“I felt The Woman King was an important story because I saw myself in it,” says Viola Davis, the Oscar-winning actress and producer of the film inspired by the historical all-female unit of warriors who protected the Kingdom of Dahomey from the late 1600s until the late 1800s. “I saw my femininity in it. I saw my blackness in it. I saw a really important part of history in it. I always say any part of history is important, even the small parts. And I think that it is a story that the world is hungry for.”
The Woman King is the remarkable story of the Agojie, the all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s with skills and a fierceness, unlike anything the world has ever seen. Inspired by true events, The Woman King follows the emotionally epic journey of General Nanisca as she trains the next generation of recruits and readies them for battle against an enemy determined to destroy their way of life. Some things are worth fighting for…
It is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood from a screenplay by Dana Stevens, and a story by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens.
The Agojie warriors lived to serve, defend, and protect the Dahomey kingdom and its king
The Dahomey Kingdom was one of the wealthiest at the time, and its defenders, the Agojie, were the most feared warriors in West Africa, in the territory we now recognize as modern-day Benin.
The Dahomey culture, which significantly valued women, enjoyed a unique and incredibly progressive social structure for the time, with all official roles balanced by both a male and female leader. This system of gender parity included all of the kingdom’s most important positions—from military generals to financial advisors and religious leaders—and reached all the way to the highest ranks where the king would bestow the title of Kpojito—or Woman King—upon a female reign mate.
“This culture had a unique duality,” says producer Cathy Schulman. “It’s like a fantasy of what would happen if for every job, including a military leader, there could be a woman and a man – a yin and yang of management. And this happened in the real world.”
“In this story, we have the ability to reshape what it means to be female,” says director Gina Prince-Bythewood. “We’ve never seen this before. I love stories like this that can reframe what it means to be female, reframe femininity, and reframe strengths. These are real women who did something so superhuman, yet they were not superheroes. I just had to put these women on screen.”
The film’s origins began with producer Maria Bello, who had come across the story of the Agojie warriors while travelling in West Africa
Bello gave a book, written in French, to producer Cathy Schulman, about the women. “I crawled through this book for about seven months, trying to understand enough French to get through it,” says Schulman. “I was really shocked to learn that there was a part of history that I had heard nothing about, and in particular that there had been an enormously successful all-female army anywhere on the planet.”
As Bello and Schulman began discussing a possible film, they approached their good friend Davis in a most unlikely place: a ballroom at Los Angeles’s Skirball Center, where Bello was presenting Davis with an honour at the 2015 Women Making History Awards. “When Maria got up to the podium to present my award, she said, ‘I’m going to pitch a movie that I think all of you would love to see Viola Davis in.’ She went on to tell the story of the Agojie and Dahomey, and they all started cheering! That was my first introduction to the fact that there was a story out there,” says Davis. The pitch worked.
With Davis on board, Schulman approached TriStar Pictures with the project. An experienced, Oscar-winning producer, she went in with eyes wide open. “It’s very hard for women to get financing for their projects, and even harder to finance something that people haven’t seen before,” says Schulman. “This project can’t easily be put into a box. But we had a champion: TriStar’s Nicole Brown saw right away what this movie could be. She’s really been an amazing leader for us, against all obstacles.”
When the producers approached me with this story, I was floored,” says Brown. “Here was a remarkable, incredible, true story that I had never heard before, with huge action and deep emotion. Telling this kind of story is the reason the silver screen exists! When we greenlit The Woman King, we knew moviegoers would lose themselves in all its power and excitement. And now, having seen the finished film on the big screen, I can promise audiences are going to be inspired and awestruck.”
To adapt Agojie’s story for the screen, producers selected screenwriter Dana Stevens, who was attracted by the idea of telling a true story that is not well known, despite it taking place in fairly recent history
“I was struck by the photos of the real warriors, the eye-witness descriptions of their skill,” says Stevens. “This story is not well-known—there are so many cultures we have overlooked and not portrayed in films. Here was a chance to tell a true, epic tale about these exceptional women.”
At the same time, the published history is thin and the filmmakers were very aware that much of that history had been written from a biased and often racist European point of view. In this sense, Stevens alongside the producers and director decided that the best way to get at the emotional truth of the story of the Agojie was to tell a fictional story. “It was fascinating to learn about real people, real things that happened, and then to have the freedom to create fictional characters, to tell their story emotionally,” says Stevens.
