The Performing Arts Center was packed on Saturday for the last evening of the M.V. African American Film Festival. The Academy awardwinning actress Viola Davis came to talk about her newest film, “The Woman King,” which opens in September. She was interviewed at the event by New York Times writer Jazmine Hughes, who was with the cast and crew in South Africa when the movie was filmed.
Davis starred in “The Help” and “Fences,” just two of her widely acclaimed roles in dozens of films. Her conversation centered on “The Woman King,” an epic historical story based on true events in the African kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Benin. An army of women warriors defended the kingdom, and Davis’ role is that of the general of the group, Nanisca, who is tasked with training the next generation of female fighters. Film festival founders Floyd and Stephanie Rance spoke before Davis took the stage, thanking everyone who played a part in this year’s M.V. African American Film Festival, marking 20 years of film, conversation, and celebration of Black films. This year’s festival featured Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Regina King, and Tracee Ellis Ross, among many others involved in the film industry.
Davis came onstage to a standing ovation as she was introduced by Hughes, who said everyone was there because at some point they were moved by Davis’ work. Hughes asked her how she came to find the new film in the first place, and the actress explained that she was presented an award by producer Maria Bello back in 2015, and Bello, rather than do a typical presentation, pitched the film idea in front of the crowd. “By the way,” Davis told the audience at the PAC, “she pitched the hell out of it.” That was the first time she’d heard of the film, and it grew from there, taking six years to come to fruition. The result, judging from the clips shown last weekend, is extraordinary. The cast and those who made “The Woman King” happen are mostly women — and dark-skinned women dominate the movie, Hughes pointed out early in the conversation.
If you think Davis is a strong presence in most of her films, you’ll be thrilled by her performance in “The Woman King.” Clips of the new movie were played in between the conversation, and Hughes and Davis talked about everything from the fact that the women in the film are dark-skinned to how difficult it is to fund films like “The Woman King,” to how Davis, now 57, readied herself for the physically demanding role.
“I’m beginning to feel like life is about fighting for your agency,” Davis said.
Once you can get people interested in a film idea, another fight arises when you formulate the budget for the production, and “The Woman King” comes with epic battle scenes shot in South Africa. The budget itself becomes a battle, Davis explained. The amount of money put into the film is based on the value the movie brings to the table.
“You sort of have to know going in that the integrity of the story is more important than your ego,” Davis said.
The conversation was candid, and spoke to gender and race equality.
“You know what, I just feel like I started out in life with everyone telling me what I could not do,” Davis said. “I went into acting with everyone telling me the roles I should not be playing. You’re not pretty, you’re not feminine, you’re not this, you’re not that. And I guarantee you a lot of Black women have heard that. A lot of Black people have heard that.”
Davis grew up in poverty in Central Falls, R.I., and talked about her family and her sisters, and how they lifted each other up. She wrote a book that was released a few months ago called “Finding Me,” where she writes in detail about her early life. Talking about what she has accomplished and what she has overcome was an important part of the conversation with Hughes.
Davis intimated that Hollywood is difficult to navigate for Black actors, that the value is placed on what you have already done, not what you might bring to the table in a new film. Everything becomes a fight, she said, and then once you do make headway, everything has to be approved on every level. And there is always work that goes into playing each role, research so that you can know who the character is, she explained. The women warriors of Dahomey were trained to fight — they didn’t have children, they didn’t have sex, Davis said; they had to rein in any emotions they might feel.
Coupled with astounding clips from the upcoming film, the conversation spoke to the fierceness of the human spirit. Listening to the discussion left the impression that playing a Black woman warrior general is exactly what Davis should be doing. The audience and Hughes, also a Black woman, were in agreement that Davis mirrored some of the struggles they have been through as well. She left us wanting to talk more, to definitely see “The Woman King,” and remember to hold each other up as we go through our lives.