August 24, 2022

The film Black Panther (2018) laid to rest the myth that Black (especially dark-skinned) leads could not carry feature films to box-office victory. The film earned $1.348 billion at the box office and became revolutionary for its representation and portrayal of a Black superheros and Black excellence. But in 2015, before Black Panther broke box-office records, shattered prejudice conventions about the allure of all-black casts, and before the Black Lives Matter movement ignited the fire in a new fight for representation in Hollywood, Maria Bello pitched The Woman King to the indomitable Viola Davis. The historical action drama is the story of the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s.

Seven years later, The Woman King, starring Oscar, Emmy and two-time Tony Award-winning actress Viola Davis and New York Film Academy AFA Acting for Film alum Masali Baduza in the role of Fumbe, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to unanimous praise.

The road to The Woman King was not an easy one. Early on in the search for funding, colorism (defined by Merriam-Webster as “prejudice or descrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin”) plagued the hunt for production, with studios wanting to cast “light-skinned, well-known actresses” as members of the Agojie army. To do so would have meant sacrificing the integrity and historical accuracy of the film. This film about warriors and women on the front-lines, was fighting a two-front war both on-screen and behind-the-scenes.

Studios didn’t think the film would be successful at the box-office, initially offering only $5 million for the film’s production costs. By comparison, low-budget films are usually made for less than $5 million, while mid-budget films cost anywhere between $5 million – $50 million, with high-budget films costs ranging from $50 million to infinity. To paint a bigger picture, Black Panther’s budget was $200 million and Avengers: Endgame, $365 million. In the end, The Woman King received a budget of $50 million.

A still from The Woman King. Courtesy of PopSugar

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is familiar with strong female leads and warrior-women. In 2000, she wrote and directed the classic Love and Basketball about Quincy and Monica, two childhood friends and basketball players with league aspirations who begin to fall in love. Love and athleticism are a familiar terrain for the director who herself was a basketball player and track star at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prince-Bythewood joined the cast of The Woman King as they trained for four months before shooting began. The Hollywood Reporterreported, “the training consisted of 90 minutes a day of weight-lifting followed by three and half hours of fight training with a stunt coordinator which included running, martial arts, and working with swords and spears.” Many of the actors performed their own stunts.

A still from The Woman King. Courtesy of Flickering Myth.

The Woman King strives for authenticity and diversity at every turn, with the film’s story carefully researched and the camera crew consisting of Black women and women of color. Prince-Bythewood was committed to hiring Black women and women of color to work on the film citing, “often the résumés are not long because it’s about lack of opportunity, not lack of talent.”

While presenting the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, lead actress Viola Davis said, “This film is for the Thuso [Mbedu]’s, Lashana [Lynch]’s … the Masali [Baduza]’s, the Black women who are out there on the periphery just waiting for the conduit–a vehicle to shine [their] beautiful and glorious light.”

The Woman King premieres a couple of days after tennis titan Serena Williams bid farewell to the game she revolutionized; the same week Sheryl Lee Ralph serenaded us as she accepted the Emmy for ‘Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series’ for Abbott Elementary and Quinta Brunson won the Emmy for ‘Best Comedy Writing’ for the show; the same night Lizzo’s show Lizzo’s Watch Out For The Big Grrrls won ‘Best Competition Program’ and Zendaya took home the Emmy for ‘Best Actress in a Drama Series’ for Euphoria for the second year in a row. Needless to say, we have entered a cultural, creative renaissance and Black women are at the center.

The Woman King premieres in theaters on Friday, September 16th. NYFA congratulates Acting for Film alum Masali Baduza for landing such a critical role in this ground-breaking film.

Please note: NYFA does not represent that these are typical or guaranteed career outcomes. The success of our graduates in any chosen professional pathway depends on multiple factors, and the achievements of NYFA alumni are the result of their hard work, perseverance, talent and circumstances.