In creating the screenplay, Stevens and the filmmakers worked extensively with Princeton historian and economist Leonard Wantchekon, who hails from Benin. “Leonard is the leading Beninese scholar and professor working in US academics in the field of Beninese economics. As we were researching the project, his name came up everywhere,” says Schulman. “He has spent his life teaching and writing about West Africa, and like us, he is devoted to bringing buried history to life. History has overlooked how highly sophisticated Dahomey were in managing their own affairs. They created some highly advanced and sophisticated institutions, like the Agojie. So, as we began to work with him, Leonard motivated us to keep our vision intact.”
The research provided by Wantchekon was invaluable in contextualizing the complex history behind the film. The Woman King is set during a time when the Kingdom of Dahomey had long been economically beholden to its participation in the transatlantic slave trade. The film depicts a period in Dahomey’s history where the King had an opportunity to listen to those within his kingdom that spoke in resistance to the slave trade and explore an alternate path toward prosperity. The story celebrates the exceptionalism of the Agojie warriors against the backdrop of that resistance. “Nanisca is at a crossroads in life,” explains Prince-Bythewood. “As an ageing warrior, she knows she has limited time left, and she has the vision to assist Dahomey from engaging in the slave trade. It’s not enough to say, ‘We don’t sell our own people.’”
Davis says that the story of the Agojie warriors spoke to her because it reflected her own journey of pride and self-acceptance, like that which many women experience. “I spent four years at a training school where I felt like I had to cover up who I was in order to be a great actress. I had to really fool you into believing that I wasn’t Black with my body, with my voice; that I had to be sort of a prototype of what we deem as feminine,” Davis explains. “The Woman King breaks all the rules. In the hearts and minds of every woman out there, they wish for that. They hope for that. They hope for a space where they can just sort of bust out of all those confines and say, ‘Here I am and I like it,’ where they can be in the arena of belonging.”
Davis adds that preparing and training for the role and creating the character of the warrior general Nanisca put into focus all of the messages about her body she had received over the years. “All the things that I was taught when I was a girl wanting to win the Miss Central Falls Recreation contests, wanting to look good in a bikini, wanting to be thin and cute, delicate, and pretty, while I was always really muscular and thicker,” she says. “I was always feeling like my femininity could not be created with this canvas. Then, all of a sudden, with this role, my muscles, my arms, my thick legs, and my heavy voice were perfect. When I walked on the set as Nanisca, I felt unapologetic about it. I celebrate it physically, in every way.”
The band of elite women warriors have become legendary, but according to Davis, creating their characters, required copious research combined with a healthy scepticism for the origins of that research – much of which was written by Europeans during and post-colonization and is marked by prejudice. “The fact that they were women is what disarmed their opponents,” she says. “These warriors are fearless, they are ruthless, but I think the biggest surprise is that they were women. It doesn’t fit in with how we viewed women at that time, or in this time. The colonists would call them ‘masculine’ or ‘looking like beasts,’ and they couldn’t figure it out because they were relying on their own understanding of how they viewed women and how they viewed Africa. All while these women took great pride in being in this military unit. It was their identity.”
The Agojie warriors were made up of women with varied backgrounds from villages across the region, who came together to form an unbreakable sisterhood. As Prince-Bythewood prepared to shoot in South Africa, she sought to mirror that in her cast. “I wanted to build an ensemble that represented the incredible diversity of our Diaspora,” she says. “We have Thuso Mbedu, who is from South Africa; Lashana Lynch, who’s Jamaican; and Sheila Atim, who comes from the UK, but is also Ugandan. We have women from West Africa, and African American women. That was all intentional, to bring us all together to tell the story of us. I love the energy that it brought to set.”
Award-winning director/writer/producer Gina Prince-Bythewood (Director) is one of the most versatile storytellers working in film and television. Known for her authentic character-driven work, Prince-Bythewood has directed and written such influential feature films as Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, and Beyond the Lights.
