At the September 9 premiere The woman king at the Toronto International Film Festival, “We love you, Viola!” and “Thank you, Viola” was heard several times at Roy Thomson Hall.
“I want to do for young black girls what Miss [Cecily] Tyson did it for me when I was 7 years old,” Davis said after the film’s screening. “She was the physical manifestation of the dream, and she came to me through a broken television in a rundown apartment in Central Falls, Rhode Island. What she delivered to me is something that cannot be quantified in words.”
The Sony film, which hits theaters September 16, follows the Agojie, an all-female army in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries. General Nanisca (Davis) of the group must train a new generation of warriors to fight against an advancing enemy.
Audiences erupted into applause the first time Davis appeared on screen, and that applause continued after intense sequences in the action-heavy film, with viewers cheering Davis and co-stars Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and Thuso Mbedu as they machetes swung and threw spears.
Davis’s appreciation also came off the stage with star John Boyega talking about getting the first email about the queen of women, say, “It felt like a call to action.” He added: “I didn’t recognize the face of my career. I didn’t understand acting and wasn’t as in love with it as I used to be.”
Expressing her gratitude to director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Lynch said, “I want to thank you for seeing me and seeing different parts of me that a lot of filmmakers haven’t seen. It doesn’t happen often.”
Davis produced The woman king featuring Julius Tennon through their JuVee production banner, along with Cathy Schulman and Maria Bello. She has long called the film her “magnum opus.”
“I feel like I’ve let a culture define me all my life. I’ve let the naysayers define myself,” Davis said, addressing the audience before the screening. “A lot of times you let other people define you and at 56 I’ve come to realize that I can define myself.”
After this statement, the audience erupted into more applause, with someone at the back of the theater shouting one more time, “I love you, Viola!” The Oscar winner offered back, “I love you too.”