Viola Davis and Gina Prince-Bythewood were in conversation at the TIFF Bell Lightbox the afternoon after the world premiere of their movie The Woman King.
Before talking about the historical epic, which took seven years to get made, Prince-Bythewood discussed how difficult it was to get another project greenlit: her first feature Love and Basketball.
“It blows me away to this day that this film has endured because of what it took to get it made,” Prince-Bythewood said.
The director went on to talk about having a list of studios and production companies, crossing each off as they passed. “Jodie Foster’s company Egg Pictures was the last. I remember crossing that out,” she said.
The Sundance Institute later called to stage a reading, which led to Spike Lee and New Line finding the film. “The fact that to this day so many men say that Monica [the basketball played by Sanaa Lathan] is their ideal — that is amazing because I was never anyone’s ideal.”
As for The Woman King, Prince-Bythewood talked about the difficulties in pitching projects led by and centered on Black women. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it is white men sitting across from you and you are trying to convince them your story is worthy,” said Prince-Bythewood. “It is soul-crushing to get ‘no’ after ‘no’ after ‘I don’t get it.’” But, the director asserted, “Putting Black girls and Black women up on screen is absolutely worth the fight.”
The Woman King, which is getting its North American release 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 THR review of the film reads, “energetic performances and technical precision come together to glorious effect in Prince-Bythewood’s rousing action film. It’s a lush, prime piece of entertainment in many respects.”
Positive reviews continue to roll in from TIFF — the movie currently sits at 100 percent on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes — but Davis says she has yet to read them.
The actress did reveal a story from when she used to read comments on social media, during which time she saw some in particular that infuriated her. “I got so pissed but I knew I couldn’t respond because people would know it was me,” said Davis, who then admitted that she did create a fake social media persona based on her husband Julius Tennon’s nickname. She said, she thought at the time, “‘I am gonna be Lili Washington.’ Lili Washington cussed a couple of people out.”
As for accolades from within the entertainment industry, with the film’s positive reviews, awards analysts are already speculating that The Woman King could bring Davis another Oscar nomination.
Davis, who has a Tony, Emmy and Oscar, talked about what awards mean to her in her career: “The three most important words when you have that trophy in your hand are ‘And now what?’ You gotta go back to work and I’m sorry you can’t bring that trophy in the room,” said Davis. “If you bring that trophy on the soundstage what you decimate is anyone’s ability to give you a note because, let me just cuss a little bit, your shit can get funky too.”
Davis, who won her Oscar in 2017 with Fences, added, “I think I held it once since then because a friend came to the house and wanted to take a picture with it.”