“The Woman King”: the Amazons of Dahomey, contemporary heroines
The Woman King **
by Gina Prince-Bythewood
American film, 2 h 24
“Stay away from me. This is the meaning in the Fon language of “Agojie”, the name of the formidable female warriors who defended the kingdom of Dahomey, part of present-day Benin, from the 17th to the end of the 19th century. They are the heroines of The Woman Kinga Hollywood epic that celebrates their courage, at the time of the rehabilitation of female figures of the past.
Under the reign of the young King Ghézo (1818-1858), Dahomey prospered thanks to triangular trade. Still under the rule of the Oyo Empire, the kingdom protects its fragile borders from the attacks of the terrible General Oba.
Opposite him stand the “Amazons of Dahomey”, sisters in combat who, after taking a vow of chastity, are entirely turned towards the cruel art of war, even if it means beheading their adversaries the better to frighten them… Their leader, Nanisca (Viola Davis), undertakes to free herself from the yoke of the Oyos, while seeking to develop the production of palm oil to stop the sale of prisoners to European slave traders. But a young recruit, Nawi (Thuso Mbedu), a real head of mule, disturbs Nanisca, in whom she awakens a trauma buried in her past…
Impressive Viola Davis as a colossus with feet of clay
We would have done without this melodramatic dimension, which unnecessarily lengthens the duration of the film, which is also very effective and has an astonishing narrative fluidity. The fights follow one another in a carefully choreographed ballet, mixing Asian and African martial arts without this hybridization turning into a pastiche. Devoid of special effects, The Woman King is more in line with Spartacus (without having the formal scale) than recent superhero nanars.
If the male characters are archetypal, the Agojie are on the contrary full of nuances, both determined and worried, instinctive and thoughtful, violent and vulnerable. In the title role, which could earn her a second Oscar, Viola Davis impresses in her character as a colossus with feet of clay. The American actress is totally invested in The Woman Kingof which she is also a producer. “I found my femininity there, I found my black identity there”, she says in the press kit.
At the time of the “MeToo” and “Black Lives Matter” movements, the film denounces with the same vigor rape as a weapon of war and human trafficking. From this point of view, this production, accused of cultural appropriation because shot in South Africa with mostly American actors, perhaps says more about the current context of the United States than about the history of Dahomey. The equal dimension of the kingdom’s political system seems particularly inflated for the occasion.
The Agojie, who also inspired the special forces of another kingdom, the imaginary one of Wakanda, in Black Panther, a black superhero film with worldwide success in 2018, are intended to galvanize female audiences in general and black women in particular. Evidenced by the end credits song, whose title is Rise-up! (” Upright ! “).