The Woman King star Thuso Mbedu says the world is filled with great stories. People just need to care enough to invest in them

Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi in The Woman King, a young orphan whose adoptive father is just as determined to marry her off as she is to resist the trappings of a loveless marriage.

She’s stubborn and tough. Traits that will augur well for her when she instead becomes part of the highly skilled and roundly feared all-female military unit known as the Agojie, female warriors of the Kingdom of Dahomey, a territory now recognised as modern-day Benin.

It’s the type of story Mbedu has always wanted to tell as an actor. It’s the reason she’s in the business.

“When you sit at home watching a show as a child, unless it’s a story that is specifically about race, you’re not supporting something because it’s only black people,” Mbedu told ABC News.

“You’re just supporting a story that moves you. And so, you grow up wanting to create stories that can move people and have an impact.

“And that’s why I’m in this industry to use drama and art as a tool for social change.”

Born and raised in South Africa, Mbedu knew that one day she wanted to share her considerable talents on a global stage, and that would mean going to Hollywood.

In 2019, she got that opportunity, starring in The Underground Railroad, released last year.

“It was an absolutely amazing experience,” she said.

“I was surrounded by a great cast, great crew, people with just genuinely beautiful hearts who were on a mission to tell this masterpiece.”

Thuso Mbedu said she formed a genuine relationship with Viola Davis that went deeper than the page.(Sony Pictures)

With The Woman King, Mbedu said she was brought on early enough in the project to witness just how hard director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Oscar-winning actor and producer Viola Davis had to work for the movie to even see the light of day.

“I saw the fight that Gina and Viola still had to do to get the project to where it needed to be,” she said.

“To see it firsthand and simply not understanding why they had to fight so hard and actually seeing that it’s because it’s a story of darker-skinned black women and Hollywood doesn’t welcome that.”

Hollywood is recycling old stories, but there are new ones

Mbedu said despite growing up in South Africa, she had only heard of the Agojie army for the first time in 2019.

“But we’re seeing stories [such as] your Troys, your Gladiators, even stories of the Greek Amazon, which are actually based on the real Agojie army.

“Time and time again, we consume those as if they were true when they weren’t necessarily true.

“And so, we hold specific groups of people in high esteem, and society then deems others as less than, simply because their stories haven’t been told.”

She said at one point she truly believed she could do anything until the industry told her otherwise. She’s hoping The Woman King will open doors for many.

The Woman King featuring Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu.(Supplied: Sony/Ilze Kitshoff)

“There are filmmakers who want to tell specific stories, but up until now, it’s considered a ‘risk’.

“[The Woman King is] very needed. It’s necessary. And there are thousands of stories like this on the continent and some of them are true and some of them are fictional.

“Right now, if we’re being honest, we’re in a space where Hollywood is recycling stories, there’s reboots of this, that and the other … as if there aren’t stories to tell.

“There’s a plethora, there’s a lot of beautiful stories to tell all over the world. It’s just that people have to care enough to invest in them.”

The film has attracted controversy … mostly from people who haven’t seen it

The Woman King has been accused by some of historical revisionism, particularly in how it depicts the transatlantic slave trade.

“This is a creative narrative,” Mbedu said.

“We have not pretended it’s a documentary.

“It’s inspired by people who lived in real life. And Gina speaks about the fact that there are many kingdoms who had their own parts in the story of slavery.

“And the story that we’re telling is about the Agojie female army that existed in real life. But within that, in the story of enslaving people, not everybody was for it.

“And so, there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly, and we, in the film, cover all of it.

“We don’t pretend it didn’t happen. We don’t gloss over it.”

Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis and Shelia Atim star in The Woman King.(Sony Pictures)

It’s worth noting that in the research phase, the filmmakers worked extensively with Princeton historian, economist and Beninese scholar Leonard Wantchekon, who has spent his life teaching and writing about West Africa.

Mbedu said the critics were mostly people who had not seen the film.

“There are people who were actively trying to boycott the film, who ended up watching it and are now actively promoting it because it answers every single question that they had,” she said.

“People who criticise it are generally people who haven’t seen it, because once you’ve seen it, you see that the film is exactly what it says it was. And it’s not pretending to be anything else.”

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The Woman King is in cinemas now

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