‘Woman King’ true story: ‘Black Panther’ meets African history

One of the most pronounced effects of Marvel’s Black Panther was that it allowed a race of people long underserved by Hollywood to envision an alternate history not rooted in victimhood.

In Wakanda, black audiences could imagine an African nation that had triumphed over colonialism. And through the Dora Milaje – the elite team of female warriors who defended the fictional kingdom – moviegoers encountered an army of powerful women standing their ground against men.

In fact, the Dora Milaje were modeled after the Agojie warrior women (also known as the Dahomey Amazons) who defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin) in the 18th century and were the dominant military force in society. Now the Agojie are the subject of a new film, The Woman King, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, from a story by actress Maria Bello and screenwriter Dana Stevens.

By 1823, the kingdom of Dahomey was under the thumb of the western-influenced, wealthier Oyo Empire. It was forced to pay tribute in the form of maidens, arms, and captives, which were sold into slavery to European colonizers.

Viola Davis is the Agojie leader of Nanisca "The Woman King."

Viola Davis is the Agojie leader Nanisca in The Woman King.

(Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures)

“There was this David and Goliath kind of thing where the slightly smaller nation decided to fight back,” said Cathy Schulman, a producer on the film. “And of course it was the Agojie who led the fight.”

The idea of ​​making a film about the Agojie came about in 2016 during a trip to Benin, where Bello was first introduced to the warriors learned.

“She said, ‘Can you imagine that one day we would actually make a film about this amazing group of female soldiers who caused such an act of resistance that slavery was put on hold for a while?'” recalled Schulman, who was then an executive at STX Entertainment.

Schulman pitched it to STX’s upper class, who agreed it sounded like a good idea but was unwilling to offer more than $5 million in funding as they doubted it would have a wide reach at the box office would.

Nevertheless, an initial concept was worked out and a pitch put together that “survived many different rounds in many different places” before it could finally be sold to Sony Tristar. “It’s been a constant pressure and struggle to convince people that we deserve a big budget, that we deserve to tell a story like this,” Bythewood said.

In many ways, the film can only exist because of the massive success of the Marvel film. “‘Black Panther’ was absolutely groundbreaking,” said Bythewood. “It changed the culture and proved something I think we all knew but the industry didn’t understand, which is the strength of us as an audience.”

Thuso Mbedu a "The Woman King."

Thuso Mbedu in The Woman King.

(Sony Pictures)

“For me, Black Panther was this whole exploration of, ‘Can you imagine an African nation with room to maneuver becoming amazing?'” Schulman said. “And I was like, ‘But wait, there’s one African nation that had their own agency that got amazing. We don’t have to believe.’”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-31/woman-king-true-story-agojie-dahomey-fall-arts-preview ‘Woman King’ true story: ‘Black Panther’ meets African history

Sarah Ridley

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