Viola Davis 'conflicted' as 'Woman King' faces crucial box office battle
John Boyega, Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, and Sheila Atim star in "The Woman King," which premiered in Toronto and portrays the real-life 19th century female warriors of Dahomey, in present-day Benin Matt Winkelmeyer AFP/File

Viola Davis said the future of big-budget Black female filmmaking in Hollywood is at stake as her ground-breaking African warrior epic "The Woman King" hits theaters this weekend.

The Oscar-winning actress told AFP 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 '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 theaters, with a budget including marketing that reportedly approaches $100 million.

Davis spent six years trying to get "The Woman King" made, with studios and producers reluctant to take the plunge.

'Prove it'

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," which grossed $1.3 billion worldwide.

Davis 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 each other. 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."

'You won't see us'

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?'" she told AFP.

"Well, guess what, if this movie doesn't make money September 16 -- by the way, I am 150 percent 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."

© 2022 AFP