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‘Woman King’ Stars Viola Davis and Julius Tennon Talk Box Office Victory and Defend Film Against Historical Critics: ‘We Have to Take License’

The Woman King
Courtesy of TIFF

As the filmmaking team for “The Woman King” travels to Brazil to promote the historical epic, Viola Davis and her husband and producing partner Julius Tennon are celebrating the success of the film’s no. 1 debut at the box office, grossing $19 million domestically.

The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10, followed by opening in theaters one week later. It’s one of the rare films where critics and general audiences given it a similarly positive reception, with a 95% critics score and 99% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. It even pulled off an “A+” Cinema Score.

Davis emphasizes that the story of “The Woman King” can connect to all audiences, not only Black women.

“There was a sense that our stories aren’t universal and can’t reach the white man or woman or the Hispanic man or woman,” Davis tells Variety. “I feel human stories are for everyone, not just Black consumption.”

Just today, Davis says, a white woman asked her, “Does it surprise you that your story could reach me as a white woman?”

“No,” she says she answered. “I know my story can reach you as your story can reach me. The only one it surprises is you.”

Davis emerges as an action star in a film that blends large-scale historical epics like “Braveheart” (1995) and “Gladiator” (2001), both Oscar winners for best picture. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the scale and brevity of the movie is a seamless effort, boasting noteworthy performances, along with an impressive team of artisans, including composer Terence Blanchard and cinematographer Polly Morgan. In the film, Davis plays Nanisca, a brave warrior and a General of the Agojie, the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom during the 17th to 19th centuries.

Davis is an Oscar-winner for “Fences” (2016) and is the most nominated Black actress with four noms. For comparison, there have been 14 instances of Black women nominated for best actress, with one winner, Halle Berry (for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball”). Meryl Streep has more nominations in the category, with 17, with two statuettes.

The film becomes a showcase for the next generation of Black women in Hollywood, notably Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and Jayme Lawson. “It’s always about the next generation, and that’s our job in this lifetime. It’s about running your leg of the race and passing the baton onto the great runner. But you have to be brave enough to run the race. You have to be brave enough to do both original content that will move the narrative,” says Davis.

 “Let’s be clear, Hollywood is about commerce,” says Tennon, who also has a role in the film as Moru. “If we’re going to continue to do these kinds of movies, they need to make money. We understand that.”

Read Variety’s interview with the two producers of “The Woman King.”

“The Woman King” team members Sheila Atim, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Boyega, Viola Davis, Cathy Schulman, Thuso Mbedu, Julius Tennon and Lashana Lynch at the Toronto Film Festival. Michelle Quance for Variety

How does it feel to see a film that you poured your heart and soul into do so well at the box office?

Viola Davis: It feels like I never doubted that “The Woman King” would land because it landed with me. It landed with Gina. It landed with Julius. It’s an undeniable, powerful story. The way we see numbers today is not the way we see the numbers. I think people have a tendency to say, we only represent a certain percentage of the box office. We know Black women. We know they’re going to bring people they work with, spouses and families, and come back five or six times during the weekend. We are in an industry that doesn’t see the power Black women have at the global box office.

Julius Tennon: There’s always a bit of fear of the unknown. Hollywood loves to have a formula in the way they market ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that but when you’re doing a film like this, we know that people of color, particularly Black people, are hungry for this kind of content. And when you have Viola have the presence, like the one she’s had over these years, we know how to reach these audiences that studios aren’t tracking.

Allies and Black celebrities like Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade, and Octavia Spencer bought out movie theaters in communities that may have trouble buying tickets to see the movie. Is that something you would like to see more of moving forward?

Davis: I would because in order to move the narrative forward in terms of diversity and inclusion, it’s going to take all of us doing it together. This is not a lone wolf kind of fight. When you’re shifting cultural narratives, then it takes people coming together to shift it. Alone, you are operating in a vacuum.

Tennon: What we understand is what the studio wants, and they want movies to perform. Hollywood is about commerce and if we’re going to be able to continue to do these kinds of movies, they have to make money. Let’s just be clear about that, and we understand that. We need to continue to support each other.

With the success of the film, are there any discussions about a sequel, especially given the post-credits sequence with Sheila Atim?

Tennon: Well, you know, it feels like we could [do a sequel]. We haven’t had any discussions about it as of yet.

Are you open to more if the studio wants more?

Davis: I’m open to more but let me tell you. I already was the oldest warrior on the battlefield. If we do a sequel, I’m hoping I still have teeth [laughs], but yes, I’m totally open to it. Wide open. Always.

#BoycottWomanKing popped up over the weekend with people who felt it doesn’t address the Dahomey Kingdom’s involvement in slavery. We don’t see that type of complaint when a Christopher Columbus movie is released that doesn’t cover cultural genocide – what do you have to say to those that feel it leaves out those parts of history?

Davis: First of all, I agree with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s saying is you’re not going to win an argument on Twitter. We entered the story where the kingdom was in flux, at a crossroads. They were looking to find some way to keep their civilization and kingdom alive. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that they were decimated. Most of the story is fictionalized. It has to be.

Tennon: We are now what we call “edu-tainment.” It’s history but we have to take license. We have to entertain people. If we just told a history lesson, which we very well could have, that would be a documentary. Unfortunately, people wouldn’t be in the theaters doing the same thing we saw this weekend. We didn’t want to shy away from the truth. The history is massive and there are truths on that that are there. If people want to learn more, they can investigate more.

Davis: Part of the story that hit me as an artist was these women were unwanted. They were recruited between the ages of eight and 14. They were the women who were not considered desirable. No one wanted to marry them. They were unruly. They were recruited by the King to fight for the kingdom of Dahomey. They were not allowed to marry or have children. The ones who refused the call were beheaded. That’s also a part of the story. People really are being emotionally shifted. I saw a TikTok video today of women in a bathroom of an AMC theater, and I don’t think they knew each other. They were all chanting and ruminating. That cannot be quantified by words.

Are you two interested in working together again as actors, such as a rom-com or something that will showcase the chemistry you two share as artists?

Tennon: If the right thing came along, we would. We always talk about doing something on stage because we’re both stage actors, and it’s more visceral on stage.

Davis: Our lives are a rom-com [laughs]. It’s really fun. We tell everybody when we come into the room, we bring the fun.  

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