Gina Prince-Bythewood: THE WOMAN KING
September 22nd, 2022 by Karen Burg
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 (Oscar®-winner Viola Davis) 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....
In the midst of all the acclaim and events surrounding the rollout of this exceptional film, Director Gina Prince-Bythewood spoke with SETDECOR. It’s an insightful conversation, revealing the depth of what goes into bringing about the visual accuracy of a film, particularly one grounded in little-known, but true history...and honoring the dedication of the entire crew.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood discusses this vital scene with Viola Davis, who portrays General Nanisca, head of the Agojie and advisor to King Ghezo. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
SETDECOR: We realize that, although this was heavily researched, it was limited by those who had interpreted and conveyed – mostly white colonists and slave-traders.
Let’s talk about the iconography you were able to establish for the film...the duality of the gods Mawu-Lisa representing the duality of the culture.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood: Mawu/Lisa, the brother and sister deities...Mawu was the female, Lisa the male, the moon and the sun. This perspective drove King Ghezo and his thought process of the dualities, of men and women having an equal place in the council, and within the kingdom.
SETDECOR: Were the little sculptures that would be lovingly placed on the dead a combo of these two gods, or another?
GPB: The warriors had a number of different gods, and you chose based on who you were, what meant something to you. So, those little statues that they have and that they would place on the fallen, or would give, as Nawi gives to Malik, all had a special meaning to them.
SETDECOR: They were beautiful in their simplicity, and the moments poignant. To expand our look at the iconography and the culture, let’s start with the palace grounds outer wall.
Dahomey royal palace/fort exterior wall, with inset detail of carved doors, emblematic of King Ghezo’s reign. Photos by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
GPB: What's important about this is the incredible design of the doors, which was based on truth. The thing that was really helpful to us...as you said, the research was tough initially because we had to separate what was written by colonizers in their gaze, and what was not.
Akin McKenzie, our production designer, was absolutely a gift because of the deep dive...ultimately, he found and then shared these two journals by two men, missionaries who traveled to the kingdom and spent time there in Dahomey. Their descriptions were what we used a lot, because they came from such a better point of view of reverence for this kingdom, reverence for these women, and talked about the beauty of it...and the colors. One of the things that we loved is that there were actual sketches of the palaces, and then the ruins of the palaces have been restored in Benin. So we have pictures, and the designs on the doors and on the walls were a really important part because they told the story of the king. And so to be able to put this on the door, and these different images that were carved into it, that's all based on the truth of what was there.
Dahomey royal palace grounds, public courtyard square, marketplace: King Ghezo [John Boyega] stands up to the vicious general of the larger Oyo Empire, who is demanding more than the tribute displayed. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
SETDECOR: And then within the palace grounds there is the dividing wall, separating the restricted area, the women's area where no men are allowed except the king, which includes the Agojie quarters and the King’s private apartments. Here we see again, the iconography, beautifully done in the bas relief of the columns, the doors here are plaited palm. And that of course, symbolically ties in with what Nanisca wants them to do to go forward, to build the palm oil business in place of slavery. We love the symbolism here, both obvious and subtle.
Dahomey royal palace wall ensuring the privacy of the King and his wives, and the Agojie. No other men are allowed past these doors of woven palm leaves. Note the iconography in the sculpted columns, including the one bottom left depicting the King’s throne. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
The all-important palm forest. Nanisca, with her warriors standing guard for the monarch, is showing King Ghezo the production of palm oil, which she thinks can bring the kingdom income in place of the slave trade. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
GPB: And it ties to using the natural resources of their land. What Nanisca was pushing is, "We have this here: we have palm trees, we have palm oil, let's use the natural resources." And, it was used for everything. You see it throughout the palace, the use of the palm fronds. So that was really fun to do to be able to use the environment, the red earth, which is used to build the palace so that we have these incredible red walls everywhere. It was about using what was there.
SETDECOR: And even the palm oil burning in the sconces, which are not only functional, they’re also elegant.
Palace corridor to the King’s apartments. Note the artistry of the brass sconces and adobe-like columns. The kingdom valued art and function. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
GPB: That was the beauty of this kingdom. Again, everything had a purpose. But everything was beautiful. And, again, the artisans took the time...whether it be the sconces or the wall or the door or the weapons...everything was telling a story. And so for Akin & Birrie le Roux, our amazing set decorator, and the whole design crew, how exciting this was. That is because what we're doing with this film is world building. This is the 1800s. How do we take an audience into the truth? How do we take our characters into the truth? How we believe that we are in the 1800s is because of the incredible details that that our team really focused on, and they were determined to be authentic with everything.
