‘The King Woman’: how to get it right in feminism but fail in history

The King Woman It is an extraordinary film in many ways. It narrates a historical episode of the Kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) in its fight against the Empire of Oyo (Nigeria) at the beginning of the s. XIX. Specifically, it focuses on the Agojie, the first African military unit made up exclusively of women, whose warriors instilled terror and admiration in equal measure throughout the region. Described as “amazons” by European visitors because of their similarities to Greek myth, the agojie also inspired the film’s Dora Milaje Black Panther, the elite warrior unit that protects the king in the imaginary Wakanda. In reality, the last battle of the agojie was in 1894 against the French colonizers.

As an archaeologist specializing in West Africa, I went to the cinema to see The King Woman with great enthusiasm: the possibility of not only imagining, but seeing represented directly on the screen an african kingdom In all its grandeur and complexity, not as an appendage to European history or through clichés of poor and powerless “tribes,” it is somewhat unusual. And in many ways, The King Woman It does not disappoint: the care put into the historical reconstruction of the daily life of the agojie, in the clothing, objects, and customs, is exceptional.

There are small errors in the reconstruction that could easily have been corrected by consulting one of the archaeologists who have been digging in Dahomey for decades, but they are tolerable. In a world where the only African stories Hollywood presents us with are often about plantation labor enslaved or whitewashed versions of Pharaonic Egypt, a film that presents an African kingdom and its women as powerful leaders of their own history is great news.

For that same reason, the irresponsibility with which the film deals with the issue of slavery is very frustrating. In The King WomanDahomey is presented as a kingdom that, having been forced to sell people to European merchants in the past, decides to lead the fight against treats her. Through powerful speeches in which agojie leader Nanisca (Viola Davis) equates subjugation to the Oyo Empire with Atlantic trafficking, King Gezo (John Boyega) decides to end human trafficking and focus on agricultural production.

In contrast, his enemies from the Oyo Empire are presented as slavers vocational, violent villains without any complexity whose evil is defeated in battle by the virtue of Dahomey and the agojie.

The reality was very different: Dahomey not only did not champion abolitionism, but was the main slaveholder in the region, well above the ‘evil’ Empire of Oyo. From the port of Ouidah (which in the film appears to be under European control-Oyo, but which was actually managed by Dahomey), they left between 1659 and 1863. almost a million from African men and women enslavedmaking it the second largest supplier of slaves to the Atlantic trade, only behind Luanda, in present-day Angola.

It is true that during the reign of Gezo (1818-1859) the cultivation and sale of Palm oil, but not because the trade had stopped, but because the abolition of slavery by the United Kingdom had reduced income and the oil helped to supplement it. In fact, the number of people sold in the port of Ouidah not only did not decrease after Dahomey’s victory over Oyo, but increased.

For their part, the agojie, far from being champions of the fight against slavery, directly participated in the capture and sale of people and their arrival generated fear among rural populations. Interviews with the last survivors of the Atlantic trafficking in the US collected in the book barracoon (2018) include detailed testimonies of agojie brutality and their slave raids.

In fact, the actress Lupita Nyongo (who was initially going to play the role of Nawi in the film), left the project after interviewing for a documentary film to descendants of slaves captured by the agojie. Nyongo, who had initially envisioned the agojie as Wakanda’s Dora Milaje, quickly realized that reality was far more complex than fiction.

The King Woman it is a fictional film based on true events and as such artistic licenses may be allowed. But convert to a kingdom that enslaved and sold out tens of thousands of people into a vanguard of abolitionism is not admissible.

Particularly when it was unnecessary: ​​a film could have been made that celebrated the power, courage and sisterhood of the agojie and the cultural and artistic complexity of Dahomey, without hiding its role in trafficking, but focusing on other narrative threads. For lack of material it is not: the agojie fought against the French colonizers and many other neighboring kingdoms, and the intrigues of the Court of Dahomey would give for several seasons of Game of Thrones.

I understand that we need role models and heroes to serve as an example and inspiration in the real world, but it cannot be at the cost of simplifying, flattening, and sweetening a story that has traditionally been mistreated and excluded, such as the African story. The King Woman breaks taboos and shows that a film can be made about african history led by women and that is a box office success. I hope it will be the first of many and that in the future we will also take African history with the respect it deserves.

Syrian Canos Donay She is a CSIC archaeologist at the Institute of Heritage Sciences.

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‘The King Woman’: how to get it right in feminism but fail in history

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