In Benin, ‘The Woman King’, an ode to female empowerment, gets mixed reception

By Mawunyo Hermann Boko, Maurice Thantan
Posted on Saturday, 15 October 2022 10:00

Viola Davis in 'The Woman King'. 2021 ©CTMG

'The Woman King', a film by African-American director Gina Prince-Bythewood, pays tribute to the famous 'Amazons of Benin'. But it has received a mixed reception in Cotonou due to liberties taken with certain historical facts.

A troop of female warriors led by General Nanisca, brilliantly played by Viola Davis, has just emerged from the bushes. In the ensuing battle against the men of the Mahi village, who are opposed to the domination of the kingdom of Dahomey and allied with the enemy state of Oyo, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), one of the women warriors, gains the upper hand over her opponent. Unarmed, like a wild beast, the ruthless Amazon strikes a deadly blow into her opponent’s eyes with her sharp-nailed fingers.

The spectacular battle in the opening scene sets the tone for an exhilarating film in which sequences of violence, action, stunts and explosions follow one another at a frantic pace. The fights are visceral. Throats are cut, bodies are impaled and blood spurts out from swords and spears impeccably wielded by an elite corps of trained women. The Hollywood production, with a colossal budget of $50m, keeps all its promises in this respect.

Released in US cinemas on 16 September, The Woman King, co-produced by Maria Bello – who travelled to Benin in 2015 to immerse herself in the history of the “Minons” – took in over $19m in its first weekend of release. That’s 25% more than analysts expected, according to The New York Times. It even received the highest A+ rating in the exit polls of CinemaScore, an American agency that studies movie audiences.

Wars of conquest

Gina Prince-Bythewood, the African-American director of the fantasy drama The Old Guard, has made perhaps her best feature film based on historical events. The Woman King tells the story of the Agojié, the formidable women soldiers of the kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), who symbolised the kingdom’s military might between the 18th and 19th centuries. The elite troop of the royal army distinguished itself in battles to conquer neighbouring kingdoms and in colonial wars against the French.

Scene from the film ‘The Woman King’. 2021  © CTMG

Here, the plot takes place in 1823 in a context of rivalries and tensions between the kingdoms of Dahomey and Oyo (Nigeria) to the east, the latter of which has subjugated its neighbour for more than a century thanks in particular to a powerful cavalry.

The Miganon (army leader) Nanisca is charged with training a new generation of female fighters, embodied by Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), to break free from the yoke imposed by their Nigerian rival. During this period, internal opposition to the slave trade within the royal court is increasingly vocal under the reign of King Guézo (1818-1858), a mischievous character played by British-Nigerian actor John Boyega, best known for playing the rebel Finn in Star Wars.

While epic action scenes – befitting any respectable blockbuster – dominate the film, the plot also mixes in a bit of romance – another Hollywood trait – through the story of Nawi, who is infatuated with an Afro-Brazilian. The story also stirs up filial feelings, as the young warrior turns out to be the child of her protector, who was raped…

Accused of anachronisms

Despite the strong artistic points, The Woman King, an ode to female empowerment, was initially accused of cultural appropriation before being targeted by a boycott in the United States. The production was accused of taking liberties and multiplying anachronisms by revisiting history in order to smooth out the narrative and serve the film’s larger purpose.

We can be proud that our history is attracting the attention of Hollywood.

Sèdo Tossou, a young Beninese filmmaker trained in Hollywood, was one of the first to start the controversy on social networks. “I hope that one day our culture will be adapted for the screen by us and in a way that really conveys the authenticity of our Dahomey,” he wrote on Facebook in July after the trailer was released.

“The story of the Amazons, the story of slavery, is the story of humanity. The film is directed by an African-American woman whose ancestors were deported. It is also her story. She has the right to tell it,” says Cornélia Glèlè, who worked on the film by helping the actors to speak Fon, one of the main languages of Benin. “It is absurd to make the kingdom of Dahomey, which grew rich through the slave trade, look like an anti-slavery state,” says a senior official at Benin’s culture ministry, where the film apparently did not convince authorities. But the choice was made not to comment on a “sensitive subject”.

