How one scene shaped the story of fierce women in ‘Woman King’

Sometimes it can be just one scene that breaks up a story. A scene crystallizing in your head that you look forward to writing so much that everything else – character, conflict and plot – becomes clearer. In The Woman King, this scene was the moment Nanisca and Nawi discover they are mother and daughter.

It has always been important to me and our three female producers (Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Cathy Schulman) to address rape as a weapon of war. In current and past conflicts, women are exposed to sexual violence at the hands of conquerors and kidnappers. Against this background, what would it really be like to be a soldier? How would the trauma of war affect the main character, Nanisca? Her strength comes from surviving the worst a soldier can encounter. For them, that includes rape. Like many survivors, she represses her painful memories. Your coping mechanism is to label emotions as weak. That gave me her hero’s journey. Her relationship with new recruit Nawi reconnects her with her own younger self and ultimately allows her to heal.

I wanted the film to feel epic and spiritual so that a twist like Nawi as Nanisca’s daughter would be part of the story. destiny at work. But the logic police in my head kept saying how could Nanisca really prove Nawi is her daughter? The shark tooth scene idea came to me. The tooth in Nawi’s scar took an emotional scene and made it physical and dangerous. Who will cut the scar to see if the tooth is there? The idea made the flashback to Nawi’s birth just as exciting – does young Nanisca take up the knife to kill the child? The backdrop to the scene at the Baths was a mother and child reunion involving blood, tears and water, like childbirth.

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu play the leading roles "The Woman King."

Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu star in The Woman King as a long-separated mother and daughter.

(Sony Pictures)

Inspired by this scene, other characters and conflicts emerged. Nawi and Nanisca each needed a confidant, someone they could be real with – Izogie stepped in as Nawi’s mentor and Amenza as Nanisca’s longtime friend and secret keeper. Then we turn to the antagonists of the story. The mother-daughter story echoes here too, in the king’s wife, Shante, who inhabits the world of women who have chosen to be mothers, in Nanisca’s rapist, the oyo general Oba, and the slave captain Santo, which Nawi could take away forever.

At the same time as character journeys were developing, I became intensely involved in researching 200 years of Agojie history. There was a lot to absorb. I was struck by the beauty and sophistication of Dahomey culture, with details as juicy and exciting as epic tales from Gladiator to Game of Thrones. However, eyewitness accounts of the Agojie were written by white men in an era of colonialism – men who promoted a narrative of Africa as a fearful, violent place. I wanted to tell this story through a new lens from the warrior women’s point of view.

A book about the port of Ouidah mentioned an 1823 battle between the Kingdom of Dahomey and the Oyo Empire. Dahomey’s much smaller forces emerged victorious. I started narrowing myself down to that date. This year’s Dahomey story shows that they brought a young king, Ghezo, to the throne through an Agojie coup. That would make his relationship with Nanisca close and complex. 1823 was also a time when the English had abandoned their stronghold at Ouidah and were trying to stop the slave trade. Perhaps Nanisca sees this as a moment to advocate for change among her own people? The key to writing was grounding the fictional characters in the reality of their time.

“This movie will never be made.”

That’s what a producer said after I told him about my exciting new project The Woman King. I never asked him why. Was it because it was an action film directed by a female cast? Or because these women were black? Or because the film would be too expensive? Maybe all of the above. Luckily he was wrong. The team behind this film pushed back all doubters to tell a story about powerful black women whose bravery, skill and sisterhood bring them an epic victory. How one scene shaped the story of fierce women in ‘Woman King’

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