‘The Woman King’ may be one of the most important women-led dramas to be announced in recent weeks.
We’re not done talking about Black Panther yet, because not only is the film still going strong at the box office, but the fever-pitch response to the latest Marvel blockbuster has created such a ripple effect in other areas of the industry. The passion and excitement for Black Panther — especially its penchant for women’s empowerment — will likely fuel a surge of interest in stories less told, such as this one reported by Deadline that was just acquired by TriStar Pictures. The Woman King will be about an all-women military unit based in West Africa in the 18th and 19th century.
You read that right, it’s like a movie about the real-life Dora Milaje. The Woman King, which will be based on true events, is set to star Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o as mother and daughter. Davis will play Nanisca, the general of the all-female military force known as the Dahomey Amazons, and Nyong’o will play Nanisca’s daughter, Nawi. Side by side, they battle against the invading French as well as neighboring tribes who pillage and violate the women’s honor and people.
In terms of cinema about Africa, empowering women-focused narratives are few and far between (one that comes to mind is Moolaadé). Many Western productions that are based in or about Africa tend to have a fascination with more unsavory topics such as genocide (Hotel Rwanda), conflict diamonds (Blood Diamond), and murderous rulers (The Last King of Scotland), to name a few. Such films also tend to star white people with locals as backdrops. However, there have been recent Western movies that try to buck this rather depressing trend, including Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe and Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom.
The Woman King could be primed to join their ranks; a period drama with a thoroughly fresh perspective on heroism. While there will likely be conflict and bloodshed on the part of the Amazons and their oppressors, TriStar CEO Hannah Minghella insists that The Woman King will first and foremost be about an “extraordinary mother-daughter relationship.” Between winning prestigious awards and starring in critically acclaimed work, Davis and Nyong’o are some of the most bankable actresses out there at the moment. From The Help to How to Get Away with Murder, and from 12 Years a Slave to Black Panther, Davis and Nyong’o respectively also display their range and actively break stereotypes about the kinds of roles black women not only get but excel in.
Davis and Nyong’o provide enough star power for just about anybody to pay rapt attention to The Woman King. Nevertheless, the pressure is now on to find the perfect director to helm what sounds like a total epic of a movie. Perhaps not huge and grand a la Gladiator or Red Cliff (although that would be very cool) — but even a more contained piece like Beasts of No Nation would still work if The Woman King really zooms in on close-knit familial bonds. And how perfect would it be if TriStar hired a black woman to direct the film? Someone call Dee Rees.
Black Panther did a lot of legwork in the name of respectful, mature inclusiveness, and the best things to come out of it are definitely the projects that follow in its footsteps. In the words of producer Cathy Schulman (The Foreigner), The Woman King is about one of “history’s greatest forgotten stories from the real world,” and absolutely deserves at least the same level of attention and commitment, if not much more so.