In 1818, Prince Gakpé, who became Guézo, wrested power by force from his half-brother Adandozan – who had been regent of the kingdom for twenty years – thanks to the help of the wealthy Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Souza, whose business at the Ouidah trading post was threatened by the deposed sovereign’s desire to put an end to the trade.

“Adandozan was keen to expand the kingdom. He made conquests. After the wars, he believed that the captives should not be sold, but used for the development of the country through agriculture, for example,” explains the ministry official. “Once in power, Guézo naturally allowed the man who helped him take power to resume his slave trade. He could not oppose it.”

Political opposition to slavery

Leonard Wantchekon, professor of political science and economics at Princeton University in the United States, who was the historical consultant for the film shot in Cape Town, South Africa, validated this analysis.

Some Western historians have made people believe that the kingdom of Dahomey was essentially a slave state. This is not true.

“Under King Guézo, the kingdom was at a crossroads. There was strong political opposition to slavery, especially from the ranks of the Agojiés, who included war captives,” explains the man who is writing a book tracing the lives of some 50 Amazons – including his great-grand-aunt – through personal accounts.

“Some Western historians have made people believe that the kingdom of Dahomey was essentially a slave state. This is not true,” the economist argues. He refers to data published in 2008 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the journal published by Harvard University, according to which only 457,000 of the 16 million slaves sold between 1400 and 1900 left the Beninese coast. The largest contingent was provided by Angola (3.6 million individuals), Ghana (1.6 million) and Nigeria (1.4 million).

“Under Guézo, who remained in power for 40 years, the trade dropped to 33,000 slaves, mainly sold by private companies associated with criminal gangs that organised abductions and kidnappings,” explains Wantchekon. The Kingdom of Dahomey was above all forced to follow the course of history, which was marked at the time by the rise of abolitionist movements in the United States and Europe, particularly in France, which abolished slavery in 1848. To compensate for the future collapse of the triangular trade, King Guézo introduced new crops, such as the oil palm tree, the seeds of which were brought to him from Brazil.

Mixed reception

However, in Cotonou, where the film is only being shown at the Canal Olympia (Vivendi), the controversy has not dampened the desire of Beninese filmgoers. Many of them rushed to watch its two-plus hours of action. “I really liked this film which, although fictionalised, takes us back into history. It also pushes our brains to try to imagine what Dahomey really looked like at the time,” says one film buff. “On the other hand, as a Beninese person, I’m probably going to be a little too demanding about the actors’ accents, the dances and the appearance of the city of Ouidah.”

While Leonard Wantchekon concedes the addition of fictional elements, such as the presence of hills near the slave port or the replacement of the royal dances of Abomey (the kingdom’s capital) with South African ones to meet the technical constraints of the production, which was also concerned with addressing a large African audience, the economist believes that “the essential foundations as well as the general framework of the kingdom of Dahomey were respected”.

“The Amazon”, a new statue in Cotonou, Benin, July 2022 ©Presidency of Benin

Prince-Bythewood also makes an effort to preserve the typical architecture of the royal palaces, surrounded by high walls made of logs with large doors decorated with allegorical motifs. And ritual songs and war cries are sprinkled throughout the film, which clearly shows the predominant place of the voodoo cult in Dahomean spirituality.

“We can be proud that our history is attracting the attention of Hollywood,” said the film lover, who, like many Beninese, noted a number of national celebrities on the list of cast members and collaborators, including five-time Grammy-winning diva Angelique Kidjo, who co-wrote the film’s soundtrack.

Memorial tourism

The release of The Woman King comes at a time when Benin is exalting the strong symbols of its historical and intangible heritage. Since 2016, under the impetus of President Patrice Talon, the country has embarked on a vast project to develop memorial tourism based on the promotion of historical figures from ancient kingdoms. The Amazons have a prominent place in this process and since 2019 have been part of the visual identity of the former Dahomey to develop tourism.

In late July, a giant 30-metre-high bronze statue of a proud, standing Agojié with a sword and a gun was erected in Cotonou, pending the construction of the Museum of the Epic of the Amazons and Kings of Dahomey, which will undoubtedly reserve a special place for Tassi Hangbé, the kingdom’s only female ruler (1708-1711) and the initiator of the troop of women warriors.

“With this film, this institution, which was a unique revolution in mid-19th century Africa, enters global popular culture. This makes me very proud”, says Wantchekon.

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