How ‘The Woman King’ costume designer Gersha Phillips turned Viola Davis into the leader of the Agojie [Exclusive Video Interview]

During the research process for Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new film “The Woman King,” costume designer Gersha Phillips had to sift through dehumanizing accounts of the historical epic’s subjects, the Agojie — an elite military unit of all-female warriors that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, which was located within present-day Benin, in the 18th and 19th centuries — to form an accurate picture of them. In a recent webchat with Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above), she describes how she worked with drawings in which these women were caricaturized and discusses other hurdles she had to overcome while dissecting material.

“You had to sort of look at the details without looking at the way they drew [the Agojie’s] heads, [for instance], just to get the actual facts that were there,” shares the costume designer, who recalls that, as she was doing her research, she kept parsing through her material to look for the description of the female warriors wearing cowrie shell breastplates that was featured in Dana Stevens’ screenplay for the movie. “When you first Google the Agojie, the pictures that come up are those pictures of them with the plumes in their hair, the chestplate [and] the red and white skirts. And what we realized — I could not find that costume or that uniform described anywhere.”

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When it comes to the tunics that the Agojie wear within the palace walls, Phillips divulges that their designs were in large part based on images that the movie’s art department found in a Parisian museum called Musée d’Orsay. This museum exhibited, for example, pictures displaying a Dahomey man wearing a uniform with stripes — a pattern that the costume designer ultimately applied to the women’s tunics. Also available were images in color, which ended up informing not just the specific use of blue and green for the male warriors’ tunics but also the colors used for the female warriors’ outfits.

“[Regarding] the colors that we came up for the women’s [tunics], really what happened was that in the illustrations and the descriptions, it always said that they were red, white and blue,” recounts Phillips, adding that this color scheme didn’t look “African enough” for Prince-Bythewood. “So, we looked back at that other sample that was from the museum, [which] had the yellow and the sort of teal-y green, and so we added those colors into our red, white and blue.”

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Phillips also highlights that she added small elements to the women’s costumes in order to show different ranks of the female warriors. In order to establish Viola Davis’ Nanisca, the fictionalized leader of the Agojie, as the commander-in-chief, she added embroidery details to her uniform. Amenza (Sheila Atim), Nanisca’s second-in-command and trusted confidante, also received embroidery details on her outfit, but specifically in white, as a way to acknowledge her position as the kingdom’s female spiritual leader.

For the recruits, one of whom is 19-year-old Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), it was specified in the screenplay that their costumes were made out of “a beige sack-like cloth,” says the costume designer. She explains that she wanted their uniforms to serve as a nod to the Agojie leaders — also including Izogie (Lashana Lynch), a lieutenant tasked with training the military unit’s next generation and Nawi’s mentor — but still be a “notch down” in that regard. The reason she ultimately chose to go with off-white for the color of said uniforms is that it “still made [the recruits] smart and gave them something to be proud of wearing,” she expounds. “But they still had somewhere to go in terms of getting the full rank of the Agojie [leaders].”

“The Woman King” is playing in select theaters and available to purchase digitally, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray.

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