'You have to risk it': Viola Davis on the Black female warriors at the centre of The Woman King

·3 min read
Actor Viola Davis speaks with CBC's Eli Glasner as her husband, Julius Tennon, and their daughter, Genesis Tennon, look on at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of The Woman King on Sept. 9.  (Teghan Beaudette/CBC - image credit)
Actor Viola Davis speaks with CBC's Eli Glasner as her husband, Julius Tennon, and their daughter, Genesis Tennon, look on at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of The Woman King on Sept. 9. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC - image credit)

While walking the TIFF red carpet last week, Viola Davis said that embodying an African warrior who leads an all-female battalion in The Woman King was just part of the gig.

"Your job as an actor is to humanize your character. Nobody is strong all the time," Viola Davis told CBC News' Eli Glasner ahead of the film's Sept. 16 theatrical release.

"Nobody's without vulnerability, no one's without trauma, secrets or whatever," she said. "So I was just doing my job. And those vulnerabilities are also in our leaders; they're also human. No matter what."

Starring Davis as regiment leader of the Agojie, The Woman King tells the story of a group of women warriors who protected the kingdom of Dahomey in 19th century West Africa.

Most recently, the battalion provided inspiration for the Dora Milaje, an all-female military, in 2018's Black Panther — but they haven't quite been depicted like this, said Julius Tennon, who is Davis' husband and a co-producer of the film.

"It's just never been done. You know you can kind of be a little afraid of something that's never been done?" he said.

Teghan Beaudette/CBC
Teghan Beaudette/CBC

Davis and Tennon pitched the film to several studios, almost all of which turned it down, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Some executives couldn't see it earning back its budget (the film cost $50 million US) while others wanted to cast light-skinned actors in the lead roles.

"But sometimes things that have never been done — it doesn't mean that it's not gonna land," Davis said. "Sometimes, once again, you have to be progressive, you have to know that we can lead a box office globally."

Boyega jokes about acting opposite Viola Davis

John Boyega, who starred in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, joked that acting alongside the Academy Award-winning Davis was no easy feat.

Speaking with CBC News on the red carpet, he referenced an incident when he was asked to emit "more authority" in a scene with Davis.

"I had to breathe real quick. I said, 'Someone give me some water because they're telling me to be stern with Viola Davis,' " Boyega said, laughing. "I don't know about that!"

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

The 30-year-old actor, who plays King Ghezo, said he was used to seeing himself in white characters while growing up — "in Gandalf, in Frodo" — but that there's been a paradigm shift.

"You can just hope that we all celebrate this moment," Boyega said.

"Because we still wanna give quality, we still wanna go for actors who are talented for the job, but this in itself just brings together all the perfect things about diversity."

Despite industry fears that an action-packed adventure epic with a predominantly Black female cast would be a commercial failure, Davis said The Woman King was a risk she wanted to take.

"We stuck with it. Listen — you have to risk it. You have to risk, anything in life that you risk is worth it," she said.

"Anything that we've ever dreamed of, like I said, is on the other side of fear."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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CBC