or by their own people. This film is pure entertainment, but it is also telling a tale through a different lens.

Davis explained the ramifications of not seeing herself represented. “I feel like my entire life, I have allowed myself to be defined by a culture. I have allowed myself to be defined by the naysayers. I was dropped in the middle of a profession that is all about deprivation. A lot of times you just allow other people to define you. At 56 years old, I have come to the realization that I can define myself. This film is for the risk-takers.

This film is for maybe even all naysayers who didn’t ever believe that Black women, especially dark-skinned women, could lead a global box office, could open a film.”


She continued, “I said that this film was my magnum opus, but it’s my magnum opus because it’s everything that I ever dreamed it could be. That we can be humanized. We can be all of those things. But it’s also for my six-year-old self in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The little girl who was traumatized. The little girl who was called ugly. The little girl who was not seen, who was left invisible. I see you, Viola, and I see every little chocolate girl who is like you. I’m telling you to stop running. This is my gift to you.”

Sheila Atimas elaborates, “As a Black woman, it’s rare to read scripts where you feel like there is going to be a rounded, detailed and in-depth exploration of your character and the world that your characters inhabit. That drew me.”

Maria Bello wrote the treatment and in 2015, when presenting Viola Davis with an award in Los Angeles, used the opportunity to pitch the story on Nanisca, The Woman King, to the audience. Notes Davis, “Maria ended by asking the audience, ‘Wouldn’t you want to see Viola Davis as The Woman King?’ Although the applause resounded, it was a seven-year journey of finding a studio, finding the actors, finding the director, finding the budget. A seven-year journey of really, blood, sweat, and tears.”

The idea of the film is based on research of the Agojie, an all-woman army. In the film, Davis plays General Nanisca, the leader of the king’s all-female elite guard. Other themes the movie covers include forced marriage of daughters for the enrichment of the family, the forceable rape of enemies in conflict and the restrictive role of women as imposed by society.

It cannot be stated enough that these stereotypes are taken on and broken by women of color, which could impact little girls across the world who are being told that are not enough because of their gender and race.

Davis minced no words when explaining this relevance. “Everything starts with worth. I think that there is a continual message in our culture that we are not worthy. Our numbers far surpass anyone else. We are 246% more likely to die giving birth. 75% of women who are sex-trafficked are young Black girls. If you are raped before the age of 18 and you are a Black female, you have a 68% chance of it happening again.”

She continued, “There is a sense that we are the leftovers, and what I continue to say is I want to do for young Black girls what Ms. Tyson did for me when I was seven years old. She was a physical manifestation of a dream, and she came to me through a brokedown television set in a dilapidated apartment in Central Falls, Rhode Island. What she delivered to me was something that can’t even be quantified in words. That’s what I would give to young Black girls.”