At the Sept. 9 premiere of The Woman King at the Toronto International Film Festival, “We love you, Viola!” and “Thank you, Viola” could be heard multiple times in Roy Thomson Hall.
“I want to do for young Black girls what Miss [Cecily] Tyson did for me when I was 7 years old,” said Davis after the film’s screening. “She was the physical manifestation of the dream, and she came to me through a broken-down television set in a dilapidated apartment in Central Falls, Rhode Island. What she delivered to me is something that cannot be quantified in words.”
The Sony feature, which will hit theaters on Sept. 16, follows the Agojie, an all-female army in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. The group’s General Nanisca (Davis) must train a new generation of warriors to fight against an encroaching enemy.
The audience erupted into applause the first time Davis appeared onscreen, and that applause continued after intense sequences in the action-heavy movie, with viewers cheering on Davis and co-stars Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and Thuso Mbedu as they swung machetes and threw spears.
The Davis appreciation also came from onstage with star John Boyega talking about getting the initial email about The Woman King, saying, “It felt like a call to action.” He added: “I didn’t recognize the face of my career. I didn’t understand acting and wasn’t in love with it as much as I used to be.”
Lynch voiced her thanks for director Gina Prince-Bythewood, saying, “I want to thank you for seeing me and seeing different parts of me that many filmmakers have not seen. It doesn’t happen often.”
Davis produced The Woman King with Julius Tennon via their JuVee production banner, along with Cathy Schulman and Maria Bello. She has long called the movie her “magnum opus.”
“I feel like my entire life I have allowed myself to be defined by a culture. I have allowed myself to be defined by the naysayers,” said Davis, addressing the audience ahead of the screening. “A lot of times you allow other people to define you and at 56 years old I have come to the realization that I can define myself.”
After this statement, the audience erupted into more applause, with someone near the back of the theater shouting another “I love you, Viola!” The Oscar winner offered back, “I love you, too.”