Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and costume designer Gersha Phillips tell IndieWire how they used Viola Davis’ Agojie wardrobe to reference and correct historical records.
When costume designer Gersha Phillips came on board with The Woman King, an epic action film about a group of African women warriors in the early 1800s, she immediately knew it was a dream project. She also recognized the challenges involved in creating a wardrobe for a story that took place before photography was invented.
“The only images we had were sketches made by Europeans for the World’s Fair and we found out they were wrong,” Phillips told IndieWire. This was no small problem considering Phillips’ brief from director Gina Prince-Bythewood was absolute authenticity. “From the start I’ve said truth is king,” Prince-Bythewood told IndieWire. “Research is king.”
The quest for historical accuracy forced Phillips and Prince-Bythewood to become detectives during their research process as they attempted to see through the racist depictions of the Agojie warriors and discern what was accurate and what was intentionally false. “The eyewitness sketches were made through the lens of people who had an absolute incentive to dehumanize these women,” Prince-Bythewood said, and the written documentation had its own problems. “I read essays and collections of stories by people who had been there, mostly soldiers or sailors from England who had been commissioned to go to Africa for the Queen,” Phillips said. “It was hard to read because some of the descriptions were really pejorative.”
Phillips attempted to discern what was real through common threads in the writings and images, expanding her search to contemporary essays by historians and professors, and pieces in museums. An image slowly formed: “As you read on, some of the same information came out: that they wore these striped tunics made out of rough material, that they wore trousers… and one of the good things about reading all these books is that they talk about farming , they talk about the city and trade and money. There was quite a bit of information.”
Ultimately, the final piece of the puzzle was simply to think practically about what type of clothing would suit women participating in the grueling battles depicted in the film. “It was a fun process of going through the writing, but then it was about being honest that these were female warriors,” said Prince-Bythewood. “They won’t be carrying a lot of stuff because you don’t want anyone holding you anywhere. These women smear their bodies with oil to keep them smooth.”
Prince-Bythewood added that the shorts the warriors wore were key. “They were a big deal and they were a fight, I’m not going to lie,” the director said. “Gersha and I said, ‘You have to wear shorts.’ We had evidence of them wearing them and can you imagine seeing those fight scenes with them only in skirts? It would have been ridiculous.”
Designed by Phillips, the combat uniform consisted of a red bandeau used to wrap the chest and shorts with a skirt – although the shorts required a bit of modification to work with the actors’ movements. “We started out with longer, looser shorts, but these shorts were more restrictive,” Phillips said. Given the complex action and stunts the actors had to perform, Phillips tightened the shorts, which was initially frightening. “I was a little stressed because I really wanted it to be as timely as possible,” Phillips said. “But one of the things that everyone always says to you these days when you’re making historical films is, ‘We don’t want a documentary, we want it to be entertaining and inspiring.’ So I thought, OK, I just need to find the line between these things.”
Phillips’ attention to detail was a key factor in the film’s consistently excellent performance, according to Prince-Bythewood. “All of the cast felt comfortable knowing they were wearing authentic clothing,” said the director. “The second they put that stuff on, they felt like their characters.” Phillips worked with each actor to allow them to choose their own accessories, adding accents that tell each warrior’s story.
“As each actor walked in, we allowed them to choose the symbols they would wear on their belts and the jewelry they would wear around their necks,” Phillips said. “I think those things really helped them figure out who their characters were and what they were about.” The cumulative impact of Phillips’ work in the film’s epic fight scenes is undeniably powerful, given the precise character detail, careful research, and the sophisticated action choreography come together to realize Prince-Bythewood’s vision of an “intimate epic”. As the director put it simply, “It was invaluable to have a designer who had the same passion as I did to get it right.”
Additional reporting by Kate Erbland.
The Woman King is in theaters now.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/woman-king-costumes-1234763135/ Gina Prince-Bythewood and Gersha Phillips on The Woman King costumes