SETDECOR: That's key for a Set Decorator. This film was cinematic, but it was also experiential. And it was also obviously elucidating. It's all three. Let’s talk about the throne room which is so revelatory of the culture.
GPB: What was really helpful to us, is that in pre-production Akin and I got to go to the Fowler Museum at UCLA, which is an incredible treasure trove of artifacts. They had a whole section of things from the kingdom. So we were able to accurately interpret into the film. It shows up in the ritual garden, certainly, but also, we were able to mimic the carvings. In addition to being a military society, they were also very big into the arts. That was important to King Ghezo, so there's so much artistry in everything. When you see these designs, on these statues, and even in the walls, everything tells a story. And it's all about telling the story of the kingdom, how Ghezo came to be, what animals gave him his strength. So we got to literally look at what it truly was and mimic that for this film.
SETDECOR: I do remember reading that the snake was asked by the gods to hold up the world, and the throne is sitting on the heads of the king’s enemies?
GPB: Yeah, though, what's interesting, and what Akin and Birrie discovered is, you see these drawings from outsiders who came to kingdom, and it's depicted as all skulls everywhere. But they still have the actual throne, and there were, in fact, only a couple of heads. So we went with the real throne, and depicted a couple. They were a warring nation, you know, so that was part of it, and the fact that he was able to sit atop his enemies was a way of showing his prowess in war.
Dahomey Throne room: The throne [right foreground] sits on the heads of the King’s enemies. Council seats, each unique but equal, flank the symbolic rug. Each office of the council has a male & a female counterpart, the duality based on the dual gods, Mawu/Lisa. The wall hanging tells the story of King Ghezo. The bas relief carvings represent other gods and key symbols. Ceremonial machetes guard the dais of the King, while pedestals along the perimeter hold intricate story sculptures of brass. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
SETDECOR: The throne is beautifully carved teak, and then we have the council benches aligned below, each seeming slightly different, unique but equal.
GPB: What was beautiful about this, this kingdom is that there was a male and female counterpart. So on the council, our character Amenza, played by Sheila Atim, was a spiritual counsel. And there was a male counterpart to her. Nanisca, played by Viola, she's a general, there's a male general as well. There were male and female counterparts in charge of business and commerce. So yeah, their stools, each was a bit different. But also the weaponry that you see in the front are works of art.
SETDECOR: Yes, the ceremonial machetes and spears. Around the perimeter of the throne room are pedestals with intricate story-telling sculptures, and flanking the doorway are two impressive bird sculptures.
GPB: You know, the peacock was an important bird symbolically and they used to have a lot of them walk through the palace. That was something I wanted for the film, and Akin and Birrie wanted for the film very badly. But the peacocks are so loud. And we couldn’t risk having them squawking over dialogue!
SETDECOR: Well it would have been striking, the blues of the peacocks against the red earth and walls. Which leads us to the underground bathing and healing pool, which was gorgeous in its naturalism.
Palace pond/communal baths. Thermal springs within a cave create a spiritual repose as well as physical respite. The womb-like welcoming tranquility give balance to the warriors’ loves outside. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
GPB: This was one of my favorite sets. This was one of the first designs that Akin came to me with, and it was based on research. That's the beauty of it, he discovered that there were pools, natural pools. We were wondering how the baths worked back then, because there were no images of them. And then to start connecting the dots of little things that you read, and pick up and understand that...of course, if it's underground, there can be some elements like the column right there, which are built, but it was so much of the natural environment. And he actually found pictures that were taken in modern day, when these underground areas were discovered. That was just a game changer, because then they could start to piece it together, determine what it would look like. The natural walls would feel so great. And natural light, and the candlelight that they used.
SETDECOR: And they reflect so beautifully in the water. At the risk of being overly symbolic, it's womb-like, there is that aspect to it.
GPB: Yes, for these very deep scenes that take place here, that's exactly what we wanted it to feel like.
SETDECOR: And amongst the accoutrement on the shelf, we see greenery. Is that herbs for the bath? Medicinal or just another connection with nature?
GPB: Some was decorative, but also many herbs. This is where they went to heal as well, to heal their bodies after battles. And so, everything was there for a purpose, everything had an intention. And that's, again, what I love...when you have artists who are that keen on authenticity and being truthful, you're not just putting stuff because it looks cool. Everything has a purpose.
SETDECOR: And the ritual garden, another artistic haven, this time literally, with the sculptures and the elements used for the rituals and healing of the spirit.
