‘The Woman King’ Cast Dismantle the Strong Black Woman Trope, Stress Community Across the Black Diaspora – Shondaland.com

Posted By on September 21, 2022

Strong Black woman. Its a phrase weve heard many times before. The strong Black woman is fearless and self-sufficient; shes independent taking on any task and performing it effortlessly (often by herself). She may face obstacles, she may be hurt by those around her, and yet she still prevails due to her unyielding strength. No matter what challenges she faces, she can always, always bounce back.

In many ways, the women of The Woman King are those strong Black women. The historical drama stars Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, and Sheila Atim as warriors of the Dahomey kingdom, a real-life kingdom that existed in West Africa during the 17th to 19th centuries. Davis General Nanisca and her regiment are charged with protecting the region from slave catchers and neighboring enemy tribes while confronting their own internal battles.

The female warriors are fierce: They know how to defeat their enemy with one swoop of their machete and have combat skills that are out of this world. They are Black excellence and Black girl magic wrapped into one. But the women of The Woman King are also complicated, nuanced characters, so much more than the strong Black woman. They are vulnerable in their emotions; they show happiness, sadness, fear the humanity of the Black woman. They face insurmountable odds and traumatic experiences that require time and love to properly heal. In a society where Black women are often told that they have to be strong no matter what, the women of The Woman King are allowed to be their full selves, according to the cast.

I think personally its my quest to dismantle that phrase because the world doesnt quite understand what the strong Black woman means and what it entails, Lynch tells Shondaland during a recent interview. How to even get to the point where you feel strong internally strong, emotionally strong, spiritually strong to be able to withstand what the world throws at us. I really enjoyed characterizing Izogie so that she represents a different version of that, but also just witnessing how incredibly hard this whole cast worked to show where strength comes from, and how much beauty can come from your trauma, from your past experiences that didnt serve you well. How to really conjure up a different level of power in order to understand that you can be both strong and vulnerable simultaneously.

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She continues, I understood more about my strength just by reading the script alone, and what my capabilities were through this process. So, I have this film and this process to thank for my understanding of how my mind works as a Black woman, and how to really tap into my ancestral strength in order to use that for myself and pass it on to people I love and care about.

Lynchs co-star Atim echoes her sentiments. The British actress explains to Shondaland how Black womens strength is a really positive thing but can often be weaponized against us because it strips us of our ability to have the full spectrum of what it means to be human, to experience pain, to be vulnerable, to struggle, to suffer, and to talk about suffering as well, as opposed to suffering in silence. I think its really important that this film shows how strength can be born out of difficulty but also how there can be joy at the end.

Mbedu says that this sense of responsibility in the depiction of Black women was something important to all of us that the cast often went back to while shooting the film in her native South Africa. The Black body has always been a body thats just about being on display for other peoples entertainment. And that is not who we are. We are human, we are complex beings, we have dreams, we have desires, we have passions, we hurt, we bleed. And so with that, putting that out there [on film], I think it will garner some sort of empathy. Because by taking away our humanity, it gives people space to do as they please with us, and that will never be okay.

The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, not only highlights the Black womans complexities, but it is also based on historical events not often told in our classrooms. The film unpacks the real-life legacy of the Agojie warriors, women who, at various points in their history, fought against European invaders. Many of these Europeans were kidnapping or buying African citizens and forcing them to develop the lands of the New World, a practice that soon became known as the transatlantic slave trade. The film depicts a truly interconnected story that impacts all the communities of the Black diaspora: Black Americans, Black Europeans, West Africans, and others. It is rare in Hollywood to work on a movie that resonates across the Black diaspora, a global community of people descended from native Africans who often face division due to a history of slavery, white supremacy, and colonization.

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John Boyega, who stars as King Ghezo, explains that he definitely felt that there was a reflection of [social justice] in [the film]. Myself and Gina could not ignore it. The words [in the script] were very clear that we know our own potential and that potential is limitless. I would say those lines, and after each take, Id be like, Thats kind of true, you know. In the context, Im thinking about the warriors who have just come back from war and theyre victorious, and Im empowering them. But then apart from that, I was kind of like, Yeah, as someone whos part of the Black diaspora, we need to get together. We always need to remind ourselves about this power that we have, and about the potential of that, and just making sure that were there to motivate that out of each other.

The films sense of Black liberation and community translated off-screen as well, according to the cast. In a time when there are debates and disagreements about opportunities for Black American actors versus Black British actors, the environment on The Woman King set, which featured actors from across the diaspora, was one of love, respect, and camaraderie. Boyega, who is Nigerian British, connected with Davis, who is Black American, who formed a bond with Mbedu, who is South African, and Lynch and Atim, who are Jamaican British and Ugandan British respectively.

It was absolutely amazing, Mbedu says about the environment on set. And I think it was also reflective of the community that were representing at the time. And thats who we are as Black people, you know we generally welcome each other in, and we treat each other as family.

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Its coexisting with differences, love, Boyega adds. Thats what it is. Thats a big thing. I thought it was beautiful. Because I feel like sometimes the people that are having these conversations might not have the opportunity to be on set to actually see the way in which these things work. Being from the outside [looking] in can sometimes mislead you in terms of your opinion on things. Whereas I think, if one of those people came to set, and if you see everybody collaborating and all our differences coexisting in such a beautiful way, you will know and understand that the crabs-in-the-barrel mentality is something of old. And were not doing that.

Lynch says that addressing these differences through art like The Woman King allows Black communities across the diaspora to understand their power and the importance of being a collective who comes together to understand our truth [and] why we are the way we are.

I keep repeating this, but we dont quite understand our power. I couldnt even fathom when I read this script, understanding how these women were able to do what they did, Lynch explains. For Gina and the whole team to cast a worldwide pool of [actors] who were able to draw on their own experiences, and their own individual cultures and their friends and familys experiences. It was a really good time to learn more about yourself but also learn more about others and why they think the way that they think.

She concludes, Its a really nice way of quieting some chatter in our minds that we dont even know where its coming from. Because this has kind of been force-fed to us, that divide. It comes from a long history of division. Now this brings some unity within our culture, I think, just by watching the film. I think this emotional connection that we have with the characters and the storylines will remind us of that whenever we feel that division, whenever that is put upon us as Black women and as Black people.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

The Woman King is available to watch in theaters on September 16.

Mariel Turner is the Senior Culture Editor at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @mariel_turner.

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'The Woman King' Cast Dismantle the Strong Black Woman Trope, Stress Community Across the Black Diaspora - Shondaland.com

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