The real story behind the female king

ZGeneral Naniska, played by an imposing Viola Davis, rising slowly from the bed of tall grass in the dead of night. Behind her, an entire army materializes silently from the grass, each member standing with a weapon in hand.

When we meet them on screen, the Agojie – a group of female warriors who fought for the kingdom of Dahomey – are inconspicuous, keeping a low profile. But in 19th century West Africa, at the height of their power, their reputation preceded them: ferocious, strong, unmatched.

The woman kingthe historical epic of Gina Prince-Bythewood released on September 16, recounts the trials and triumphs of Agoji and Dahomey (a region in present-day Benin). Leonard Vanchecon, professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University, also served as the film’s historical advisor. He is completing a book containing biographies of more than 50 of the Agojie, based on interviews with their descendants and communities.

General Naniska (Viola Davis) and Izogi (Lashana Lynch) with young recruits from Agoji (Ilse Kitschoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

General Naniska (Viola Davis) and Izogi (Lashana Lynch) with young recruits from Agoji

Ilse Kitschoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

“I think it’s something that even today would be considered revolutionary,” Wantchekon says of the female warriors. “Because all the training it took, all the preparation it took, it’s actually something that happened. It’s not made up.”

While Agojie are very real—they’ve been around for over a century—they’ve also inspired many interpretations in pop culture, perhaps most notably Dora Milaje in black Panther. The all-female special forces for the fictional African nation of Wakanda first appeared in Marvel comics, but migrated to the screen in 2018, where they played an integral role. (The sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, appears to be focus even more closely on the women of Wakanda.)

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Prince-Bythewood has credited black Panther helping to pave the way for this film—especially in an industry where the stories of people of color haven’t always been prioritized by studios. But The woman king marks first time that a major movie in the US told Agojie’s story. It also examines the role that Dahomey played in the slave trade – although it glosses over the fact that the king at the time only temporarily suspended the kingdom’s involvement in 1852.

The conditions that gave rise to Agojie

Vanchekon, the historical adviser, is from Benin and was born a mile from the former palace of King Glele, son of King Gezo, the reigning monarch in The woman king (played by John Boyega.) In the film, King Gezo and General Naniska have a unique relationship: she is essentially his right-hand man and advises him closely on military tactics.

“I believe in the film that Dahomey is presented as an extremely, very complex country in the modern sense: with a standing army, with a bureaucracy, with officials in charge of logistics,” Vanchekon says. “It’s not too surprising that something as extraordinary as these female warriors came out of these institutions.”

As a historical adviser, Vanchekon saw to it that Dahomey was presented as a developed, sovereign state rather than a stereotypical primitive tribe. The weapons that the Agojie and their male counterparts used, for example, were often locally made—certainly not all imported from Europe. In one scene, Naui (Tuso Mbedu), a recruit, goes to the river to find the perfect stone to sharpen his sword.

Tuso Mbedu, Viola Davis and Shelia Atim as Agoji warriors in The Woman King (Ilse Kitschoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Tuso Mbedu, Viola Davies and Shelia Atim as Agojie Warriors in The Woman King

Ilse Kitschoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Agojie, of course, did not exist in a vacuum. Much of Wantchekon’s research focuses on the social and political conditions in Dahomey that allowed the rise of elite female warriors. “You can see these institutions of women in isolation as if they came from the sky or somewhere,” Wantchekon says. “But they are products of a social environment that allows women to do anything they want or can do — including going to war.”

The Agojie’s very existence was an anomaly: European visitors referred to them as the Amazons of Dahomey, in reference to the all-female Amazon warriors of Greek mythology. Wantchekon makes three key points about the conditions that made Dahomey ripe for Agojie to flourish.

First, the actual origin of the Amazons of Dahomey is unclear, although the first recorded mention of them dates from 1729. One theory suggests that the Agojie began as a dedicated group of elephant hunters. However, Wantchekon suggests that Queen Hangbe, King Akaba’s twin sister, planted the seed for the idea of ​​women warriors in the early 1700s.

Viola Davis as General Naniska in The Woman King (Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Viola Davis as General Naniska in The Woman King

Ilse Kitschoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

Second, Wantchekon himself observed progressive gender roles in the region: growing up in Benin, he noticed gender equality all around him, from children playing together at an early age to mixed-gender cultural groups to women’s participation in economic activities. These inclusive gender norms date back at least to Dahomey.

And third, King Gezo catalyzed the expansion of military power. “The idea was there, the social conditions were there, but then he led the way – King Gezo – to take this to the highest level in terms of organization, number of people involved,” Wonchekon says. “Approximately one-third to 40% of the entire army [was] made by women.” (At its peak, Agojie included as many as 6000 members.)

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The Role of Slavery in the Dahomean Kingdom

But Agojie—and Dahomey—are not without complexity. in The woman king, Naniska experiences firsthand the horrors of slavery and works to convince King Gezo to stop participating in the slave trade or at least end Dahomey’s status to the Oyo Empire. But, like investigative journalist Nicole Hanna-Jones indicated on Twitter before the movie came out, Dahomey did get some of his wealth from involvement in the slave trade.

“When I came on board, those were some of the first conversations,” Prince-Bythewood said The Hollywood Reporter. “But it was, ‘We’re going to tell the truth.’ We will avoid nothing. But we’re also telling a part of the story that’s about overcoming and fighting for what’s right. And I think we got it right.”

The Female King begins in 1823, the year King Gezo finally freed Dahomey from its tributary status. Although the film acknowledges that Dahomey was indeed involved in the slave trade at the time, Naniska is determined to end the kingdom’s involvement altogether – a concern she takes directly to the king, who seems to agree – a milestone that actually happened decades later.

Viola Davis and Tuso Mbedu are warriors in The Woman King (Ilze Kitshoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Viola Davis and Tuso Mbedu are warriors in “The Woman King”

Ilse Kitschoff—Sony Pictures Entertainment

“Five percent of slave exports came from Dahomey,” Vanchecon says. That’s an “enormous” number of lives, he says, out of Africa’s total of an estimated 12.5 million people enslaved.

The professor acknowledges that Dahomey’s involvement in the slave trade – and the existence of the trade itself – is a tragedy. He also recognizes that many aspects can be true and emphasized at the same time: a society can be far-sighted and advanced in one respect while causing immeasurable harm in another.

When European history is discussed, he points out, scholars recognize the continent’s heavy involvement in the slave trade (or at least are now beginning to do so more) while also recognizing the contributions each nation made to the world. Neither existed without the other.

“There will always be time to consume the legacy of Dahomey and the slave trade,” Vanchecon says. “But also at the same time as you do for any other continent, any other country, we also have to talk about things that they did regardless — because these women were not slave grabbers.”

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