‘I Know What You Feel Before a Fight’: Why Gina Prince-Bythewood Needed to Make ‘The Woman King’

·7 min read
2470911 - THE WOMAN KING - Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures
2470911 - THE WOMAN KING - Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures

Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn’t find herself intimidated very often. Why would she be? The director kicked off her career with a bona fide sports-movie classic, Love & Basketball, which was the talk of the 2000 Sundance Film Festival; she’d made critically acclaimed dramas like Beyond the Lights and superhero blockbusters like The Old Guard, one of Netflix’s biggest hits to date. She has a half dozen TV-episode credits to her name, and co-developed the series Shots Fired. But then she had to direct Viola Davis.

For a little while, on the set of their new film The Woman King, Davis would do a take and it was great. Then another take, and another, and another: all great. The director wondered: “Am I ever gonna say anything besides, ‘That was great?'” Doubts began to creep in. Until she realized what she had to offer the Oscar-winning actress.

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Prince-Bythewood was an athlete who had kickboxed for a couple of years. Davis was playing Nanisca, a 19th Century African general who leads a regiment of all-female warriors known as the Agojie in a West African kingdom called Dahomey. “I know what you feel right before a fight,” Prince-Bythewood says, sitting in the middle of a cavernous, near-empty ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto, where her new film is about to make its world premiere. “I know how Nanisca would have fought. She wouldn’t have shown emotion in her face. She wouldn’t show effort. Brutally efficient. So I could talk to her about that.

Seeing that Davis was absorbing her advice not only cured Prince-Bythewood of her imposter syndrome. It set off a collaboration that would yield one of the most exciting major blockbusters in recent memory: a historical epic with Black women in front of and behind the camera. The Woman King finds Prince-Bythewood on what is arguably her biggest stage yet, shepherding a theatrical studio movie with high Oscar hopes and serious box office potential. (It opened in the No. 1 spot this weekend, taking in $19 million.) Still, this isn’t a huge leap for the director who has tackled romantic dramas, period pieces, and action-filled popcorn fare. The Woman King is the obvious next step in the evolution of a genre-spanning career. But it’s also a deeply personal project, one in which she drew on her own experience as an adoptee.

The personal has always been a part of Prince-Bythewood’s work. After writing for TV shows like A Different World and Felicity, she made her directorial debut with Love & Basketball, which translated her experiences as a basketball obsessive who ran track at UCLA into a years-spanning love story between two ball players played by Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan. She acknowledges that there’s a direct through-line from that film to The Woman King in the way she wanted to reframe what femininity is, highlighting women who are beautiful in their athleticism. “What I love so much about the reaction to Love & Basketball is that Monica is an ideal to so many men now, and I was never anybody’s ideal,” she says. “But here’s a strong, feisty, athletic woman who is more comfortable in shorts than dresses and that’s okay.”

While Love & Basketball won over critics, Prince-Bythewood’s follow-up didn’t come until 2008 with The Secret Life of Bees, an adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel. It took six years for her next feature to come out, the pop-star romance Beyond the Lights; steady work in TV filled in the gaps and honed her chops. She was working on her edit of The Old Guard, the 2020 comic book adaptation starring Charlize Theron as an immortal soldier, when The Woman King came along. Heading into the meeting, Prince-Bythewood knew she had an advantage having just executed a number of complicated fight scenes, but she also had what she describes as a “guttural connection” to the material that left her feeling vulnerable.

In the script by Dana Stevens, with a story by the actor Maria Bello, Nanisca bonds with a new recruit named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), whose adoptive father gives her to the Agojie after she refuses to marry. Prince-Bythewood was adopted, and sought out a relationship with her birth mother, only to be left feeling slightly disappointed by the experience. “You wonder why you were given up and sometimes you’re able to get the answers to that and sometimes you’re not,” she says. “My answer wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear because you have fantasies of what it might be.”

When Prince-Bythewood reached the point of her initial pitch to the producers and Davis, who’d been developing the project, when she described her relationship to the storyline, she broke down in tears. Even now, she shakes her head thinking about how she lost her composure. “It still bugs me and it shouldn’t,” she says. But she also knows it’s what got her the job. “​​What sold me about Gina’s pitch is that she literally cried after sharing a personal story that very much mirrored Nawi’s,” Davis writes in an email to Rolling Stone. “Everyone in the room knew she was the one to direct The Woman King, because she was going to protect and honor it the same way she would her own story.”

“For [Gina] it wasn’t just about directing a movie. It was about protecting the well-being of every actor on the set.”

—Viola Davis

Once on board, Prince-Bythewood began piecing together the real story of the Agojie along with  production designer Akin McKenzie. Together, they wanted to distance themselves from the accounts written by colonizers, and instead turned to consultants from Benin, the region that was once Dahomey, gleaning information from the actual descendants of the woman they were portraying in the film. The director also didn’t want to shy away from Dahomey’s role in the slave trade, framing Nanisca as a member of the community who oppose the kingdom’s reliance on capturing and selling people as a source of wealth.

To increase the verisimilitude, Prince-Bythewood wanted her actors to perform their own stunts, requiring them to undergo training that gave them the physique to do so. “I had these women, these actors, build their bodies to be athletic and feel like warriors because that’s truthful,” she says. Because of her work overseeing a number of complicated action scenes on The Old Guard, The Woman King felt like a lateral move for Prince-Bythewood, who immediately enlisted her fight coordinator on that film, Daniel Hernandez, to help craft the Agojie combat style. “I knew I wanted it to feel visceral and real and grounded,” she says. “Didn’t want wirework, didn’t want crazy flips, but it still had to feel good and exciting.” As she had all those years back with Love & Basketball, she wanted to highlight her performers’ stunning skill; she purposefully shot long takes where you can see their ever bit of their effort in effect.

Though the shoot in South Africa required both physical and emotional exertion, with the actors tackling traumatic material involving slavery and sexual assault in addition to executing the battles, Davis says that Prince-Bythewood made the environment safe. “Gina loved us passionately — and with any love that you get from anyone, they see you and they trust you,” Davis explains. “And that love and trust gives you a safety to be bold and open. She ran the set with respect and honor. For her it wasn’t just about directing a movie. It was about protecting the well-being of every actor on the set.”

For Prince-Bythewood, her approach to directing is the same as her approach to sports.  “Directing is really hard,” she says. “It takes stamina. It takes fight. You’ve got to have swagger. I walk on set like I walk on the court. It’s that same thing. You’re the point guard, you’re leading all of this. You have to be the general.”

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