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

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

Written by Leah Asmelash, CNN

As soon as “The Woman King” begins, audiences will know the film is unlike any they’ve seen before.

Sharpened nails are pressed into eyes, necks are slit and bodies crumble to the ground as the mighty Agojie warriors, also known as the Dahomey Amazons, impose their will on their enemies.

And the camera doesn’t miss a thing, catching every punch and kick, highlighting the physicality of the female fighters.

“The Woman King,” which hit theaters last week, weaves the stories of multiple characters together, though it focuses the most on General Nanisca, the leader of the Agojie, played by Viola Davis — in a role she called her “magnum opus.”

But the published history of the Agojie warriors is lacking, and the events that inspired the film predate photography. The film is not a documentary, so some parts of the Dahomey world seen onscreen are the filmmakers’ interpretations. But the team did as much research as they could, said cinematographer Polly Morgan, tracking down images that do exist of the women, studying the architecture of the palace’s ruins and researching how the Dahomey people lived.

Nanisca (Viola Davis) in "The Woman King."

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

The result is a film that is at once both intimate and epic.

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

That leaning in is done quite literally. For dramatic scenes, Morgan said she gravitated toward lenses that would make the viewer feel like they’re with the actors, drawing them into the environment with a close-up wider lens when the drama was at a peak.

“With a really powerful drama scene, the camera doesn’t need to move,” she said. “It doesn’t need to do anything to take you away from the powerful performance that these actors are giving; we’re just with them.”

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

Lashana Lynch in "The Woman King."

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

But in other places, like at the slave port of Ouidah, the filmmakers wanted to highlight the horror of the slave trade, leaning into the heat and brightness of the sun with high contrast and a handheld camera. It’s meant to feel uncomfortable, Morgan said.

On the other hand, the palace at Dahomey where the women lived in the evening is allowed a softer, prettier light, giving those scenes a feeling of warmth and familiarity.

Part of the inspiration came from “Braveheart,” the 1995 war film directed by and starring Mel Gibson. It’s both an action movie and a historical epic, Morgan said, one that harmonized high-action battle sequences with intimate moments of emotional drama. With “The Woman King,” the crew aimed to do the same.

But Morgan also referenced paintings from artists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, specifically studying their use of light and shadow to create images that feel three-dimensional and full of motion.

Morgan worked with the special effects department to add smoke in scenes and created an atmosphere anchored by fire.

“We didn’t want it to feel clean and digital,” she said. “We wanted it to feel filmic, to have texture.”

Though the Dahomey Kingdom was in what is now modern-day Benin, the production filmed in South Africa, from Kwazulu Natal in the east to Cape Town in the southwest. South African talent featured both in front and behind the camera — actress Thuso Mbedu stars as part of an international cast, and Babalwa Mtshiselwa designed the film’s makeup and prosthetics.

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

Throughout the Dahomey palace, marketplace and the Agojie warrior barracks, the red earth is felt, situating the viewer in Dahomey.

Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch with young recruits in "The Woman King."

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

“There is the vibrancy of the earth and these people: We see that in the red color of the ground,” said production designer Akin McKenzie in a statement. “We see that complemented by the greens of nature, and then we see both analogous and complementary tones and physical adornments.”

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

“There were specific colors in the Dahomey world that meant different things,” costume designer Gersha Phillips said in a statement. “Gina’s mandate was to make the world lush — so through the colors we created a vibrant, rich, and beautiful world. The really important thing was to show the regality within this empire.”

The result is palpable throughout the film’s two-hour run time. The Dahomey world feels familial and homey. But, when it is threatened, there is hell to pay.