The person selected to be the makeup and prosthetic artist for Sony Pictures’ The Woman King had a wide-ranging job ahead of them. Not only did they have to match prosthetics and makeup to several different skin tones amongst the many shades of brown represented in the African Diasporic actors who starred in the film, but they had to color match each woman as she tanned several shades over the course of filming. Plus the artist had to research and build culturally-specific body scars and tattoos while also building a rapport with a cadre of actors, each with her own skincare wants and needs.
This seems deceptively simple, but Hollywood is not well known for giving the top job to artists who are experts at all skin tones. Enter Babalwa Mtshiselwa, an award-winning makeup artist from Johannesburg, South Africa. For her, selecting the proper makeup for a variety of brown skin on film was not a challenge but a gift. Mtshiselwa was handpicked by director Gina Prince-Bythewood to to highlight the ladies and gents – not hide them.
“So what I’m gonna do is this: every time you get a shade darker, I’m gonna go shade darker with the foundation,” explained Mtshiselwa, as she recalled the conversations she had with the film’s numerous actors, including leading lady Thuso Mbedu, 007’s Lashana Lynch and four time Grammy-winning singer-turned-actor Angelique Kidjo. “So whatever you do, if you’re gonna be in the sun, I’m going to match that. So that’s exactly what we did.”
No one had to worry about their makeup being several shades lighter than their natural hue — a mindset that is very affirming on a movie set starring women who in decades past have had to bring this own hair and makeup to set because the person hired had no experience with black actors. This peace of mind made for luminous skin and an ease on set when actors knew their natural beauty was embraced, said Mtshiselwa.
The Woman King, an historical epic about the warrior women of the Kingdom of Dahomey, has since made around $80-million at the worldwide box office since its early September release. Audiences have hooped and hollered about the bold story of the ascension of General Nanisca, portrayed by Viola Davis, who ruled a country alongside a man who was not her husband. They also reveled in how each character looked when illuminated by lovely lighting that embraced the depth of brown skin instead of muting their colors and, of course, dialogue about the story of the Agojie warriors has taken over dinner tables and Facebook groups everywhere.
This true story of the women warriors of Dahomey (now present-day Benin) is not often taught in schools. Mtshiselwa said she first heard about them – and their turn against the intra-African-slave trade – when she saw the Variety story announcing the film would be made in South Africa. After learning more about the Agojie role in government and politics of the 18th and 19th century Dahomey, she was hooked and said she had to get a job on the film.
“I saw a post on Deadline on Instagram and said ‘oh my gosh, I have to be a part of that project,’” says Mtshiselwa, who resolved to use her network to gain an audience with Prince-Bythewood’s team. After showing her CV and her work – including makeup and hair for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom to Knuckle City, Resident Evil, Netflix’s
Starring Davis, John Boyega, Lynch and Mbedu, the star-studded Woman King guaranteed packed theaters and an unlocking of imaginations surrounding what a true story set in Africa could be. The film, with a budget of just $50 million, was widely embraced by many but did bring about some hand-wringing from those who thought it would be solely about the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, would be apologistic in its approach to slavery or would be primitive in concept. It turned out to be far more than that.
Mtshiselwa, for her part, used good old-fashioned libraries and books (also on the internet) for her research into stylings for facial scars and other bits of realism added in as the women fought battle after battle or trained for battle.
“I read lots of different articles from as old as I could find them, from West Africa, you know Nigeria, Benin, generally west Africa, their culture and traditions. The cool thing about The Woman King is that yes, they were based there in the story but the kingdom was made up o people who weren’t from there. “
Her research happened to coincide with the French government’s decision to return 26 artifacts they stole from Benin, so Mtshiselwa was able to easily study actual art from the time period in question.
“It helped me a lot,” she says. “Cause I mean, for me, if it’s a face, anything that’s carved on that face means it’s either makeup or jewelry of some sort of scarification. So I took that and I just interpreted it in my own way. But it was also quite a sensitive thing because Sony didn’t really want to do too much copying of exact things, for the purpose of just trying to avoid any copyright issues.”
The set was a celebration of excellence she says, and should open doors for more makeup artists – like her – who have decades of experiences under their belt and the chops to do big budget, international films. She also hopes that the success of this film provides more opportunities for storytellers to showcase the wide variety of legendary tales that come from the continent and that more children get to see themselves in such a powerful tale.
With the help of Davis and her husband Julius Tennon (who co-produced the film as part of their firm JuVee Productions), Mtshiselwa rented out a theatre in Johannesburg so that girls aged 12 to 18 could see the movie.
“It’s part of an initiative called a Shero Like Me,” explained Mtshiselwa. “And this is all about being young, black and female and watching the screen and being in love with movies, but never seeing anyone being represented as powerful or strong the way that I always believed we are as black people on a screen. The most amazing part of it is that [the Agojie] are based on real people that really existed and that did protect their country for 300 years.
She goes on.
“Everyone was really excited about the film. Everyone was so moved by this film. Like, I would see people walking out of the cinema, just jumping around and excited and that’s just a beautiful energy. So I think it was a really, very special piece for black women here more than anyone else.”
The Woman King is still showing at theatres and is also streaming on Vudu via Roku.