Interview: Dana Stevens on writing ‘The Woman King,’ researching the Agojie and John Boyega’s ideas for a sequel
The Woman King is a brilliant historical epic that brings to life the story of the Dahomey Kingdom’s Agojie warriors and illuminates the complex struggle that African kingdoms were faced with as the European slave trade grew. Both an impressive ensemble piece and a stunning work of historical fiction, The Woman King was penned by writer Dana Stevens after much research.
Stevens attended UCLA, graduating summa cum laude, and has been writing films since the 1990s. Her previous films include Blink, City of Angels, For the Love of the Game, Life or Something Like It, Safe Haven, and Fatherhood. Before Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s work on No Time to Die, she was the most recent female writer to contribute to a Bond film’s script. She is an advisor at the Sundance Institute writer and filmmaker labs.
As a historian myself, it was particularly a treat to get to discuss The Woman King with Dana Stevens and delve into how she brought the Agojie to life, writing for a large ensemble cast, and her reaction to the film’s success.
Nicole Ackman: First of all, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I’m such a big fan of this movie, and especially as someone who is in a public history graduate program, I’m so excited to talk to you about it.
Dana Stevens: I just was reading a little bit about you and that you are at NC State, which my boyfriend’s son graduated from there last year, and both of his kids live in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. So that’s cool.
NA: It was such a wild coincidence because I saw The Woman King at TIFF, and that week, for my class that I’m taking on the slave trades, we were actually reading about the Dahomey Kingdom, which was crazy to see it sort of all tied together. I wanted to start by asking: how did you first become involved with The Woman King?
DS: I had been working for Nicole Brown at TriStar, adapting the novel, The Nightingale, which is about two sisters in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. One of them is a Freedom Fighter. There’s a lot of action and an interesting kind of high stakes, wartime stakes in that movie, which has not been made yet.
But Nicole and Cathy Schulman and Maria Bello and Viola [Davis] were looking for a writer for The Woman King. Viola, Maria, and Cathy had just set up the project with Nicole at TriStar. So I basically pitched on it. I’m pretty sure they had other writers pitching on it too. They gave me some articles, a look book, and a scholarly book about the Dahomey. I just started reading all this. I didn’t know anything about it. That’s one of the things that is mind-blowing about doing a movie like this is how little Americans know about other countries’ histories and cultures.
It just was so rich and textured. I mean, it just felt like an epic Gladiator or Game of Thrones or something. I was so excited to help create this world but also keep it grounded in history, as true historically as I could. So I pitched my ideas, and I think one of my more specific ideas was setting it in 1823. When it initially came to me, they were thinking about setting it in the 1890s, which is when the Agojie were wiped out by the French.
I was so into the idea of these Agojie women. I didn’t want them to be defeated; I wanted them to be victorious. I also felt that the 1890s was too recent. It just felt like I don’t want to see people in bustles. I want to see a world I’ve never been in before and 1823 offered us that. Also frankly, it offered us a chance to address head-on the things that some people do know about the Dahomey, which is that they participated in the slave trade.
NA: One of the things that we’ve really been discussing in my graduate class is this idea of African involvement in the slave trade and how we grapple with that. I was so impressed with the nuance with which this film approaches it. Were there certain things that you really wanted to include in approaching a topic that’s as sensitive as that is?
DS: I very much purposefully picked that date because several countries had outlawed the slave trade, at least the transatlantic slave trade. They weren’t outlawing slavery in their countries, but it was a time when the slave trade was in disarray, and it was illegal essentially. The English were patrolling the waters. They were boarding these ships, which were oftentimes going to Haiti or to the Bahamas and the United States. It seemed like it could be a moment when somebody like Nanisca, who has some influence on this young king…King Ghezo is the only actual historical character that you can look up in this film. He’s a real guy, and you can look up his reign. It occurred to me that I could right away start talking about this.
The council scene is quite early in the movie because I wanted to get it out there right up-front.
This is what we do. We have wars with other nations, and we capture each other’s people, and we sell them to the slave trade. Nanisca is a fictional character, but when you look at the history of the Agojie, none of the women are individuals. They write about them as a group. So I’m creating individual characters, and I felt that it could be believable that someone like Nanisca, who has fought in so many wars and has been raped and abused as part of her wartime service, would think that maybe we should try to make a change and that maybe she has an opportunity to do that. So that’s how I chose to deal with it in the film.
NA: Obviously, just hearing you talk about it and from seeing the film, you did a lot of research on this time period and Africa at this time. What was your process for doing the research?
