Costume designer Gersha Phillips outfitted a literal army for “The Woman King.”
The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release, stars Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu and Lashana Lynch. Backed by strong critical reviews, the film is already part of the awards conversation as the fall approaches.
Set in the 1820s, the historical film tells the story of the Agojie, a group of female warriors who protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Phillips was familiar with the concept, having helped Ruth Carter research “Black Panther,” which featured a group of fictional female warriors called Dora Milaje. ” Field [for ‘The Woman King’] came as “this is the story of the real Dora Milaje,” says Phillips.
Phillips says she was “beyond excited” when she learned about the project. “Obviously being a black woman is an incredible opportunity and an incredible story to tell,” Phillips says. She had several rounds of interviews with director Gina Prince-Bythewood and the film’s producers, during which she shared early sketches of her vision for the costumes.
Phillips, who was working on the final season of “Star Trek” when the call for “The Woman King” came to her, is excited to work on projects that allow her to build and create immersive worlds. “This one was interesting because we were doing pre-colonial Africa, which is a really interesting period to investigate and understand,” she says, adding that it’s also a period that’s underrepresented in studio films as well. “So that was really intriguing to me – also very intimidating,” she says. “I really wanted to pay tribute in the right way.”
The team aimed to stay true to the story as much as possible, while enhancing the on-screen aesthetic. “One of the words that everyone kept throwing around was ‘elevate.’ They wanted it to be elevated and to be nice and lush,” says Phillips.
An early reference photo that appears on a Google search for Agojie turned out to be a propaganda photo used by the West at world trade fairs. “We realized during our process that these images were not the images we wanted to portray, as they were more exploitation images of the Agojie,” she adds.
Phillips focused on fabric as a tool to root the sartorial look in authenticity. “The fabric plays a huge role in telling the story well and trying to be true and authentic to the world and the times,” Phillips says, adding that she didn’t realize how much point the fabric supply would be difficult from the start. His team sourced fabric from Ghana – they hired a local buyer and had items flown in by hand to avoid shipping delays – bought vintage fabrics, printed original designs and also discovered a Nigerian textile artist on Instagram.
Equipping an army meant creating visual cues to differentiate status and wealth levels. Signs of wealth in the kingdom included many layers of cloth and jewelry piled on the body.
“Gina always wanted Nanisca to have the highest rank of everything,” Phillips says, adding that they gave Davis’ character the most: her belts were always the biggest and most ornate, and she wore the most jewelry. more distinct, who were gifted. by the king to warriors who performed well in battle. Nanisca was also the only character to wear a breastplate.
Phillips describes Davis, the film’s lead, as a wonderful person to work with. “The other thing I love about Viola is that she makes the room happy. She has a great sense of humor and she’s really collaborative,” Phillips said, praising the actress’ patience. during many rounds of costume alterations and adjustments to accommodate the stunts and movement.”And working on his breastplate was quite a long and arduous affair; we had to do three in all,” adds she.
Supporting characters including Izogie and Amenza, played by Lynch and Sheila Atim, also received elevated costumes which evolved throughout the film as their ratings improved.
“When they start, they only have a strip of cloth around [their waist], then they retrieve their leather belt, then their rope. So that gives it an elevation through the stages of program advancement,” Phillips describes, adding that his team incorporated pops of white trim and white accessories as a nod to Amenza’s status as a religious leader. High-ranking warriors were demarcated by the use of gold thread in their belts.
“But we always kept Nanisca as the very echelon: the richest fighter and warrior,” she adds.