The struggle for what Thabo Mbeki calls “the ownership of the African story” appears to be taking a more pleasant turn under digital capitalism. Dr. Yusuf Bangura took time to watch what he ranks as a ‘must – see’ film production on one of the key themes in the African story and pens this review.
By Dr. Yusuf Bangura
We watched the much talked about, recently released, Hollywood film The Woman King at Balexert in Geneva two days ago. It’s a deeply engaging and an epic film. It tells the story of the Dahomey Kingdom’s famous warrior women, the Agojies—an all-female army that fought the powerful Oyo Kingdom for independence and smaller neighbouring authorities for resources, power and influence.
The Kingdom of Dahomey existed between the 17th century and the late 19th/early 20th centuries when it was conquered and absorbed into the French empire as French Dahomey. It gained independence in 1958 as Republic of Dahomey, but the country’s name was changed to Republic of Benin in 1975.
The film is set in the early 19th century after the ascendancy of a young king, Ghezo, (performed by the Nigerian British actor John Boyega) to the Dahomey throne against the backdrop of the transatlantic slave trade, which was still the dominant mode of business in the region.
In the tradition of Hollywood, a good story needs a hero and a villain. The film takes liberties with the historical record by depicting the Agojies and the Dahomey Kingdom, which was notorious for selling Africans to Europeans, as liberators or leading opponents of the slave trade.
The much larger Oyo Kingdom, itself actively involved in the slave trade, is cast as the villain. The historical struggles of Dahomey for independence from Oyo is tweaked as a two-pronged struggle against both Oyo domination and Oyo’s desire to capture and sell the people of Dahomey as slaves to Europeans.
As a work of fiction, the film did a great job in projecting the military prowess, discipline, fearlessness and sense of independence of the Agojies. There are many African queens in Africa’s history, such as Queen Amina of Zazzau (Zaria, Nigeria), Queen Nzinga of the Abundu kingdoms in Angola, Queen Yaa Asentewaa of the Ashanti in Ghana, and Queen Moremi of Ile Ife in Nigeria. While most of these women were warrior queens, the Agojies are the only all-female army that existed not only in Africa but in world history. They are believed to have numbered about 8,000.
In the film, women are recruited into the Agojie army from a variety of sources, including those who volunteer, those rejected by their families, and those captured in wars. But all Agojies go through rigorous, indeed frighteningly tough military training, and only the toughies get selected for critical roles. The Agojies’ tolerance level for pain is breathtakingly high. Agojies are forbidden from loving or engaging in intimate relations with men. They display strong bonds of solidarity in the battlefield and in everyday life. They look out for each other, live together, fight together and share victories, setbacks and pain together.
Hollywood may have been inspired to celebrate the valour and unique history of the Agojies after the billion dollar super hero film *The Black Panther*, which was based on a fictional, fiercely independent African state with extraordinary military capabilities and at the cutting edge of technological progress. Women played frontline roles in *The Black Panther’s* Kingdom of *Wakanda*, including as military commanders. In *The Woman King*, Hollywood uses instead a real African kingdom with real women warriors to highlight the power of women.
The acting, by a cast largely drawn from African-Americans in the US, diaspora Africans in the UK, South Africans and Nigerians, is superb. The complex scenes and dramatic events force viewers to imagine how warfare and slavery defined the lives of many Africans during that period. It’s refreshing that even the actors that did not grow up in an African setting effortlessly speak English with African accents.
The leader of the Agojies, General Nanisca (performed by the experienced African American actress Viola Davis), is a remarkably imposing figure. She’s well built, supremely confident, and has a commanding presence and heart of steel. Amazingly, she’s braver and more versed in military warfare than the king. She persuades the king to replace the destructive and inhuman sale of Africans to Europeans with palm oil, which the kingdom produces in abundance, and to fight the Oyo Kingdom led by General Oba Ade (played by the Nigerian actor Jimmy Odukoya), free Dahomey from its tributary status and liberate captured Dahomeans from slavery. She ignores the king’s caution and fear of Oyo, mobilises the Agojies and launches a successful attack on Oyo. She clearly earns the right to be crowned the Woman King, despite the opposition of one of the king’s favourite wives.
In the film, we follow the life of Nawi (played by the South African actress Thuso Mbendu)—a young, strong willed woman with a difficult background who craves to be a successful Agojie, but does what she likes and thinks is right. This puts her at odds with some of the strict rules of the Agojies as defined by General Nanisca. Nawi is given to the Dohomey king by her father after rebuffing several men chosen by her father for marriage. At the palace, she seizes the opportunity to become an Agojie.
General Nanisca does not initially think highly of Nawi, probably because of her slender body and self-effacing appearance. Nawi proves Nanisca wrong by excelling in the physically demanding military training and test and is fully incorporated into the regiment. She provides invaluable information to Nanisca about an impending Oyo attack on Dahomey after a chance encounter with an Afro-Brazilian slave trader who is in love with her and wants to take her to England.
Nanisca recalls being raped by General Oba Ade of Oyo at an early age, which resulted in the birth of a child she was forced to give away. After the child’s birth, she inserts the tooth of a shark into the child’s upper back as a mark of identity. Nawi turns out to be the lost child and Nanisca removes the shark’s tooth from Nawi’s back. The bond between Nanisca and Nawi flourishes. Both are spectacular fighters in the war of liberation from Oyo. Nanisca outmaneuvers, overpowers and kills General Oba Ade in an epic battle. The European slave traders are also exterminated. Dahomey is free and the sale of Dahomeans to Europeans ends.
Apart from the acting, there are a number of other positive things about *The Woman King*. There is the brilliant use of the colourful Yoruba Aso-oke garment, but without the elaborate modern day *gele* or head tie, *buba* (loose top) and *pele* (shawl). The Agojies are warriors—not entertainers or women in show biz. Also commendable is the Dahomey Kingdom’s palace, with its high wall and simple but formidable gate—the use of traditional mud bricks and well groomed thatched roofs blends well with the environment. The soundtrack, based on traditional African music depicting pain, sorrow, perseverance and triumph gets into your soul. We remained in our seats even after the film ended to enjoy the music.
On the negative side, *The Woman King* is not for the hemophobic or someone who becomes squeamish at the sight of blood. There are many bloody battles. Matchets and spears are used freely; throats are slashed; chests, necks and legs are sliced; the Agojies’ razor sharp nails pierce through the faces of opponents; and the arms of Agojies are cut to collect blood for the gods and pray for invincibility. If you love war films and have seen the last installment of *The Money Heist* you should be able to cope with *The Woman King*. We had to partially close our eyes to blur our vision of some of the horrifying images.
Watching epic films on the big screen is always a million times better than watching them on tv. The sound system is captivating, the actors look real and you feel connected with the events. It’s good that Africa’s rich history is now being mined by film producers to provide wonderful backdrops for entertaining and thought provoking films. A week ago, we watched on Netflix Kunle Afolayan’s well produced, action-packed fantasy film *Anikulapo*, which depicts Yoruba culture of yesteryears. The setting shares a lot in common with *The Woman King*.
The *Woman King* is a must-see movie. The big question is whether epic films should remain faithful to historical facts or be free to give whatever interpretation they like in entertaining people.
The author wrote in from Nyon in Switzerland