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25 September 2022

Falila Gbadamassi: The Woman King, an African perspective (“The Woman King": the epic of the Amazons of Benin revisited by Hollywood)

African women's reflections on The Woman King

Falila Gbadamassi:

The Woman King, an African perspective

"The Woman King": the epic of the Amazons of Benin revisited by Hollywood

"The Woman King" : l'épopée des Amazones du Bénin revisitée par Hollywood 


Translation from French by Beti Ellerson

Falila Gbadamassi gave me her impressions after the press screening:  "This is your magnum opus indeed Viola Davis. From an Oyo and Dahomey descendant, bravo!" 14 Oct, 2022

The blockbuster about this exceptional all-woman regiment arrives in American and French cinemas in September. In Benin, their country of origin, the first images of the film were not unanimously accepted.

The Woman King fiction feature about the famous Beninese Amazons, directed by the American Gina Prince-Bythewood and embodied by her Oscar-winning compatriot Viola Davis, will be released in theaters on September 16 and 28, respectively in the United States and France. Set in 1823 in Dahomey, present-day Benin, in West Africa.

The young Nawi, played by actress Thuso Mbedu, is an orphan raised by a greedy uncle. She later decides to join the regiment of the Agodjiés ("Agoodjiés") or "Minons”, helmed by General Nanisca (Viola Davis). Trained to protect King Guezo (John Boyega) and defend the kingdom, especially against the Portuguese slave traders, the soldiers endure harsh training at the same time are marginalized by society.

Screened as a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), in Canada, The Woman King has already been praised by critics: on Rotten Tomatoes it was rated over 90%. Which is not very reassuring to some Beninese, who on discovering the first images of the film, have expressed reservations. The trailer for The Woman King, released in early July, immediately fueled controversy in the native country of the famous fighters.

“The trailer evoked mixed reactions, Beninese journalist Maurice Thantan said to franceinfo Afrique: “Some expressed pride in the fact that a distinctively Beninese story, about the Agodjiés, was brought to the screen”. As affirmed by the Beninese government on its official website: "an all-woman military regiment which existed until the end of the 19th century in the kingdom of Danxomè (or Dahomey)”. This pathbreaking army is the oeuvre of an equally exceptional woman, Tassi Hangbé, who reigned from 1708 to 1711, posing as her twin brother, King Akaba, killed at war. "Others denounce 'cultural appropriation', Maurice Thantan continues, “fearing that the story will be distorted in the cinematic narrative.” A young Beninese filmmaker, Sèdo Tossou, regrets that “there were no Beninese actors in the cast". On social media [Facebook], he implores "authenticity”, denouncing a film "which uses our history but includes no Beninese in the production… and yet African-Americans themselves complain about cultural appropriation". Sèdo Tossou is also annoyed by the accent of the actors, saying he is "tired of seeing films where the actors imitate a grotesque Nigerian accent (regardless of) the African country where the action is (supposed to) take place". However, this debate which will elude the cinephiles who will see the version of the film dubbed in French, since these issues in the original version, as in the film Black Panther (2018) by Ryan Coogler, are not evident.

The Beninese writer Florent Couao-Zotti reacted in a post on Facebook by describing as "heresy" a controversy surrounding the trailer which, generally, "shows everything (and) at the same time almost nothing". As for the question of "cultural appropriation", the author notes that Americans have always drawn on the cultures of the world "to nourish their inspirations". Especially since, according to the technical adviser for culture at the Beninese Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, The Woman King “represents a film that is the most rooted in the era and history of Africa ever produced by Hollywood, while “black Africa (has not) created much in (this) industry". For its actors and its director, all black women, The Woman King has a symbolic dimension. "It's a film lead by dark-skinned black women," insisted Viola Davis, the co-producer of the film, on the set of Good Morning America [Youtube] where she was invited on September 13, 2022. "When did you see this? Never!", says Viola Davis. Women who have often been told that they are "invisible". "This is my gift to the 6-year-old Viola who was always called black and ugly" in order to tell her "that she matters”.

Throughout the promotion of the film across the Atlantic, The Woman King team pours out, evoking an almost mystical experience with this feature film, which was shot in South Africa. During a touching roundtable discussion composed 100% of women, organized by the American magazine Essence [Twitter], the artists confided that they found strength in the idea of telling "the story of (their) ancestors". This is why Prince-Bythewood wanted to bring together "the diaspora": in addition to the South African Thuso Mbedu and the American Viola Davis, we find on the poster of the feature film Lashana Lynch, who is British (the new 007 in the James Bond franchise) and Ugandan-British Sheila Atim. In the most difficult moments, Lashana Lynch explains that she was motivated by the fact that the Agodjiés could be "proud" of her interpretation.

Moreover, The Woman King, a portrait of warriors, is also a physical feat for the actresses whom the director asked to perform their own stunts and combat scenes. Viola Davis says, in a great burst of laughter, that she did not miss the opportunity to remind Gina Prince-Bythewood that she was 56 years old and that all this exertion could cause her "a heart attack" and kill her, unlike her thirty-something colleagues. "My body has been through hell", just like her colleagues, Viola Davis reiterated in a video clip for the film.

(The best action movie is story and character driven. For #TheWomanKing, which meant that our actors did their own fights and stunts. They gave EVERYTHING to fully embody these warriors)

All of these efforts to bring The Woman King to life will need to be validated by the public and therefore to be a success at the box office. According to Viola Davis, this is essential to demonstrate to Hollywood that a film whose faces on the billboard are black women, is profitable. "This film has to make money, otherwise this conversation (about diversity in cinema) is null and void", Viola Davis insisted in Toronto.

The Woman King cost $50 million (over a million euros), The Hollywood Reporter notes. And the production called on the Beninese, as was the scouting, which took place in Benin, Maurice Thantan confirms. Moreover, the American actress and producer Maria Bello, who pitched the idea for this film to Viola Davis in 2015, discovered the Agodjiés when traveling to the country.

"We are having heated debates whereas all of this is very commercial", Maurice Thantan points out. What is certain is that this controversy reflects the growing interest of Beninese themselves for their illustrious compatriots. “Most (among us), theoretically, those who have finished primary school, have heard of the Amazons at least once, notes the journalist. However, on the continent, we were not aware of their grandeur and their singularity. The fact that Hollywood is interested in the subject gives the Beninese even more reason to appropriate this history which is already part of our identity".

An approach which also comes from "a collective political commitment”: “The government is making large investments in the field of culture and tourism,” Maurice Thantan reiterates. Inaugurated on July 31, on the eve of the celebration of Benin's independence, a giant 30-meter Amazon was put on display in Cotonou, the economic capital. The monument attracts "a huge crowd", according to the Beninese journalist. A museum will soon be dedicated to the Agodjiés.

Since the success of Black Panther and its Dora Milaje, which are inspired by the Amazons, Hollywood seems to have become fascinated by Beninese warriors. Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o, who played a Dora Milaje in Ryan Coogler's film and was tipped for the role of Nawi in The Woman King, directed a documentary on female soldiers, Warrior Women, broadcast in March 2022 in the United States.

Moreover, the planned sequel to Black Panther should further highlight this all-woman regiment that protects the throne of the imaginary African kingdom of Wakanda. For the most impatient, The Woman King promises action and emotion. Will it be enough to convince the most skeptical Beninese? The response will come in a few months when the film arrives in the rare movie theaters of the country. And perhaps, it will be dubbed in Fon, the language of the Amazons, and one of the most widely spoken in Benin.

The Woman King by Gina Prince-Bythewood with Viola Davis, Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin and John Boyega

French release: September 28 

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