Awards Daily talks to The Woman King screenwriter Dana Stevens about grounding the Agojie warrior story with female characters that offer very distinct points of view.
Like the Agojie warriors in The Woman King, director Gina Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Dana Stevens had to fight to tell this story.
“A lot of times people would be like, ‘We don’t really need all this action, it’s really an emotional story,'” says Stevens, “and Gina would be like ‘No, it’s an action movie.’ When I wrote the script, I wanted that established. I wrote an action scene for the beginning. Gina always fought for the big, epic scope of the movie and the emotion.”
However, the film is still filled with dramatic moments, something Stevens believes elevates the story.
“I’ve never written an action movie before, but I heard that the best versions of action are when there are emotional stakes for the characters. So that was always the most important thing to me as a writer: Who are these women? What are their inner and outer issues and how are they working them out with each other and through their actions?”
It All Started with Maria Bello
For those who’ve seen the movie, they might have done a double-take when they saw one of the names in the story credits: Maria Bello. Yes, after visiting Africa, the actress went to producer Cathy Shulman with the idea to tell the story of the Agojie warriors with Viola Davis. When Stevens came on to write the script, she was thrilled to be doing it for Davis.
“Viola is my absolute favorite actress,” says Stevens. “When I got sent something that Viola was going to produce and most likely star in, that I would be creating a role for her who I really think is the most exciting actress in film and TV today, I wanted to do it!”
Producers sent her a lookbook, articles, and other materials to start prepping for the pitch, with 200 years of Agojie history for Stevens to choose from.
“I was blown away by the fact that Americans know so little about other cultures and their history. This culture was so juicy and textured and gorgeous. This is Gladiator. This is Game of Thrones. I was very excited to bring this world to life and to also keep it as grounded in real history as I could.”
In order to stay truthful to the story, Stevens looked at eyewitness accounts from the time period and also thought a lot about people’s attitudes in 1823.
“In the end, I felt the key to writing this movie was, what is it like to be these women? What is it like to be a warrior? When you read stuff about the Agojie, it was all very objectified. They’re not brought to life as individual people; they’re just this group written about by men. I had to take all that good stuff for texture, but I also had to think to myself, what do these women really think? Let’s create characters that think different things. That’s one thing that I think is very successful in the movie: They all have a little bit different points of view—Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), Izogie (Lashana Lynch), Amenza (Sheila Atim), Nanisca (Viola Davis), and Shante (Jayme Lawson). They all have different points of view of how it ought to go in their country.”
But Viola Davis’s Nanisca has the most influence of the warriors since she’s the right-hand woman to King Ghezo (John Boyega).
“How fascinating that Nanisca’s character is advising this young guy? It was a time when the slave trade was in disarray, and I felt that it was important to talk about the slave trade in the movie, which is why I set it in that time period.”
A Special Connection for Two Characters
Stevens admits that this kind of movie is unfortunately not an easy sell for studios. But after some massaging of the script, they set out to find a director, and Prince-Bythewood soon came on board.
“She brought a lot of her point of view. She’s an athlete, so she was really interested in the sisterhood and athletic ability. We worked on Ghezo a lot because we wanted him to be more textured and interesting.”
Prince-Bythewood was also able to add a level of authenticity that Stevens appreciated.
“I had written the scene where Izogie says to Nawi, ‘You’re powerful; you don’t know how powerful you are,’ but it’s a hundred times better with Gina’s idea of Izogie braiding Nawi’s hair while she says this.”
The dynamic within the film also needs to feel like a sisterhood, especially with Nawi and Nanisca’s characters having a special connection in the film.
“Thuso and Viola actually had a meeting, and that’s how Gina knew they would have chemistry. Even in the pitch deck that was given to me, it was always an idea that they’d have this connection, but it was my idea that they didn’t necessarily know it. I wanted the movie to have this mythic quality, like destiny was at play. The inner journey of Nanisca as a hero is that she’s stuffed down her young self and that she’s cut off her emotions. To me, it was an incredible allegory that she faces her young self by facing this young woman.”
Debating the History of the Agojie
Like any popular film that comes out nowadays, The Woman King has also had its share of hot takes. Many people debate the truth behind the Agojie warriors and how involved they were in the slave trade. Stevens says she was very aware of this while she was writing, especially when Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon, about one of the last enslaved people to come to the United States, was finally released in 2018.
“Cudjo Lewis, who is interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston in this book, was captured by the Agojie like 35 years after [The Woman King] takes place. A lot of what the people on Twitter are getting their information from is Cudjo’s eyewitness account of his attack. That’s also why I chose to set the story in 1823. I wanted right away for there to be the scene in the council where they talk about this and they argue about ending the slave trade. I tried to address the subject of what they do and what they have done, and even John Boyega talks about Ghezo as a young kid. I’ve found some evidence that he did try some different things like [trading] palm oil. But in the end, he did end up going back to capturing their enemies. And John Boyega has even said, ‘Let’s do a sequel, and I’ll be the bad guy.”
The Woman King is now playing.