DS: There’s just not enough research about this. I would find books that were about Ouidah, the Port of Ouidah, and then look for the things in them about the Agojie, which there are things in it about King Ghezo and about the Dahomey. I particularly loved a book called The Wives of the Leopard by Edna Bay, which is about the wives of King Ghezo and all the kings. That also had in it stuff about the Agojie, and I would even look at stuff on YouTube that is in foreign languages just to get a sense of all the different points of view and imagery.
It kept coming up in High On The Hog, the show that’s on Netflix about African foodways coming to America with enslaved people. Even while I was writing the movie, Zora Neale Hurston’s book, Barracoon, was released. It had not been published, although she had written it in the 1930s, and the man that she interviewed, Cudjoe Lewis, was captured by the Dahomey. He was captured 35 years after our movie takes place.
I was able to really carefully look for eyewitness accounts. A lot of the stuff that you read in these different books about the Dahomey are eyewitness letters of people that were actually there. But I also wanted to take into consideration, what is their point of view about Africans and what is also their agenda? A lot of these people were trying to continue the slave trade, so they want to make it seem that the Dahomey were these savage people. The Dahomeys never wrote about themselves until after the 1900s. So I was really trying to think honestly: what’s their point of view? Because I’m writing about these women, what is their point of view about their life and what they do?
NA: That’s amazing. I actually just watched Descendant, the Netflix documentary, which also deals with Cudjoe Lewis. I didn’t realize that he was captured by the Dahomey.
DS: A lot of the negative press about the Agojie is from Cudjoe Lewis’s account. We’ve even been chatting amongst ourselves. John Boyega knows that Ghezo turned out not to follow Nanisca’s advice in the later part of his reign. He’s even been saying, “What if we did a sequel, and I turn out to be the bad guy this time?” I thought that was interesting.
NA: I would love to see that. Talking about these women’s point of view, Nawi really pushes back against this idea that the Agojie have that a woman can either be a warrior or a mother and a partner. I have friends right now who are figuring out how to juggle being a woman with a career and a mother at the same time. I was wondering if that’s a place where you were able to get to something more personal with what you were writing.
DS: I really felt a powerful feeling for this story because I just feel that women are being pushed backward, that women are, after all these years, still facing these same questions about motherhood and career. One of the things that Gina Prince-Bythewood really brought to this story is that she’s an athlete. She was like, these women are athletes; they’re like an athletic team. I had recently written a movie about the 1999 Women’s World Cup soccer team, Mia Ham, Brianna Scurry, and Michelle Aker. So I was really interested in that type of woman that feels that she has physical power. It just felt so exciting to tell a story about those women.
But there’s no doubt that there were rules of being an Agojie warrior, that you did not marry and you did not have children. And I just think that’s part of what women all over, certainly American women and modern women, face constantly. What is the choice they’re going to make about that? So I thought it was something that the audience could really identify with and understand. How do you make that choice, and how hard is it to make that choice?
NA: Absolutely. I also really love this mentor relationship that we see between Izogie and Nawi. I think it’s so important to see women supporting other women in general and especially in their careers. I was wondering if you have any experiences with mentorship with other women in the screenwriting world.
DS: Yes, I do a lot of mentoring, actually. I am often a mentor at the Sundance Writer’s Lab, which is in the winter, right before the festival. I also have been mentored by and mentored people through the Academy. The Academy has this gold mentorship, and sometimes you get paired with a writer, and sometimes you don’t. But I think women really need that connection. I think men are really like, “Hey, yeah bro, I’ll help you out.” Women aren’t quite as well versed in that. So I really try to, if I’m asked to read something or give people advice, I try to do that when I can.
NA: Mentioning all these characters, this is such a beautiful ensemble piece with a lot of very different characters. In the course of writing it, were there any characters that surprised you with where they ended up going?
DS: Well, a lot of people’s favorite character is Izogie, and she certainly turned out to be one of my favorites also, but she continued to grow throughout the piece. I mean, at first, she might have been a little too comedic. Lashana [Lynch] was one of the first people we cast, besides Viola, of course. And Gina really, really wanted Lashana. So we went through it and did an Izogie pass. How can we make sure that Izogie is as rich and varied as we want her to be and that she is a person who is next in line as a leader?
