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

Written by Leah Asmelash, CNN

As soon as “Queen“To begin with, audiences will know the film is unlike any they’ve seen before.

Sharp claws were inserted into the eyes, necks slashed, and bodies shattered to the ground as the mighty Agojie warriors, also known as Dahomey Amazons, imposed their will on their enemies.

And the camera misses nothing, capturing 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 most on General Nanisca, the leader of Agojie, played by Viola Davis — in a role that’s 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 of the parts of Dahomey’s world seen on screen are the filmmakers’ interpretation. But the team did as much research as they could, said cinematographer Polly Morgan, tracking surviving images of the women, studying the palace’s ruins and studying how the Dahomeys lived. .

Nanisca (Viola Davis) in "Queen."

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

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

“We wanted to show West Africa as a lush tropical land – a colorful place – using evocative lighting and backlighting, flares and all that,” Morgan told CNN. “But we also wanted to tell the stories of these women and the sisterhood they shared, and how these women lived together and fought together and were there for each other.”

Leaning is done literally. For dramatic scenes, Morgan says she focuses on lenses that make the viewer feel like they’re with the actors, drawing them into the environment with a wider lens than the close-up as the film progresses. is at its peak.

“With a really powerful shot, the camera doesn’t have to move,” she said. “There’s no need to do anything to take you away from the powerful performance these actors are giving; we’re 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 in which the film takes place, Morgan said, using different imaging techniques for each film. For example, they contrasted dynamic battle scenes with a more flexible camera.

Lashana Lynch in "Queen."

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

But in other places, like in the slave port of Ouidah, the filmmakers wanted to highlight the horrors of the slave trade, relying on the heat and brightness of the sun with high contrast and a camera. hand photo. Morgan said.

On the other hand, the palace in Dahomey where the women lived at night was illuminated with softer, more beautiful light, giving those scenes a warm and familiar feeling.

Part of the inspiration came from “Braveheart,” a 1995 war film directed and starring Mel Gibson. Morgan says it’s both an action film and a historical epic, one that harmoniously blends highly action-packed combat with intimate moments of emotional drama. With “The Woman King”, the crew wanted to do the same.

But Morgan also references paintings by 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 an atmosphere anchored by fire.

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

Although the Kingdom of Dahomey was in what is now Benin, production was filmed in South Africa, from Kwazulu Natal in the east to Cape Town in the southwest. South African talent stands out both in front of and behind the camera – actress Soo Mbedu was part of the international cast, and Babalwa Mtshiselwa designed the make-up and prosthetics for the film.

Making South Africa look like Benin, where red soil is indigenous and found throughout the country’s structures, was an important part of “The Woman King’s” world-building.

Throughout the Dahomey palace, the market and the Agojie warrior barracks, people feel the color of red earth, making viewers immersed in Dahomey.

Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch with young rookies in "Queen."

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

“There’s the vibrancy of the earth and these people: We see the red of the ground,” said production designer Akin McKenzie, production designer Akin McKenzie. “We see that complemented by the green of nature, and then we see both similar and complementary tones and physical embellishments.”

Even the costumes match the color scheme and world building in the movie.

Costume designer Gersha Phillips said: “There are specific colors in the Dahomey world that have different meanings. “Gina’s mission was to make the world lush – so through color we created a world that was alive, rich and beautiful. What was really important was embodying the regal in the empire. this regime.”

Results can be felt during the two-hour run of the film. Dahomey World gives a feeling of family and coziness. But, when it’s at stake, there’s hell to pay the price.

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