Prince-Bythewood’s most recent feature film was the critically acclaimed action drama blockbuster The Old Guard, a Netflix and Skydance original feature, it is based on the popular comic book series created by author Greg Rucka and illustrator Leandro Fernández. Among the accolades Prince-Bythewood received for her work on the film includes the Nancy Malone Directing Award from New York Women in Film and Television. The blockbuster is among the Top 10 most popular Netflix films of all time with Prince-Bythewood becoming the first Black female director on the list. Prince-Bythewood, who decided not to direct the sequel, is a producer on The Old Guard 2. The film is currently in production.
For television, Prince-Bythewood most recently directed the first episode and served as an executive producer of ABC’s limited series “Women of the Movement.” Prince-Bythewood’s next television project will be “Genius: MLK/X,” on which she and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood, will serve as executive producers under their production company Undisputed Cinema. The Disney+ Original limited series is produced by Imagine Television and 20th Television. “Genius: MLK/X” will explore the formative years, pioneering accomplishments, dueling philosophies, and key personal relationships of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Malcolm X argued forcefully for Black empowerment, identity, and self-determination. With their formidable wives, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz,by their sides, King and Malcolm X became synonymous with the civil rights era and the fight for racial and economic justice. While they met only once and often challenged each other’s views, neither would have been as successful without the other. The series reunites Prince-Bythewood and Rock Bythewood with 20th Television and Imagine Entertainment, who previously worked together on “Shots Fired.”
Other recent credits for Prince-Bythewood include the special event series ”Shots Fired,” on which she and Rock Bythewood served as series co-creators and executive producers. The ten-hour series for Fox examined the dangerous aftermath of two racially charged shootings in a small Southern town. In addition, Prince-Bythewood directed the pilot for Marvel’s “Cloak & Dagger,” which launched to strong reviews and viewers, starring breakout actors Olivia Holt and Aubrey Joseph as two teenagers with newly acquired superpowers who are mysteriously linked to one another.
As a longtime advocate for equal representation in film and television on-screen and behind-the-scenes, Prince-Bythewood has championed many emerging writers and directors as well as funding a scholarship for African American students in the film program at UCLA, her alma mater.
Dana Stevens (Writer) has had a long career writing features and television. Her previous screenwriting credits include Fatherhood, starring Kevin Hart, which premiered on Netflix in 2021 to large audiences worldwide; Safe Haven, directed by Lasse Hallstrom; City of Angels, directed by Brad Silberling; For Love of the Game, directed by Sam Raimi; Blink, directed by Michael Apted; and Life or Something Like It, starring Angelina Jolie. She created and produced ”Reckless,” a legal drama for CBS, and “What About Brian,” an ABC series. She is a longtime advisor at the Sundance Writing lab where she first met The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Stevens recently directed the short film Short Term Rental, which premiered at the San Antonio Film Festival. Projects in development include the TriStar adaption of the bestseller The Nightingale, and a film about singer-songwriter Carly Simon for eOne.
Maria Bello (Producer / Story By) is an award-winning actress having starred in many television shows and films but her real passion has always been advocating for women and girls around the globe.
Bello executive produced and starred in the films In Search of Fellini, The Journey Is the Destination and GLO. She created and produced the virtual reality piece The Sun Ladies, the true story of group of women in Iraq that started their own army to get their sisters freed from sex slavery. It had its world premiere at Sundance.
In April 2015, Bello released her first book, Whatever… Love Is Love, in which she expanded on her news-making ”Coming Out as a Modern Family” column that ran in The New York Times in 2013. The book explores themes and ideas surrounding family, partnership, sexuality, and spirituality.
Bello is an internationally renowned activist and is a powerful voice for social justice and women’s rights around the world. Her career as an activist began at Villanova University, where she majored in peace and justice education and worked at the Women’s Law Project in Philadelphia. In 2009 Bello was voted one of Variety’s most powerful women in Hollywood for her activism with women in Darfur. With the women of Darfur she was part of creating the first hearing ever on rape as a weapon of war in the US Congress.
After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 she started We Advance, an organization to put more females in leadership positions and to fight against sexual violence. Bello has spoken around the country on women’s rights, equality and social impact investing at venues such as TedWomen, the U.N. and the State Department. She is also a ReFrame Ambassador for Women in Film to work toward gender parity in the entertainment industry.
She lives between Paris, Nairobi, and LA seeking out women’s stories around the globe.