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‘The Woman King’: When African women created a military regiment to defend themselves

Viola Davis leads the cast of an adventure film about feminism, sisterhood and reclaiming one’s power based on the Agojie warriors of the 18th and 19th centuries

Viola Davis in 'The Woman King'.

Known in the West as the Dahomey Amazons, the Agojie warriors formed the world’s only all-female military regiment throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an elite unit, made up of prisoners from enemy towns, forcefully enlisted Dahomians, women disowned by their families, and criminals. Initially created to address a lack of men in the West African kingdom due to constant battles with neighboring territories, the force became essential during the two wars waged by France between 1890 and 1894. The story is exciting material at a time when many are seeking to reclaim figures hidden to history, and it is recounted in the film The Woman King, which focuses on the Dahomey warriors during the rule of King Ghezo, during a period when Brazilian slave traders allied with the monarch to dominate the local economy.

At a time when adventure movies for adults tend to lack cinematographic intent, amid a glut of productions based not on human history but amusement park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise), The Woman King can only be described using words like feminism, sisterhood and empowerment. The movie is produced and promoted by Maria Bello, an actress as well as a producer. Its stars are almost exclusively women with a cast led by Oscar-winner Viola Davis, who plays a general of the Agojie army. And it is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who specializes in female stories that break with stereotypes, such as The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and The Old Guard (2020).

The result is a film that stands out more for what it tells than for how it tells it. The action and combat sequences are as precise as they are lifeless. The story’s central narrative may resemble familiar soap operas too closely. But its strength is in the relationship between the female characters, particularly due to a lack of knowledge of the movie’s historical period and its political, social and religious context.

The Agojie warriors could not marry, have sex or have children. The young co-star of the story, recruited by the group after refusing an arranged marriage with an old abuser and being taken from her family, is a rebel within a rebel group.

Dahomey, which was located in present-day Benin, was an African state with a monarchical regime and the center of the slave trade during the 18th century. It is also almost entirely unknown territory to most people. The film enters fully into the exotic world of the classic adventure movie. Here, the history of humanity is treated not just as a spectacle. The film is unusual for the genre: women do not pass by in the background, nor are they mere objects of desire for the male heroes. The concept of female warriors, for once, appears not as a metaphor, but as absolutely literal. It portrays the sisterhood of black women: one that existed long ago, and the one that exists now, a sign of a new world.

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