Lashana Lynch Challenges the ‘Strong Black Woman’ Cliché, Softly

She plays a ferocious warrior in “The Woman King,” but in her performance, vulnerability and humanity were what she sought to convey.

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By Kathryn Shattuck

When Lashana Lynch learned that the filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood wanted to talk to her about a project, she was ready to say yes, whatever it was.

She had been in love with Prince-Bythewood’s work ever since “Love & Basketball,” her feature film directorial debut, Lynch, 35, said in a video interview from London last month. “I’d work with her any day.”

The project, it turned out, was “The Woman King,” a historical drama set in 1823 about an army of female soldiers in West Africa. Prince-Bythewood had written the role of Izogie — a devoted warrior to the battalion’s leader, played by Viola Davis, and a mentor to a would-be fighter (Thuso Mbedu) — with Lynch in mind.

“Coming from a Black female director, that made me so emotional because I thought, ‘Wow, she’s really thought of me as a human being,’” said Lynch, an actress known for her performances in the James Bond movie “No Tie to Die” and more recently as Captain Marvel in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” “She’s considered who I am, what I’ve done, but also things that I haven’t shown the world yet.’”

As shooting on “The Woman King” progressed, the role grew as Lynch shared ideas about Izogie’s back story with Prince-Bythewood, who incorporated some of them into the script.

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“We just knew her,” Lynch said. “She was birthed on her own, which is quite Izogie of her, actually. She showed us who she was, and we listened.”

Lynch answered three questions about Izogie’s driving forces. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How do you think the character of Izogie challenges gender norms?

As soon as I got the role, I thought, “OK, here we go.” A woman in an all-female army, very, very physically strong, mentally strong — we are now going into what, in the wrong hands, would be the strong Black woman trope that I’m always on the hunt to dismantle. And this is a really great way of doing that, softly.

Izogie is tasked with showing young women how their vulnerability and what they come with organically can be their superpower. For me as an actor characterizing Izogie, I thought, “I want her masculine and feminine energy to be equally as powerful and equally as seen.” I think that’s what we did between me and Gina. We allowed her to just be, and to not think about who Izogie would be compared to, or if she would be considered the really strong, physically built, masculine woman in the army.

She would just be a woman in all her glory, which she deserves to be. I just wanted her to live.

What do you see as the source of her power?

We as human beings have such an interesting way of handling trauma through humor. It is a really interesting tell when you meet someone, and they’ve been through something, and when they speak about it, they smile or they laugh or they brush it off and move on.

I think it’s such an incredibly beautiful, protective way of being that Izogie, doing that in the powerful position that she’s in, really reminds us as audience members that, “Oh yeah, I’m human. I’m just going about the world in the way that I know how to protect myself.” She teaches us to be OK not to be OK.

The majority of the movie you think that she’s in such control, which, in a way, she is. But really there’s such vulnerability there, and fear and angst and essentially trauma that she’s working through. She has an organic way of existing authentically, which can be scary to do, but she doesn’t do it in a way that seems out of reach for us mere mortals watching the screen thinking, “I want to aspire to do that.”

She’s also not a superhero. She’s a woman going about her daily life, doing the best she can in the most creative way that she can. I love superheroes, and they serve their purpose. But there’s nothing like a real human being having natural superpowers just by being born and using them in a great way.

Why should people watch “The Woman King”?

I would say that “The Woman King” is a film that people from all walks of life have been waiting for but just didn’t anticipate the package in which it would come.

Now we have the package. We can appreciate physical action. We can appreciate actors going 100 with the stunts themselves. We can appreciate Black women existing as the humanized versions of themselves instead of this uber-strong, uber-elevated, nonhuman version that is unreal.

We also get to re-educate the world on why Black history is so important to all sectors on this planet, without bashing anyone around the head with it. We are just presenting information in the most strong, beautiful, delicate, sometimes understated narrative that makes you feel good, but also makes you question what you are doing for the world and how you want to exist here.

What footprint do you want to leave on the planet? What’s your purpose? I’m hoping that some people have at least started on the journey to finding that through watching this movie.

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