The female king tells the story of a group of highly skilled women warriors called Agojie who struck fear in all who encountered them in 1600-1800 in Africa. Starring Academy Award-winning Viola Davis as General Nanisca, these nimble women protect the African kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) during an ongoing war with the Oyo Empire. John Boyega plays King Ghezo, the new ruler of Dahomey.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (love and basketball), the screenplay is by Dana Stevens (Haven of peace, city of angels) with a shared story credit with producer Maria Bello. I spoke with Stevens after the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to learn more about bringing historical epics to life for modern audiences.
Write for the actor of your dreams
Stevens says she learned about the project after working on a screen adaptation of the book The Nightingale with Nicole Brown, who is now president of TriStar. Wanting to do another project together, Brown sent Stevens a pitch deck for The female king which had Viola Davis on board to play a starring role. Davis’ involvement was a dream come true for Stevens. In fact, she’s such a fan of Davis that when she voted for Davis’ Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress a few years ago, she personally drove the ballot to the Academy. lest it get lost in the mail or arrive late. !
“As a writer,” says Stevens, “I’m inspired by actors, and I was very excited to write for someone I admired as much as Davis. It was a dream to think of Viola and imagine her saying the words I was writing.
The pitch deck (also called a lookbook) included historical photos and story ideas to serve as a springboard for the script. Stevens says his only prior knowledge of the Agojie women was that they inspired the female characters in Black Panther, but she quickly became intrigued. “I became totally fascinated by the history and the whole area. Much of Western culture knows nothing about Africa. I was really excited to do a story set in a world that most viewers had never seen.
Build the world of The female king
World building is an art. To create a hit female action film set in the distant past, Stevens knew the world had to really capture the interest of audiences. Everything from the costumes to the weapons had to appeal to viewers, but it would be the characters that really had to stand out. “There is a big fandom right now for worldbuilding. I like game of thrones. The reason we love game of thrones is because of the characters: what drives them and who they are. Yes, we love dragons too, but we love the characters and we love the fantasy of being in a completely different world.
Because the world of Agojie is based on history, not fantasy like game of thrones, Stevens says that she and the other filmmakers, “worked really hard to ground it in what we thought was the reality of this story.” It’s here that The female king diverges from a movie like Black Panther. In this film, the real past comes to light. Sometimes this past is a harsh and brutal reality, but it is also uplifting and filled with hope for the future.
The king’s wife Dark but true story
From the start, Stevens wanted the story to feel like a “Greek tragedy” or have a “Shakespearian” scope and deal with larger, universal issues facing humanity. While the pitch deck had been set in 1890, Stevens chose to set the story in 1823 for a particular reason.
“I wanted to help the public understand the difficulty of the transatlantic slave trade in history. During the 150 years of Agojie women’s existence, women captured Africans and sold them into the slave trade. I wanted to address that.” Stevens said.
“Use your imagination as you would in any story that wasn’t historical, then go back and marry your imagination to the story. When it comes to history, never lie and say something didn’t happen.”
“I wanted people to understand that we weren’t going to ignore that Dahomey had done these things but we were picking a time when Ghezo [the King, played by John Boyega] was a young ruler and things were changing in the world. Maybe this woman [Nanisca] might have some influence on him.
Could a society enriched by the slave trade really turn into something as harmless as the palm oil trade? Yes, if it’s to a warrior like Nanisca who wants a better future for her people.
Crafting Dual Protagonists
As well as telling the story worn by the Battle of Nanisca, the film also tells the story of Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a teenage girl whose father hands her over to the king when she proves too stubborn to marry. Nawi, named after one of the last known Agojie warriors who died in 1979, must train under Nanisca’s fierce demands and transform into a soldier. The two storylines run in parallel, allowing the audience to see two different points of view of two women at different stages of their lives. I asked Stevens what was the best way to write a story with dual protagonists, given that it’s often quite difficult to keep track of them. His suggestion is to think of this as a love story.
“I’ve always been drawn to love. I’m often hired to do romance stories and those are usually two-handed. It comes very naturally to me and I’m able to go back and forth between the two characters,” she says, adding that she allows herself to “feel” her way through a first draft. Once she has her first draft, she looks carefully to determine where characters may be separated for too long. She will use note cards or put the story on a whiteboard to strategically map out the story.
“I don’t want you ever to forget the emotional truth for each of them and if you take too long to get into either one’s head, you have to balance that out. You have moving scenes.
She says it’s not just about seeing the character on screen, it’s about “their emotional life and their emotional arc.” What’s wonderful is when they touch each other, when they have a scene together and again, it’s strategic, how often do they cross paths? It’s like a love story. One of the things you learn when you do a romance is to keep them apart, so when they come together it’s so delicious. who operates in The female kingsays Stevens.
Give the secrets of the characters
There is a revelation in the story that connects the two main characters more deeply, but we don’t want to reveal it! Just know that it’s a beautiful storytelling that makes the characters even easier to understand. Just like in game of thronessecrets add texture to your characters in the most delicious way.
Doing research is half the job
Whenever a writer tackles a historical subject, thorough research is required. But that’s just one of the tools a writer needs to craft a great story. You have to fully engage your imagination, says Stevens.
“Do lots of research, but don’t get too bogged down. It’s easy to do the research but hard to write the script. There has to be a moment where you say, ‘Okay, I’m done looking. Now I will create a story. And I can always go back to research – I was constantly going back to the different Wikipedia pages and even found new things being added as I was writing and I could say, “Oh, that’s a fit to what I have created.’ Give yourself a limited time to do the research, then give yourself a limited time to really imagine.”
She also discusses taking creative liberties in true story scenarios:
Use your imagination as you would in any story that wasn’t historical, then go back and marry your imagination to the story. When it comes to history, never lie and say something didn’t happen. First, do no harm, try to stay within the confines of the truth, but also allow yourself to fictionalize things that will make for an entertaining and dramatic movie.
The female king opens exclusively in theaters today, September 16.