How ‘The Woman King’ created an eerie and epic Dahomey Kingdom for the big screen

written by Leah Asmelash, CNN

As soon as “lady king“Starts out, the audience will come to know that the film is unlike any film they have seen before.

Pointy nails are hammered into the eyes, necks are chopped off and bodies fall to the ground as mighty Agozi warriors, also known as the Dahomey Amazons, impose their will on their enemies.

And the camera misses nothing, capturing every punch and kick, highlighting the physicality of female fighters.

“The Woman King,” which hit theaters last week, weaves together the stories of several characters, though it focuses most on General Naniska, leader of the agony, played by Viola Davis — in a role she called His “great job.”

But the published history of the Agoji 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 on screen are the filmmakers’ interpretations. But the team did as much research as they could, said cinematographer Polly Morgan, tracking down images of women, studying the architecture of castle ruins and researching how the Dahomey people lived.

Dwarf (Viola Davis) in

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

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

“We wanted to show West Africa as this lush tropical, rich land — a colorful space — use stimulating lighting and backlights and flares and all that stuff,” Morgan told CNN. “But we wanted to delve into the story of these women and the brotherhood they shared, and how these women lived together and fought together and were there for each other.”

That inclination is done quite literally. For dramatic scenes, Morgan said she turned to lenses that would make the audience feel like they were with the actors, when the drama was at its peak, portraying them in an environment with a close-up wide lens. was.

“With a really powerful drama scene, there’s no need to move the camera,” she said. “Nothing needs to take you away from the powerful performances these actors are giving; we are just with them.”

When directors Gina Prince-Bythewood and Morgan first talked about the visual language of “The Woman King”, they wanted to show all the different aspects of the world, with Morgan using different visual techniques for each. using said. For example, he compared dynamic fight scenes with a more fluid camera.

Lashana Lynch in

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

But elsewhere, such as at the slave port of Ouidah, filmmakers wanted to highlight the horrors of the slave trade, basking in the heat and glare of the sun with high contrast and a handheld camera. It’s meant to be uncomfortable, Morgan said.

On the other hand, in the palace of Dahomey where the women stayed in the evening, a soft, graceful light is allowed in, giving a sense of warmth and familiarity to the scenes.

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

But Morgan also noted the paintings of artists such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio, specifically studying the 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 to the scenes and create the atmosphere surrounded by fire.

“We didn’t want it to feel clean and digital,” she said. “We wanted it to feel filmy, to be textured.”

Although the Dahomey Kingdom was in what is now modern Benin, production filmed in South Africa, from KwaZulu Natal in the east to Cape Town in the southwest. South African talent is visible both in front of and behind the camera – actress Mbedu. help to Stars as part of an international cast, and Babalava Matshiselva designed the film’s makeup and prosthetics.

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

In the Dahomey Palace, Bazaar and the Agoji Warrior Barracks, the red earth is felt, which sets the audience in Dahomey.

Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch with Young Recruits

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

“Earth and these people have a vitality: we see it in the red of the ground,” production designer Akin McKenzie said in a statement. “We see that the greens of nature are complementary, and then we see both similar and complementary tones and physical embellishments.”

Even the costumes fit the color scheme and worldbuilding seen in the film.

“In the Dahomey world there were specific colors that meant different things,” costume designer Gersha Phillips said in a statement. “Jina’s mandate was to make the world lush – so through colors we created a vibrant, rich and beautiful world. What was really important was to show the reality within this empire.”

The result is evident during the entire two-hour run time of the film. The Dahomey world feels like family and home. But, when threatened, there is hell to pay.

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