A troop of warriors led by General Nanisca, excellently played by Violas Davis, has just emerged from the bushes. In the ensuing fight against Mahi village men reluctant to rule the Kingdom of Dahomey, allied with the enemy state of Oyo, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), one of them gains the upper hand over her vis -notice. Unarmed, like a wild animal, the ruthless amazon strikes the mortal blow in the eyes of her adversary with her fingers with sharp nails.
The spectacular battle in the opening scene sets the tone for an exhilarating film in which, at a frantic pace, sequences of violence, actions, stunts and explosions follow one another. The fights are visceral. Throats slit, bodies impaled and blood spurting from the blows dealt by the swords and spears impeccably handled by an overtrained female elite corps. Hollywood production with a colossal budget of 50 million dollars keeps all its promises in this respect.
Benin: “Danxomè”, or the brutal encounter of a settler and an Amazon
Released theatrically in the United States on September 16, The Woman King, co-produced by Maria Bello – who traveled to Benin in 2015 to soak up the history of the “Minon” – took in over $19 million in its first weekend of operation . That’s 25% more than analysts had hoped, according to the New York Times. It even garners the highest A+ rating in exit polls from CinemaScore, an American agency that studies movie theater audiences.
wars of conquest
Gina Prince-Bythewood, the African-American director of The Old Guardfantastic fiction, is perhaps his best feature film inspired by historical events. The Woman King recounts the epic of the Agojié, the formidable women-soldiers of the kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin), who symbolized the military power of the latter between the 18e and the 19e century. The elite troop of the royal army notably distinguished itself during the battles of conquest of neighboring kingdoms and the colonial wars against the French.
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, which, for more than a century, vassalized its neighbor thanks in particular to powerful cavalry. The Miganon (army chief) Nanisca is responsible for training a new generation of fighters embodied by Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) to put an end to the yoke imposed by the Nigerian rival. At this time, internal opposition to the slave trade within the royal court was increasingly heard during the reign of King Guézo (1818-1858), whose facetious character was played by John Boyega, a British actor. Nigerian, known for playing the rebel Finn in Star Wars.
If the epic action scenes – as befits any good self-respecting blockbuster – dominate the film, the frame also mixes romance, another feature of Hollywood cinema, with Nawi, in love with an Afro-Brazilian. The story also appeals to filial feeling, the young warrior revealing herself to be the child of her protector born of a rape…
Accusation of anachronisms
Despite the artistic good points, The Woman King, an ode to female empowerment, was first accused of cultural appropriation before being called for a boycott in the United States. The production was accused of having taken liberties and multiplied anachronisms by revisiting the story to smooth the story and serve the purpose of the film. Sèdo Tossou, a young Beninese filmmaker trained in Hollywood, was one of the first to launch the controversy on social networks. “I aspire that one day our culture will be brought to the screen by us and in a way that truly conveys the authenticity of our Dahomey,” he wrote on Twitter in July after the airing of the teaser.
“The story of the Amazons, the story of slavery, is the story of humanity. The film is directed by an African-American whose ancestors were deported. It is also his story. She has the right to tell it”, answers 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 pass the kingdom of Dahomey, which was enriched by the slave trade, for an anti-slavery state”, however chokes a framework of the Ministry of Culture of Benin where the work does not has, it seems, not convinced the authorities. But the choice was made not to comment on a “sensitive subject”.
Benin: the mystery of the crown of King Toffa I
In 1818, Prince Gakpé, now Guézo, wrested power by force of arms from his half-brother Adandozan – who had been the kingdom’s regency for twenty years – with the help of the wealthy Brazilian slave trader Francisco Félix de Souza, whose business on the counter of Ouidah is threatened by the inclinations of the deposed sovereign to put an end to the slave trade. “Adandozan was keen on expanding 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 by doing agriculture, for example, explains the framework of the ministry. Guézo, once in power, quite naturally allowed the man who helped him to take power, to resume his slave trade. He couldn’t resist it. »
Political opposition to slavery
This reading is nuanced by Leonard Wantchekon, professor of political science and economics at Princeton University in the United States, who is the historical consultant for the film shot in Cape Town, South Africa. “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 among them, “explains the man who writes a book retracing, through testimonies, the lives of around fifty Amazons. – including his great-great-aunt. “Some Western historians ont makes believe that the kingdom of Dahomey was an essentially slave state. Which is not true,” objects the economist. The latter refers to the data published in 2008 in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the review published by Harvard University, according to which only 457,000 slaves out of the 16 million sold between 1400 and 1900 left the Beninese coast. The largest contingent having been provided by Angola (3.6 million individuals), Ghana (1.6 million) and Nigeria (1.4 million).
Restitutions: “Benin is happy to make history alongside France”
“Under Guézo, who remained in power for forty years, the trade fell to 33,000 slaves, mainly sold by private companies associated with criminal gangs who organized abductions and kidnappings,” explains Wantchekon. The kingdom of Dahomey was above all forced to follow the march of history, marked at that time by the rise of abolitionist movements in the United States and in Europe, particularly in France which abolished slavery in 1848. To compensate for the With the coming collapse of the triangular trade, King Guézo introduced new crops, such as the oil palm, the seeds of which were brought back to him from Brazil.
However, in Cotonou, where the film is screened only at the Canal Olympia (Vivendi), the controversies have not dulled the desire of Beninese moviegoers. Many of them rushed to watch the more than two hours of action. “I really liked this film which, despite being a fiction, takes us back to history. It also pushes our brain to try to imagine what Dahomey really looked like at the time, confides a movie buff. On the other hand, as a Beninese, I will probably be a little too demanding on the accent of the actors, the dances and the aspect of the city of Ouidah. »
If 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 (capital of the kingdom) by those of South Africa to meet the technical constraints of production concerned also to address a large African audience, the economist considers that “the essential foundations as well as the general framework of the Kingdom of Dahomey have been respected”.
Gina Prince-Bythewood also made the effort to preserve the typical architecture of royal palaces, surrounded by high cob walls with their large doors decorated with allegorical motifs. And ritual songs and battle cries in fon dot the film. Which restores well the preponderant place of the voodoo cult in Dahomean spirituality. “We can be proud that our story attracts the attention of Hollywood”, adds the film buff, who, like many Beninese, finds in the casting and the collaboration several national celebrities including the diva with five Grammys, Angélique Kidjo , who co-signed the film’s soundtrack.
The output of The Woman King comes as Benin exalts the strong symbols of its historical and intangible heritage. Since 2016, under the impetus of Patrice Talon, the country has embarked on a vast project to develop memorial tourism based on the enhancement of historical figures from ancient kingdoms. The Amazons occupy a prominent place in this approach and have since 2019 been part of the visual identity of the former Dahomey to develop tourism.
Benin: the Amazon, Bio Guéra and the obelisk to the devoted, three monuments to reclaim history
At the end of July, a giant bronze statue 30 meters high representing a standing and proud Agojié, armed with a sword and a gun, was erected in Cotonou, pending the construction of the Museum of he epic of the Amazons and the kings of Dahomey, which will undoubtedly reserve a place of choice for Tassi Hangbé, sole sovereign of the kingdom (1708-1711) and initiator of the troop of women warriors. “With this film, this institution which was a unique revolution in Africa in the middle of the 19e century, enters popular culture around the world. It makes me very proud,” concludes Leonard Wantchekon.