'The Woman King': Benin's black female resistance against the French
The critically-acclaimed film hits a record $19 million at the Box Office and acquires an A+ Cinemascore for resurrecting the legend of Benin's all-female warriors.
Based on their historic female warriors, Benin welcomes "The Woman King" as a modern Hollywood narration of the all-female Amazons of Dahomey, known as the Agojie women, in an apologue highlighting the history of black excellence and resistance against colonialism - reviving the warrior in all young black girls today.
Released last Friday in the US and played at one of Cotonou's few cinemas in Benin the next day, the mise-en-scene brings back the story of the protectors of the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa, the Agojie women, fighting against French colonial occupation and slave trade in the 19th century.
Mainly shot in South Africa, the Black-led and A+ Cinemascore production was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and portrayed by the Oscar-winning American actress Viola Davis, the protagonist Nanisca who trains the next generation to fight a rival African kingdom and European slave traders.
A descendant of Ghezo, who was once a King of Dahomey, attended the premiere at Cotonou's Canal Olympia cinema. 37-year-old Sylvine Senami Ghezo said as she shed tears, "For the princess that I am, some of the scenes were very touching. These brave women gave their lives to protect Ghezo's heritage, which is my own."
Young black girls found inspiration and a mirror of themselves in the film, such as 15-year-old Bahunde Efanam, who said the film gave her shivers. 2018's Black-led film The Black Panther honored the Amazons of Dahomey through Wakanda's Dora Milaje warriors.
In another show of honor more recently, Benin's President Patrice Talon revealed a 30-meter high bronze statue in July of one of the Amazons warriors made by Chinese artist Li Xiangqun in central Cotonou as the government's show as a symbol of national identity and a key aspect of its history, which in turn would attract tourism to Benin. Hope among those working in the tourism sector like Achille Remy Yelouassi who was at the premiere expressed that films like this "help put Benin on the map," while there were comments that the sequel should be filmed in Benin since it concerns the country's history.
Talon commented that "the statue will be, for us and those who visit, a symbol of the Beninese woman of yesterday, today and tomorrow," adding, "What is important is that in Benin, the words courage, bravery, strength, combativenesses, and honor are not exclusively associated with men." Senami Totin, a Beninese lawyer and activist, voiced both her own and other Beninese women's beliefs that this film can promote the need to tackle issues concerning women's rights. As she counted challenges from impunity for rape, forced marriages, exclusion of women from inheritance rights, and a lack of representation in politics, she said, "In a patriarchal society like we have in Benin, you need a lot of courage and determination to defend women's rights."
"We no longer have to fight wars against enemy armies but the fight for women's emancipation is a daily one, and for that, we have to have an Amazon spirit," she added.
Viola Davis, who played Nanisca, expressed her hope to reporters ahead of the Toronto premiere this month that the film would inspire young girls around the world. "It’s for my six-year-old self... the little girl who was traumatized, the little girl who was called ugly, the little girl who wasn’t seen, who was left invisible. I see you Viola. I see every chocolate girl who is like you. I’m telling you to stop running. This is my gift to you."
As black individuals around the globe are still discriminated against the color of their skin, their names, and their heritage, films like The Woman King and The Black Panther defy the white-dominated industries and ideologies to break through the walls and bring back the true African history of their ancestors that shaped the world the way it is today - through their resilience against oppression, enslavement, and Eurocentric tyranny.
Although the film was acclaimed for putting black actresses on the frontline, it drew criticism on the basis that it illuminates slavery. In the US, the film was even criticized for not addressing the ways in which the Kingdom of Dahomey contributed to the slave trade under the Twitter hashtag #Boycottwomanking.