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

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

The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival on September 10, followed by a theatrical release a week later. It is one of the rare films where critics and general audiences alike gave it a positive reception, with a critic score of 95% and an audience score of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. It also pulled off an “A+” cinema score.

Davis emphasizes that the story of “The Woman King” can connect with all audiences, not just black women.

“There was a feeling that our stories are not universal and may not reach white men or women or Hispanic men or women,” Davis tells Diversity, “I think human stories are for everyone, not just for black consumption.”

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

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

Davis has emerged as an action star in a film that combines massive historical epics such as “Braveheart” (1995) and “Gladiator” (2001), both Oscar winners for Best Picture. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film’s scale and brevity is an effortless effort, with remarkable performances as well as an impressive team of craftsmen including composer Terrence Blanchard and cinematographer Polly Morgan. In the film, Davis plays Naniska, a brave warrior and a general of Egozi, the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African Empire during the 17th to 19th centuries.

Davis is the Oscar winner for “Fence” (2016) and the most nominated black actress with four nominations. For comparison, there are 14 examples of black women nominated for Best Actress, with one of the winners, Halle Berry (for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball”). Meryl Streep has more nominations in the category, with 17, than with two statuettes.

The film becomes a showcase for the next generation of black women in Hollywood, most 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 stage of the race and passing the baton on to the great runner. But you have to be brave enough to participate in the race.” You have to be brave enough to do both original material that will advance the narrative,” Davis says.

“Let’s be clear, Hollywood is all about commerce,” says Tenon, who also has a role as Moru in the film. “If we continue to do films like this, they need to earn money. We understand that.”

Reading of variety Interviews with the two producers of “The Woman King”.

“The Woman King” team members Sheila Atim, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Boyega, Viola Davis, Kathy Shulman, Thuso Mbedu, Julius Tennon and Lashana Lynch at the Toronto Film Festival.

Michelle Quans for Variety

How do you feel after seeing a film doing so well at the box office?

Viola Davis: Looks like I never doubted that “The Woman King” would land because it landed with me. It landed with Gina. It landed with Julius. It is an undeniable, powerful story. The way we look at numbers today is not the way we see 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 work people, spouses, and families with them, and come back five or six times over the weekend. We are in an industry that does not see the power of black women at the global box office.

Julius TenonThere is always a little fear of the unknown. Hollywood likes to have a thread in the way it markets its ideas. There’s nothing wrong with that but when you’re doing a film like this, we know that people of color, especially black people, are hungry for this kind of material. And when you have Viola’s presence, like she’s been all these years, we know how to reach these audiences that the studios aren’t tracking.

Allies and black celebrities such as Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Dwayne Wade and Octavia Spencer bought movie theaters in communities that might have trouble buying tickets to see a movie. Is that something you would like to see moving forward?

Davis: I want it to take all of us together to do this, to move the narrative forward in terms of diversity and inclusion. This is not a lone wolf fight. When you’re shifting the cultural narrative, people have to come together to move it. You alone are working in a vacuum.

tenon: We understand what studios want, and they want movies to perform. Hollywood is all about commerce and if we are able to continue doing these kinds of films, they have to make money. Let’s be clear about it, and we understand it. We must continue to support each other.

With the success of the film, is there any buzz about a sequel, especially considering the post-credits sequence with Sheela Atim?

tenon: well, you know, it seems like we could [do a sequel], We haven’t had any discussion about it yet.

Are you open to more if the studio wants more?

Davis: I am open to more but let me tell you. I was already the oldest warrior on the battlefield. If We Do A Sequel, I Hope I Still Have Teeth [laughs]But yes, I am totally ready for it. fully open. Always.

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

Davis: First, I agree with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s statement that you’re not going to win the debate on Twitter. We entered the story where the state was in flux at a crossroads. They were looking for a way to keep their civilization and state alive. It was not until the late 1800s that they were dismantled. Most of the story is fictional. It’s done.

tenon: Now we are what we call “edu-tainment”. This is history but we have to take the license. We have to entertain people. If we just narrated any history lesson that we could very well have, it would be a documentary. Unfortunately, people won’t be in theaters like we saw this weekend. We did not want to turn our backs on the truth. History is vast and there are truths to it that are out there. If people want to know more, they can investigate further.

Davis: The story that struck me as an artist was that these women were unwanted. They were recruited between the ages of eight and 14. They were women who were not considered desirable. Nobody wanted to marry him. They were out of control. He was recruited by the king to fight for the kingdom of Dahomey. They were not allowed to marry or have children. Those who did not call were beheaded. This is also a part of the story. People are really being moved emotionally. I saw a TikTok video of women in the bathroom of an AMC theater today, and I don’t think they knew each other. They were all chanting and enjoying. Which cannot be measured by words.

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

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

Davis: our life is a rom-com [laughs], It’s really fun. We tell everyone that we bring the fun when they come into the room.

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