How ‘The Woman King’ created a hot and epic Dahomey Kingdom for the big screen

Written by the author Leah Asmelash, CNN

As soon as “King of the Woman” begins, the audience will know that the film is unlike any they have seen before.

Sharpened nails are pressed into eyes, necks are snapped and bodies fall to the ground as the mighty Agojie warriors, also known as the Amazons of Dahomey, impose their will on their enemies.

And the camera misses nothing, capturing every punch and kick, highlighting the physicality of the female fighters.

“The Woman King,” which hit theaters last week, weaves together the stories of multiple characters, though it’s most focused on General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis — a role she called General Agojie. his “excellent work”.

But there is no published history of the Agojie warriors, and the events that inspired the film predate photography. The film is not a documentary, so some parts of the Dahomey world seen on screen are the interpretations of the filmmakers. But the team did as much research as they could, said cinematographer Polly Morgan, tracking down images where the women existed, studying the architecture of the palace ruins and researching how the Dahomey people lived.

Nanisca (Viola Davis) in “The Woman King”. Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/Tristar Pictures

The result is a film that is both intimate and epic.

“We wanted to show this rich, tropical land of West Africa — a colorful place — using evocative lighting and backlighting and flares and all that stuff,” Morgan told CNN. “But we also wanted to lean into the story of these women and the sisterhood they shared, and how these women lived together and fought together and stood by each other.”

This bending is done literally. For dramatic scenes, Morgan said he gravitated to lenses that would make the viewer feel like they were with the actors, drawing them into the environment with a wider close-up lens when the drama was at its peak.

“With a really strong drama scene, the camera doesn’t have to move,” he said. “It shouldn’t do anything to take away from the powerful performances these actors are giving – we’re with them.”

When director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Morgan discussed the visual language of “The Woman King,” they wanted to show every aspect of the world in which the film takes place, Morgan said, using different visual techniques for each. They contrasted the dynamic fight scenes with a lighter camera, for example.

Lashana Lynch joins "The royal woman"

Lashana Lynch in “The Woman King.” Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/Tristar Pictures

But in other places, like the slave port of Ouidah, filmmakers have sought to highlight the horrors of the slave trade, with high-contrast heat and glare from the sun and hunched over with a hand-held camera. It’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable, Morgan said.

On the other hand, the palace of Dahomey, where the women lived in the evening, accepts a softer and nicer light, giving these scenes a sense of warmth and familiarity.

Part of the inspiration was “Braveheart,” the 1995 war film directed and starring Mel Gibson. It’s an action film and a historical epic, Morgan said, that combines high-action fight sequences with intimate moments of emotional drama. With “The Woman King,” the crew aimed to do the same.

But Morgan also referenced the paintings of artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, specifically exploring the use of light and shadow to create three-dimensional, moving images.

Morgan worked with the special effects department to add smoke to the scenes and create an atmosphere anchored by fire.

“We didn’t want it to feel clean and digital,” he said. “We wanted the feel of the film, to have a texture.”

Although the Kingdom of Dahomey was located in what is now Benin, the production was filmed in South Africa, from Kwazulu Natal in the east to Cape Town in the southwest. South African talent appeared both in front of and behind the camera: actor Thuso Mbedu stars in an international cast, and Babalwa Mtshiselwa designed the film’s make-up and prosthetics.

Adapting South Africa to the look of Benin, where the red earth is native and found throughout the country’s architecture, was an important part of building the world of “King of the Woman”.

Throughout the Dahomey palace, the market and the Agojie warriors’ barracks, the red earth can be felt, placing the viewer in Dahomey.

With young recruits Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch "The royal woman"

Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch with young recruits from “The Woman King.” Credit: Ilze Kitshoff/Tristar Pictures

“There’s a vibrancy to the land and to this person — we see that in the red color of the land,” production designer Akin McKenzie said in a statement. “We see that completed with the greens of nature, and then we see analogous and complementary shades and physical decorations.”

The costumes also fit into the color scheme and world-building seen in the film.

“There were specific colors that meant different things in the world of Dahomey,” costume designer Gersha Phillips said in a statement. “Gina’s mandate was to make the world rich, so we created a vibrant, rich and beautiful world through color. It was really important to show the royalty of this empire.”

The result is evident throughout the two hours of the film. The world of Dahomey is one of family and home. But, when threatened, there is hell to pay.