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

written by Leah Smelish, CNN

As soon as possible “A female king“Starting out, viewers will know that this film is unlike anything they’ve seen before.

Sharp nails are driven into eyes, necks are severed and corpses fall to the ground as powerful Agoji warriors, also known as Dahomey Amazons, impose their will on their enemies.

And the camera doesn’t miss a beat, 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 several characters, though it focuses most on General Naneska, the leader of the Agoji, played by Viola Davis. — in the role he calls. His “magnum opus”.

But a published history of the Aguji warriors is lacking, and the events that inspired the film predate photography. The film is not a documentary, so parts of the Dahomey world that appear on screen are interpretations by the filmmakers. But the team did as much research as they could, said cinematographer Polly Morgan, tracking down photographs of the women, studying the architecture of the palace ruins and researching how the people of Dahomey lived.

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

The result is a film that is both intimate and epic at the same time.

“We wanted to show West Africa as this lush, rich land — a colorful place — use evocative lighting and backlights and flames and all that stuff,” Morgan told CNN. Told to “But we also wanted to lean on the story of these women and the sisterhood they shared, and how these women lived together and fought together and were there for each other.”

Leaning into this is done quite literally. For dramatic scenes, Morgan said she gravitates toward lenses that make the audience feel like they’re with the actors, drawing them into the environment with a close-up wide lens when the drama climaxes.

“With a really powerful drama scene, the camera doesn’t need to move,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything to distract you from the actors’ powerful performances; we’re just there with them.”

When director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Morgan first discussed the visual language of “The Woman King,” they wanted to show all the different aspects of the world the film takes place in, Morgan said, each one of them. They countered dynamic fight scenes with a more fluid camera, using different visual techniques for, for example.

At Lashana Lunch "A female king."

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

But elsewhere, such as at the slave port of Oueda, the filmmakers wanted to highlight the horror of the slave trade, with high contrast and a handheld camera leaning against the heat and glare of the sun. Morgan said the goal is to feel uncomfortable.

On the other hand, in the palace of Dahomey where the women lived in the evening, a soft, beautiful light is allowed, which gives these scenes a sense of warmth and familiarity.

Part of the inspiration came from “Braveheart,” the 1995 war film directed by and starring Mel Gibson. Morgan said it is both an action movie and a historical epic, juxtaposing high-action battle sequences with intimate moments of emotional drama. The crew had to do the same with “The Woman King.”

But Morgan also references the paintings of artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, specifically studying their use of light and shadow to create images that feel three-dimensional and full of movement.

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

“We didn’t want it to feel clean and digital,” he said. “We wanted it to feel cinematic, textured.”

Although the Dahomey Kingdom was located in what is present-day Benin, the production was filmed in South Africa, from Kwazulu Natal in the east to Cape Town in the southwest. South African talent was showcased both in front of and behind the camera — actresses Thus Mbedu stars as part of an international cast, and Babalova Matsheslova designed the film’s makeup and props.

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

The red earth is felt in the Dahomey palace, bazaar and Aguji warrior barracks, located in Dahomey to the visitor.

Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch with young recruits "A female king."

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

“There is a stirring of the earth and its people: we see it in the red of the earth,” production designer Akin McKenzie said in a statement. “We see that it’s complemented by nature’s greenery, and then we see both similar and complementary accents and physical decoration.”

Even the costumes fit the color scheme and world building seen in the film.

“In the Dahomey world there were specific colors that meant different things,” costume designer Gersha Phillips said in a statement. “Gina’s mandate was to make the world green — so through color we created a vibrant, rich and beautiful world. What was really important was to convey the dignity within that empire.”

The result is evident in the film’s two-hour runtime. The world of Dahomey feels familial and homey. But, when he is threatened, there is hell to pay.

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