What Did ‘The Woman King’ Reveal About Agojie – Dahomey Amazons?

A smooth mixture of cinematic poise and cultural trajectory were on show in the epic but while it deserves great praise for its riveting dramatic appeal, critics have said it barely scratched the surface on true, real history.

Think about this in the modern time. An all-female soldiers unit that protects an entire country or people from the excesses of other nations. Fascinating right? That’s Agojie.

The Agojie- later named Dahomey Amazons by Europeans for their great war skills and chivalry protected Dahomey (in ancient Republic of Benin) for two centuries. 

Their great artistry in war grew many admirers and helped protect their people from the overriding tendencies of the Slave Traders. These women, trained to protect and fight fiercely and relentlessly, were skillful and daring. 

The Woman King goes all out to give a feel of what their experience was like, while there were some fictional characters to give a cinematic appeal to its course.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens, based on a story she wrote with Maria Bello, The Woman King expressed the excellence of Hollywood in its full diversity but also revealed the importance of African stories being told by Africans. 

While Viola Davis was experienced in quite never-seen-before projection of her great acting, her fictional character Nanisca added an emotional touch to the warrior-like projection of the Dahomey women seen all through the movie.

Thuso Mbedu announced herself on global screens and her all-action, funny yet brave character of Nawi, who in real life was the last Amazon told a story of the immense level of talents in the African movie scene.

The South African is arguably the finest on the show and she once again showed why she is an International Emmy nominee.

English actress Lashana Lynch, Ugandan-British actress Sheila Atim, John Boyega as King Ghezo, whose roles in the Slave Trade was downplayed and Nollywood’s Jimmy Odukoya starring as Oba Ade of the Oyo Empire were also masterful in the expression of their art in the movie and gave the world a feel of what the Agojie story is. 

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One of the strongest criticism of the historical perspective the movie took was the role of King Ghezo. Boyega entertained with his delivery, often using interesting catchphrases, said in accents very culturally memorable and relatable.

While the movie isn’t seeking reparations but telling a people’s history using motion pictures, it has been criticised for not showing that the kings of times past were as culpable as Europeans in the slave trade business. 

The movie is a great experience for almost everyone despite some criticism and has earned wide acclaim and is one that will do great numbers, if its acceptance is anything to go by. 

That will be great reward for the $50m project which gives women of colour especially, an opportunity to wholly commit to a story that can be as chilling as motivating, and become even bigger stars. 

They defied the rain and sunshine to shoot for five months, in addition to 90-minutes-a-day of weight lifting and three-and-half-hours of fight training for four months before the shoot. Running, martial arts and the use of swords and spears were all trainings they needed time to master and none was missing in the final delivery. It is the near-perfect movie and a true reflection of the depth of the story, but it is nothing near the perfect story. 

Who are the fearless, ruthless and passionate all-female soldiers Agojie – Dahomey Amazons?

According to history, Agojie existed in Dahomey, a West African empire which lasted between 1625 and 1894.

Dahomey’s imprints are still seen in some parts of the Republic of Benin. 

The Agojie are one of the few documented all-female army in modern history. 

Their emergence was necessitated by the high male casualties suffered by Dahomey in their various wars.

These women were used during wars and fought greatly, so much that they helped Dahomey capture slaves who were traded by their king. 

While history recalls their bravery, they’re particularly known to be fearless soldiers. In one of the Franco-Dahomean battles in 1892, only 17 of 434 Amazons returned alive according to historical reports but they are never known to surrender even in defeat. In West Africa, they fought and won. 

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Slave trade enabler? Not exactly. Humans were commodified greatly by the Dahomey and Oyo Empire but the rich depth of their stories have often been told from the coloniser’s point of view. One of the criticisms of the movie is the part to the silence on the roles of Dahomey Amazons in helping King Ghezo capture foreign slaves for trade. 

Between 1645 and 1685, King Houegbadja ruled Dahomey and he’s believed to have started the use of females in the Dahomey army.

Houegbadja’s daughter, Queen Hangbe who ruled for two years between 1716 and 1718 was reported to have used female bodyguards while she ruled. She’s largely credited for the establishment of the Agojie.

King Agaja, who was Hangbe’s younger brother and Dahomey ruler who succeeded her after a forceful deposition, according to historic reports, saw great use in the Agojie, as he conquered neighbouring kingdoms with them. History however notes Hangbe as the main actor in the establishment of Agojie, although this has been open to debates.

There are however no doubts as to the deployment of the Amazons by King Ghezo who ruled for forty years between 1818 and 1858. He integrated the female warriors, as he had little choice due to the rapid depletion of Dahomey’s male army. 

Various historical accounts of the story of Agojie have left doubts lingering but their fierce nature, courage and alleged brute were reported orally and in written texts by missionaries and colonialists who saw them.

They were named Amazons by Europeans who visited Dahomey in the 19th century, after the ruthless Amazons in Greek mythology. 

Now known as ‘Mino’, a term now open to interpretation as “witch” or “mother”, Agojie are still greatly respected in Benin Republic. The context of the use of Mino is largely dependent on who is narrating the story and what is made of the female warriors. 

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Painted as merciless in many literature, they are often reported as harsh in their disposition and what The Woman King focused on was a rejiggering of their story as true amazons who were skilled at war. The movie painted them as killing for the purpose of protecting their kingdom.

Abomey, in Benin Republic today, houses the history of the Agojie and tells the tale of the Dahomey Amazons. While they killed for a sport and the imprints of history could be seen in human skulls presented as gifts to their kings and queen, their brutality and not their justifiable strength may have been excessively focused on by colonial history.

An earlier representation of a touch with the Dahomey Amazons in cinematic representation was the Dora Milaje in Marvel’s Black Panther and other Marvel stories including Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame and in yet-to-be-released Wakanda Forever.

Dora Milaje in Black Panther was inspired by Agojie

The all-female special forces unit in the movie who protected the fictional Kingdom of Wakanda was inspired by the story of the Agojie, and Lupita Nyongo who had an understanding of the story was initially billed to play the role of Nawi in ‘The Woman King’. 

Her absence was however an opportunity for Thuso Mbedu who did greatly in her role too. 

Africa wants more stories told by Africans, representing the strong culture, traditions and history that the continent has lived in the past and is living in the present. It’s an important phase of the homecoming, and it can make African superstars.

Image credit: Chris Hellier/Getty Images)

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