Palace spirit garden, incredible details: statues of the gods, shaman tools for rituals and the mixing of herbal cures and incense, visioning stones, paintings on walls, leather and cloth, symbolic plants, life-giving water, belled braziers. Production Designer Akin McKenzie and Set Decorator Birrie Le Roux heavily researched the art and iconography...Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
GPB: The ritual garden was a specific place that the Agojie went to play pray to Legba, the god that kind of oversaw all of them. That was an incredible set, because that was so specific and beautiful.
Spirit garden. Nanisca [Viola Davis] and Nawi [Thuso Mbedu] find solace among the gods and memorials. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
SETDECOR: It truly was. If we step away now from the palace, the opening scene of the film shows a small Mahi village...
GPB: Yes, we really wanted to have a progression of architecture and design in this film, where we start with this village and huts, and then the architecture progressively gets more detailed. Next, we see Nawi’s farmhouse and that has a specific look to it. And then we get to the kingdom and the palace and buildings and stores...so we wanted that progression.
This Mahi village was really beautiful and so detailed. The fences were made out of the real wood from that area, with the little branches not completely cut off, which is both sculptural and useful. This was away from the main Kingdom of Dahomey, so it was brown dirt as opposed to the red earth, giving a little different look. It was also right on an open plain surrounded by trees. The tall grasses felt like a form of protection, but ultimately, allowed our women to hide within and make the sneak attack. Again, everything was so functional here. And you see their environment and their resources with the corn and the goats that they had.
Editor's note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below...
SETDECOR: And then we see Nawi’s family’s farmhouse, which is built in a style referenced as among the earliest 2-story structures of mankind.
GPB: The design was so distinctive...unique and interesting, but functional. It was two-story for protection. Because this is 1800s, and they were amongst wildlife. They had to protect the children, and so the children would sleep upstairs, and often times on the roof, so leopards and lions and cheetahs cannot get to the children. They also kept their grains and dried vegetables up on top of the roof for that same reason. The kitchen area was downstairs...once it's during the day, they felt safer to move around. But I love that's why it was created...for protection.
SETDECOR: The villages and farmhouses are such a contrast with Ouidah, the slave-trading port...
GPB: Yeah, we based that on those journals I spoke about, the missionaries who had been there for some time. They talked about the difference between Ouidah and Dahomey and they talked about as they left Dahomey and got closer to Ouidah, they felt the immorality and degradation and deprivation of these men coming to a foreign land to rob it of its people. They felt it in the debauchery that was happening there, with the drinking, the prostitution and with the slave trade. We wanted to absolutely capture that and feel the distinction between these two places. That meant certainly in the color and the design...it's just lots of dried dust. We wanted that dry, choked atmosphere. The architecture was very colonial, and very European as opposed to that of the Kingdom. It was crowded, and we wanted it to have a dirty feel to it as well with the cobblestones covered in dirt, the specificity of even the fact that there were horses through there, that they would just put piles of dung...
SETDECOR: Ah, the truth of it.
GPB: Yes, the truth of it.
Editor's note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below...
SETDECOR: Also, It was compelling that their slave market...their cage of slaves and the slave market is in the middle of their marketplace. There are all these things for sale around it, stalls of stuff, or things being piled up on the dirty cobblestone square, but it’s all thrown together.
GPB: Yes, it was important that we showed the center of commerce in Ouidah was captives, and it was there as if they were selling anything else. That was important to show the inhumanity.
SETDECOR: It was hauntingly realistic. But then, authenticity was certainly a goal in this film, and we respond to that!
Before we go, is there anything that we missed that you’d like to cover, particularly in and of Dahomey?
GPB: I would just love to say that when you really look at the female barracks in that world, the fact that they were able to create this beautiful haven...and really heightened the sisterhood and the way that they all live together in a communal space. Yet, everyone did have an individual place for themselves. Detail is a really beautiful thing, and the team was so intent on that. And that just makes it exciting, not only for me as a director, but for the actors. They got to step into a world, and everything was personalized...every actor got to talk with Akin’s department, and Birrie, and Kerry, our props, to personalize their spaces. And that, you know, that's every everything for an actor, to make everything real.
SETDECOR: And that is that is definitely one of the key goals of a fine set decorator, to really help the actors bring out their character, to know, to live in their character.
GPB: To live in their character, absolutely.
...from SETDECOR, thank you to Gina and her great team!
Palace, Agojie communal quarters. Veteran warrior Izogie [Lashana Lynch] mentors the young Nawi [Thuso Mbedu]. Image © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.
A 17th/18th century “locker room” reflects the vibrancy of the kingdom... Photo by Ilze Kitshoff © 2021 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.