Viola Davis 'conflicted' as her new film The Woman King faces crucial box-office battle

Viola Davis in The Woman King. PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

TORONTO – Viola Davis said the future of big-budget black female film-making in Hollywood is at stake as her ground-breaking African warrior epic The Woman King hits American cinemas on Friday.

The Oscar-winning actress said on Wednesday she feels intense pressure and conflicting emotions, because she knows the movie’s performance will be judged in a way that films with white directors and casts are not.

“First of all, the movie has to make money. And I feel conflicted about that – that we sort of have one or two chances,” she said.

“If it doesn’t make money, then what it means overall is that, what, black women, dark-skinned black women can’t lead a global box office?

“That’s it, period. And now they have data on it because The Woman King did a, b and c. And that’s what I’m conflicted about.

“Because it simply isn’t true. We don’t do that with white movies. We simply don’t. If a movie fails, you do another movie, and you do another movie just like it.”

Sony Pictures’ The Woman King, which portrays the real-life 19th-century all-female warriors of Dahomey, in present-day Benin, is in many ways a step into the unknown for a major Hollywood studio.

With a black female director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and a majority black and female cast, it will open in more than 3,000 domestic theatres, with a budget including marketing that reportedly approaches US$100 million (S$140 million).

Opening in cinemas here on Oct 27, it also stars Lashana Lynch, John Boyega, Thuso Mbedu and Sheila Atim.

(From left) Sheila Atim, Thuso Mbedu, John Boyega, Viola Davis, and Lashana Lynch attend The Woman King premiere in Toronto, on Sept 9, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Davis, the only African-American to win an Oscar, Emmy and Tony, spent six years trying to get The Woman King made, with studios and producers reluctant to take the plunge.

She plays veteran warrior Nanisca as she trains the next generation of recruits fending off a larger, rival African kingdom and European slavers.

The all-female army of the Dahomey kingdom served as an inspiration for the elite women fighters in Black Panther (2018), which grossed US$1.3 billion worldwide.

Davis, 57, called on the movie-going public to prove that films like The Woman King can succeed without being part of the Marvel superhero franchise.

“We’re all in this together, right? We know that we need one another. We know that we’re all committed to inclusion and diversity,” she said.

“Then, if you can plop down your money to see Avatar, if you can plop down your money to see Titanic, then you can plop your money into seeing The Woman King.

“Because here’s the thing. It’s not even that it’s just black female-led, the cultural significance of it. It’s a very entertaining movie.

“And if we are indeed equal, then I’m challenging you to prove it.”

Viola Davis in The Woman King PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

The movie received largely positive reviews following its world premiere at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival.

Variety called it a “compelling display of black power”, with Davis in “her fiercest role yet”.

But Davis said the film’s muscular battle scenes had drawn criticism and misogyny from within the black community.

“You even have people in the black community saying, ‘Ah, it’s dark-skinned women, why do they have to be so masculine? Why can’t they look prettier? Why couldn’t it be a romantic comedy?‘

“Well, guess what, if this movie doesn’t make money Sept 16 – by the way, I am 150 per cent certain it will – but if it doesn’t, then guess what? You won’t see us at all,” she said.

“That’s the truth. I wish it were different.” AFP

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