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The Woman King Is More Than An Action Movie – It Shines A Light On The Women Warriors Of Benin
All-too-real character combatants of West Africa's slave coast.
By: The Conversation
The Woman King is a big-budget Hollywood movie that has been anticipated since 2018, when US star Viola Davis was announced as the lead in the story of the "amazons" of Dahomey. Rising South African star Thuso Mbedu also takes a key role in the film, which has premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is heading to cinemas worldwide.
The blockbuster is adding to renewed global interest in the historical women warriors of Dahomey, a kingdom that flourished in the 1700s and 1800s in what is today Benin in West Africa. The "amazons" were exceptionally skilful women warriors. They inspired fear and curiosity among locals and foreigners who had come to explore and colonise the territory. Protectors of the king, the anticolonial women warriors are referred to as Agoodjies in Fon, one of Benin's many languages.
The Woman King is not the first time that Dahomey's "amazons" have appeared in Hollywood productions lately. The mighty warriors were featured in the popular TV series Lovecraft Country (in an episode where Hippolyta Freeman, a black woman in pre-civil rights America, experiences a triumphant, cosmic journey of liberation). And there were the Dora Milaje, the Wakanda warriors in the blockbuster film Black Panther. Modelled on the Agoodjie, they are the protectors of Black Panther. Incarnations like these have helped bring the warriors of Dahomey into the popular culture spotlight.
The film is being celebrated as an example of "fierce" representations of black womanhood, so unlike dominant popular culture stereotypes. But who were these women – and how does their legacy resonate in Benin today?
Who Were The Warriors?
The explicit comparison to the Amazons, a mythological group of female hunters and soldiers in ancient Greece, was first made by European men encountering the Agoodjie in Dahomey in the 1700s. The "amazon" reference became common by the mid-1800s.
The female warriors encountered by explorers and traders in the Fon (Dahomey) kingdom inspired awe because of their military prowess and perceived gender-bending. Dahomey was one of many kingdoms in an area known as Aja-Yoruba (between present day Togo and south-west Nigeria).
Return Of The Queen
A real-life queen has, in the past decade, been restored in both history books and the hearts of Beninese people. Queen Tassi Hangbé reigned from 1716 to 1718 and is sometimes credited as founding the corps.
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