How Did The Woman King End Up in Shorts? Its Practical and Historical
When costume designer Gersha Phillips came on board “The Woman King,” an epic action film about a band of African women warriors in the early 1800s, she immediately recognized it as a dream project. She also grasped the challenges inherent in creating wardrobe for a story that took place before the invention of photography.
“The only pictures we had were sketches created for the World’s Fair by Europeans, and we found out they were false,” Phillips told IndieWire. This was no small problem, given that Phillips’ mandate from director Gina Prince-Bythewood was absolute authenticity. “From the very start, I 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 tried to see through the racist representations of the Agojie warriors and discern what was accurate and what was willfully incorrect. “The eyewitness sketches were 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 was reading essays and collections of stories by people who had been there, primarily soldiers or sailors from England who had gotten commissions to go to Africa for the queen,” Phillips said. “It was hard reading them because some of the descriptions were really derogatory.”
Phillips tried to discern what was real from common threads in the writings and imagery, and expanded her search to include contemporary essays by historians and professors as well as pieces in museums. Slowly a picture started to form: “When you kept reading, some of the same information started coming out: that they wore these striped tunics made of rough material, that they wore pants … and one of the good things about reading all of these books is that they talk about the agriculture, they talk about the town and trading and money. There was quite a lot of information.”
Ultimately, the final piece of the puzzle was simply thinking in practical terms about what kinds of clothes would suit women engaging in the kinds of grueling battles depicted in the film. “It was a fun process sifting through what was written, but then it was about being truthful to the fact that these were women warriors,” Prince-Bythewood said. “They’re not going to be wearing a ton of stuff, because you don’t want anybody to be able to grab you anywhere. These women put oil on their bodies to keep them slick.”
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, ‘They have to wear shorts.’ We had proof that they wore them, and can you imagine watching those fight scenes with them just in skirts? It would have been ridiculous.”
“The Woman King”
The battle uniform Phillips designed consisted of a red bandeau used to bind the chest and shorts with a skirt wrapped around them — though the shorts needed a bit of modification to work with the actors’ movements. “We started with a longer, looser short, but those shorts were more restrictive,” Phillips said. Given the complex action and stunts the actors had to execute, Phillips tightened up the shorts, which initially created anxiety. “I was a little stressed about it, because I really wanted it as period accurate as I could get it,” Phillips said. “But one of the things that everybody always says to you these days when you’re doing period films, is ‘We don’t want a documentary, we want it to be entertaining and inspiring.’ So I was like, OK, I’ve just got to find the line between those things.”
Phillips’ attention to detail was a key factor in the film’s uniformly excellent performances, according to Prince-Bythewood. “The cast all had that comfort knowing they were wearing things that were authentic,” the director said. “The second they put the stuff on it made them feel like their characters.” Phillips worked with each actor so that they could select their own accessories, adding touches that tell the story of each individual warrior.
“When each actor came in we allowed them to pick the symbols that would go on their belt and the trinkets they would wear around their neck,” Phillips said. “I think those things really helped them get to know who their characters were and what they were all about.” The cumulative effect of Phillips’ work in the film’s epic fight scenes is undeniably powerful, as precise character details, painstaking research, and the elaborate action choreography come together to achieve Prince-Bythewood’s vision of an “intimate epic.” As the director simply put it, “Having a designer who had the same passion as I did for getting it right was invaluable.”
Additional reporting by Kate Erbland.
“The Woman King” is now in theaters.
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