How the “Woman King” crew found a safe space to be heard

A historical epic about a West African unit of warriors in 1823, “The Woman King” may feel revolutionary to today’s audience – but there are still wars fought by women and people of color on vastly different battlefields.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood made a specific effort to hire department heads for the film who mirrored the make-up of the people in front of the camera, resulting in a collection of women and artists of color so remarkable that cinematographer Polly Morgan remembers it , having taken a picture of everyone The director’s chairs for the crew are set up behind the camera. “There were no men [assigned] chairs,” she wonders.

The Envelope did a Zoom chat with several members of the remarkable crew: Morgan, Prince-Bythewood, editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, costume designer Gersha Phillips and VFX supervisor Sara Bennett to find out how big the difference is when women are in charge .

Gina, obviously you hire the most talented people for the jobs behind the camera. But how important was the demographics of the best qualified individuals?

Gina Prince Bythewood: It’s hard to answer because it’s not a PC thing. For me, it’s knowing how many talented women and people of color out there didn’t get the opportunity. Not everyone takes the time to look beyond the resume. I was actively looking for these women who would help me tell the story.

Does having so many women running departments change the energy on set?

Prince Bythewood: When we’re suddenly the majority, it opens us up in a way we don’t often experience. We know for sure that our voice matters; Our voice will be heard.

Polly Morgan: I think women are more open to sharing ideas on an open platform. There are all kinds of men and women out there – but in a very general way we are able to exchange ideas and jump back and forth in a non-selfish way.

Prince Bythewood: Each of us on that call has dealt with someone at some point on set who was a chauvinist or misogynist. The energy to handle it coupled with the amount of energy we need to be creative – that takes space. In an area you are not concerned with at all, it opens you up so that you can focus 100% on creativity.

Sara Bennett: I find it easier to talk and come up with ideas and bounce things off [everyone else].

Have there been times when you wanted to hire a woman or person of color to be a department head but couldn’t find enough people to lead those areas?

Prince Bythewood: When I come in as a director and talk to my producers, the first thing I talk about is that my crew will be mirroring the faces on camera. I’ve been told every single film, “I’m sorry, there aren’t enough qualified people,” and that’s bullshit. Take the time to reach out to people and you’ll get incredible artists. You are out there.

Terilyn A Shropshire: I’m on this panel today because of directors like Gina or Kasi Lemmons, people who gave me the opportunity to come in the door and do an interview. When you cross the threshold to an interview, you need to show the person who you are. But if you can’t even get the interview, if you can’t get through the firewall, then it’s very difficult.

In a scene from , a female warrior throws a male warrior to the ground "The Woman King."

“In the fight scenes in ‘Woman King’ … I felt like Gina’s eyes were supposed to reflect the humanity but also the character of these women, so to speak,” notes editor Terilyn A. Shropshire.

(Ilze Kitshoff / Sony Pictures)

The “male gaze” in films is attributed to something that objectifies women on camera by doing everything from the male perspective – like a shot of a woman getting out of a car and panning a camera from the floor to her legs. Can you counteract this better with more women in more department head positions?

Phillips: Definitive. Women have so often been objectified with costumes. When I made the women and the men [in a Mirror Universe arc of “Star Trek: Discovery”], I made them the same way. We wanted our uniform to be non-binary to show that men and women can be powerful. That said, all I ever thought about when women show legs when stepping out of cars is that we can see the shoes we designed or put together with that costume.

Shropshire: For me it’s about the material that comes in and the decisions that are made on set. Within the fight scenes in Woman King… there were moments when I wanted to capture a glimpse. Sticking to a certain type of movement because of the beauty of the warrior women’s bodies. I felt that Gina’s look should show the humanity, so to speak, but also the character of these women. To make sure they were all part of the fight.

Female warriors charge through tall grass with swords raised in one scene "The Woman King."

“Women have so often been objectified with costumes,” says Woman King costume designer Gersha Phillips.

(Ilze Kitshoff / Sony Pictures)

Prince Bythewood: Unfortunately, women are still rare. But think about how many times you’ve seen two women fight in an action movie and how many times, look, the tank top has been torn. And the fights become sexualized or they become cat fights. We’re all about celebrating a woman’s athletic form. What we put in our frame is different because of our mentality.

How would you say the behind-the-scenes setup of Woman King changed you or how you view your jobs?

Bennett: I was lucky [Prince-Bythewood’s] “The Old Guard” and “Woman King” that we had a lot of female heads and a lot of female presence in the film. In the future I would be much more aware of who was on the crew because it’s such a nice atmosphere and it’s a lot more collaborative. It’s not just middle-aged white men sitting around the table.

Philip: Getting through this journey has made me stronger. I can better assess topics and problems faster.

Are women and people of color on the way up towards more freedom and less questioning? Or is that just wishful thinking?

Prince Bythewood: More and more of us are getting the opportunity, and the more of us in the director’s chair, the more this type of group will come together. That means more people will have this on their resume, and that means fewer questions. The hope is that it inspires people to look beyond the resume and give people a chance. Everyone in this film made me better. How the “Woman King” crew found a safe space to be heard

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