We Need Black Women on Screen, We Need The Woman King

Article In The Thread
TriStar Productions
Sept. 19, 2022

Spoiler warning: This article discusses the events, themes, and characters of The Woman King, released September 16.

Based on the true story of the Agojie, an all-woman unit of warriors dedicated to protecting the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s, the historical epic The Woman King is breathtaking and filled to the brim with visceral action and passionate, evocative performances, cementing its place as one of 2022's best films and taking first place at the domestic box office this weekend with $19 million.

If you enjoyed watching the Dora Milaje, the women royal guards of Wakanda in Black Panther, then you’ll be even more delighted when you see this depiction of the group that inspired them: elite women warriors protecting one of the most powerful African kingdoms. And to top it all off, that group of strong women is led by Viola Davis as Nanisca. When the French invade and threaten their home and freedom, Nanisca trains a new generation of warriors to take the fight right to the colonizers, putting their impressive skill set and bravery on display.

After a seven-year-long fight to get this movie made, The Woman King is an immaculate work of art that was built on a sense of urgency. This film led by dark-skinned Black women is a triumph, challenging men- and white-dominated storytelling and centering, rather than sidelining, the portrayal of African culture in Hollywood. The talent of director Gina Prince-Bythewood, the woman that brought us Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and The Old Guard, shines through vividly as the striking visuals of this film flowed together with intention and purpose. The actors have spoken about her ability to create a culture on set that allowed them to have agency in this film, as Prince-Bythewood acknowledged that, to the cast and crew, “it was more than just a job.” Prince-Bythewood’s directorial ability paired with the Oscar-worthy performances from leading ladies Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, and Sheila Atim are an ode to the strength and vulnerability of Black women. Debuting on Rotten Tomatoes at 100 percent, and currently, at the time of this writing, sitting at 95 percent with a 99 percent audience score, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that this film could’ve never been made.

Special Screening tickets

Over 10 years ago, Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon started a production company, JuVee Productions, “out of necessity” to create more opportunities for Black actors and creators of color to have ownership in telling their stories, uncovering complexity of culture, and shifting the narrative within storytelling in Hollywood. And The Woman King was not only the culmination of a years-long fight to make the film, but of a long battle, since the beginning of film, for Black women yearning to see themselves on screen in this way. At Friday night’s special screening of the film at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Viola Davis said that this movie was “an opportunity to have agency, and that’s ownership of your voice,” and Sheila Atim pointed out that being able to tell these stories and work on a film that is so dedicated to a people “doesn’t come for free.” For me, as a Black man and a viewer, this film — with its almost entirely Black cast and authentic displays of Black emotion — represented that ownership of our story. And it made this movie worth fighting for.

“This will only be a moment if y’all don’t go see this movie.” — Viola Davis

Steeped in African culture, this film was a transcendent experience. Instead of viewing the African diaspora through the white gaze as countless films before it have done, it centers and praises the athletic and mental prowess of African people. It didn’t display us as nothing more than savages, but instead, in telling our story, showed us as the kings and warriors we always were and are. The Woman King re-enforced what we already know to be true: Representation matters. Representation is powerful.

“Black people and POC have spent lifetimes enjoying movies, tv shows, & other forms of art where there was little to no representation. Grafting themselves into the stories in their imaginations. Holding tight to the tiniest of crumbs offered up on screen.” — LaToya Morgan

Silenced, degraded, and made invisible for too long, Black women have faced insurmountable odds. And after the difficulties in finding executives and financiers willing to bankroll the film, The Woman King represents its own struggle and portrait of female strength. So yes, in this film Black womanhood is represented as physically strong and fierce, but it also embraced the power of vulnerability. Viola’s character early on in the film says “you must kill your tears,” but we learn that those tears and that love for her fellow Agojie and family are what make her a great leader. Prince-Bythewood’s work has always seemed committed to displaying the multitudes and power of femininity. And, in working to “create a whole woman you can look up to,” The Woman King is no different.

A historic number of Black women are on the ballot in the midterms this year. A Black woman has ascended to SCOTUS. And Black women were finally recognized for their talents at the Emmys in a historic sweep. There couldn’t be a more important or impactful time for a movie about courage, about sisterhood, about the complexity of the female experience and physicality of their bodies led by dark-skinned Black women. The Woman King is not only a film for this moment, but a long overdue signal that should serve as a rallying cry to Black creatives to keep fighting to get their work out there. The Woman King is the perfect example of Black woman–led film, directed by a Black woman, and a cast and crew filled with Black people, but it needs to not be our last.

The Woman King is proof: A cast of dark-skinned Black women can lead a global box office film. But even now that the film is out in theaters, the fight hasn’t stopped. We have to keep challenging the storytelling in Hollywood. And as Viola Davis put it during the film’s special screening, “Once you free yourself, you have to free others.” We must continue to engage, support, and push this type of media out into the world. The Woman King confirms the idea that there are no real limitations to the stories that the film industry can offer and serves as a reference for the blazing new path ahead in film.

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