John Boyega: I referenced my Yoruba dad's gestures in 'The Woman King' [Pulse Interview]

The British-Nigerian actor opens up on filming the historical epic currently showing in cinemas.

John Boyega [Instagram/johnboyega]

It has been four years since Marvel grabbed the world’s attention with ‘Black Panther’ and rekindled conversations about Africa and Africa-focused stories on the global scale. For the first time, a Black Superhero character ruled the box office raking in billions and sparking a global Afrocentric movement.

‘Black Panther’, had made its point to Hollywood and perhaps, smaller studios in Africa. With the spotlight now on us, we could finally tell our stories.

I like to think that the Afrocentric movement of ‘Black Panther’ is why we have ‘The Woman King’, currently poised to rule the box office this September.

The epic directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is based on the historical all-female Agojie warriors of ancient Dahomey kingdom now known as Benin Republic. Ahead of its September 16 theatrical debut, I caught up with Hollywood star John Boyega for a chat about ‘The Woman King’, playing a real-life historical character and Nollywood.

A few days to our conversation, a clip from the film went viral on Twitter. The clip had Boyega and Nigerian actor Jimmy Odukoya in a faceoff flanked by guards. Odukoya as Oba, a tribe head, queried the reduction in tributes from Ghezo.

The authenticity of their accents was refreshing to watch. This thing with the “Hollywood African accent” has become a menace. Africans speak and sound differently.

“In looking at what we were trying to do with the movie and especially what you want to look for when movies are made,” says Boyega, recounting how he convinced the director to explore an authentic Nigerian accent.

It can be very hard to source actors for a mainstream movie and also know the authentic accent to a certain extent, but because we also have a global audience, I have to articulate in more specific ways so that people can actually understand him.

“I wanted there to be an essence of the area in which that [the historical location] happened.The accents were there to make people feel like there is a sense of familiarity from all over Africa.”

Curious to know Boyega’s thoughts on big Hollywood studios finally backing African stories, I queried the British-Nigerian star specifically about how ‘The Woman King’ would impact our film industries.

“I feel like hopefully, it [film] will kickstart more projects in which Africa and actors, especially Black actors, performers, directors, producers from the States and the UK can collaborate to make more stories like this.”

This movie was shot in South Africa. South Africa has a great infrastructure to support a film in the process like this. Hopefully, the Woman King would motivate us, especially Nigeria, to hopefully create an infrastructure that will see a synergy of more Nollywood actors and Hollywood actors all mixed within the same kind of project.

Boyega’s truth hit home. It’s a conversation industry players like to have away from the public but every now and then, a Nollywood enthusiast finds his way to Twitter, spear in hand and gunning for jugulars.

With the influx of foreign streamers in Nollywood, it’s become increasingly difficult to hide the industry’s shortcomings. And with the same players dining with the South African industry, it’s even harder not to compare.

All hope is still not lost and Boyega hopes ‘The Woman King’ is that wake-up call.

“I think The Woman King stands as a significant idea even with how special it was to have Jimmy Odukoya in the cast as someone that had never done a movie in Hollywood and his first film is with Viola Davis. That can only be done if there is much more opportunity to shoot and create movies like this.”

On a lighter note, we got talking about the actor’s references for his character, King Ghezo and how much of internalising the character required drawing from his Yoruba background. My guess was right! Boyega says he did a lot of copying and pasting from his dad.

So there were certain intonations, certain gestures with my hand that were just literally copied and pasted from having a Yoruba dad!

“I thought about my dad and certain gestures that I thought that my dad had specifically that are timeless and as a Nigerian or someone from West Africa, I would see them and go ‘Oh Yeah!’ As someone that is influenced by that culture.”

All was not without the guidance of Gina. In his words, “My director Gina got me to where I needed to be.”

‘The Woman King’ is currently showing in Nigerian cinemas.

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