Another character that really surprised me was Ghezo. I’ve always really been into this character of Ghezo because just from his clothing and his sort of swagger, he’s such an interesting character. But in the beginning…Female characters when they’re in the supporting role, they often find that they’re not rich enough. They’re just sort of a certain stereotype. I think in the early parts of my writing about Ghezo, I had him be a certain kind of stereotype where he was a little nervous about being this young king. And I realized we’re not going to get a good actor unless he actually has a lot of bravado because that’s what kings are like.
We did work a lot on his scenes being as dynamic as possible. And I think of two scenes in particular, the scene with Santo where he says, “I know you think of us as just a commodity,” and then the final speech that he gives, which Gina did a lot of work on that speech and on that Santo scene as well. We both really knew that we had to nail those. Honestly, Boyega is amazing in the movie, and he just brought stuff that we didn’t even have in there, just this kind of… Like he gets a gift in the film, and when he accepts it, he doesn’t look at the gift giver. That’s all Boyega and understanding of that kind of weird power game that you play.
NA: It was so great to get to see him in a role like this.
DS: Very, very sexy and attractive too. And we had a really hot sex scene that didn’t make it into the movie.
NA: I was going to ask; was there anything that was originally written for the movie that was bittersweet to see it not make it in?
DS: Oh, a lot of things. There was a bit more introduction of Nawi where you could see that she was somebody who was treated more like a nanny in her home. There was a very fun scene where Nawi and Fumbe are exhausted, and their muscles are aching. Nawi has picked these herbs for them to chew because their father used to chew them, and they basically get high and then they get in trouble. We really miss that. Then there were two Ghezo scenes. One was one with Shante where she really tries to convince them that the slave trade needs to stay. I really miss that scene. And then there was a really hot scene with Ghezo and several of the wives.
NA: Oh man, I’m like, we need that cut.
DS: Yeah, exactly.
NA: Let Boyega have his sequel. What was your involvement as the film was in production? Were you able to see some of the craft elements coming together, or was that a surprise for you whenever you got to see the film?
DS: I did go to the set. I arrived on Thanksgiving night. They had been shooting for a couple of weeks out in the bush, so it was hard for me to visit at that point. But we were now in Cape Town, and the castle that serves as Ouidah is a real place in Cape Town that we redressed. Anyway, I got there on Thanksgiving night, and the next day the Omicron story broke out in South Africa.
NA: Oh my gosh.
DS: But I was still able to see about a week’s worth of filming. The great thing about this was all the way along, it’s been such a collaborative experience. Gina was the master of all kind of historical accuracy and everything. When she was meeting with Gersha Phillips, the costume designer, when she was meeting with Akim [McKenzie], the production designer, the historical advisor, [Princeton professor] Lenny [Wantchekon], they just kept on making it as authentic as possible.
A lot of the things were in my script, but then they were made that much better. For instance, the scene where Amenza reads the nuts. I had them as beads because my interpretation of what I had read in my research was that it was beads. And then Gina calls me and says, “It’s not beads; it’s nuts.” So then we would change it. Or for instance, I had in the script that they wear these charms, they have a little bag of charms, and Gersha found the actual charms, and then each actress picked which charm was theirs. I mean, it was really a great experience for everyone. For me personally, I didn’t get to be on set as much as I wanted to because we had to shut down for a long Christmas break because of the Omicron.
NA: One last thing: has the reaction to the film surprised you at all? How are you feeling about it being out in the world now?
DS: I feel almost emotional about it. Not almost, I feel emotional about it. I didn’t know how people would react to what I’ve written… I think this is the seventh film that I’ve written, but the first time that I watched the movie – I had watched it in varying forms, but when I watched what I knew was almost the finished version (the first version I saw was three hours long, so Gina and the editor, Teri Shropshire, had done just epic work to make this movie finished) – I sat in a screening with Viola and Julius and me and Gina, and it’s the first time I’ve ever written a movie where I was like, “Wow, that’s good.”
Not that I don’t like my other movies; I don’t want to diss my other movies. But I really felt like that’s good, and if people don’t like it, I don’t know what to say because I think it’s good. People liking it and supporting it, and the African American community supporting it, it has been very moving and very gratifying.
One more thing I would say is that I hope more women go to see it because for a woman, it is just a great rousing movie about the power of women. So I hope more women get to enjoy that experience.
NA: Absolutely. Thank you so much for chatting with me. This has been so great, and I am so excited to watch it. I want to go back and see it a third time because it feels so empowering.
DS: Thank you. Thank you very much.
The Woman King is currently in theaters from Sony/TriStar Pictures.