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The Woman King: A Review (by Ayoka Efua)

Four friends and I went to see the movie The Woman King. Not knowing what to expect, we bought our expensive tickets, drinks, and popcorn. We all had heard of the horror stories about how it was not an accurate portrayal of the Agogie Women Warriors of Dahomey. Some podcast hosts said to boycott the movie because it valorized black on black murder. The five of us settled in with anticipation, a bit of anxiety and a wonder about our possible disappointment, and at the same time hoping for the best. The movie begins with Viola Davis’, husband, Julius Tennon. He played a father selling his daughter into marriage, I was impressed with his appearance in the movie, because for me that meant he supported his wife's role in it. The thing that i notice next was the quality of the cinematography. It was excellent. The natural outdoor scenery was selected exquisitely, almost Black Panther-esque. Much of the pushback about the movie was that the producers were white women who had said they wanted to show that Africa had slavery too. Well, those women were wrong. Africa had indentured servitude that resulted from owing debt or becoming prisoners of war. Yes, the Oyo empire was growing and wanted greater expansion so its leaders could centralize power and take control over small kingdoms. Growth, expansion and centralization meant war. It also meant that smaller kingdoms lost, their warriors captured and held as captives of war or indentured servants. Traders of all sorts swarmed the area like Arabized Africans and the Portuguese. The Arabs invaded Africa in 641 C. E. and were known to castrate men to use as guards in their harems but wanted to ensure that eunuchs were focused on protecting the Arabs’ spoils and nothing else. Catch the drift. Why would I bring up the eunuchs? Because the role of the effeminate guy in the movie was twofold for me. One, he was there to represent LGBT plus or should I say promote it as normal African behavior in traditional African societies. Two, to show the relationship between the Arabs, and castration by Africans of their own people to perpetuate Arab Muslim cultural norms of that period. But to make that connection, one would have to have some knowledge of the history. In this movie, much of what was historically correct was made small, like how women were treated as equal to men, how deeply rooted they were in their spiritual traditions, and how proficient they were in iron smelting and Terra cotta which is fired clay that is burnish red when unglazed. The Dahomey used it for pottery and architecture, like the great wall that surrounded the kingdom. The Dahomey kingdom has a complex history that started as the Fon kingdom fought for survival against larger kingdoms to combine and strengthen its military position along the Atlantic coast in attempts to guard against slave raiders. Dr. Molefi Kete Asante writes in The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony (2019), that three migrations made up what we know today as Dahomey. The first movement was a group of Yoruba people from what is now Nigeria. The second movement of Akon people from the Asante region of present-day Ghana came into the area. Finally, the third movement of people from Alladahanu, from the Southeastern part of today's Togo came into the territory. This is very significant migration because three brothers from the town of Tado entered the territory and the oldest brother became king of the Allada. The others left the territory and took up kingdoms of their own, one in Porto Novo and one near Abamey. Around 1645, the Kingdom of Abamey conquered the neighboring Kingdom of Dan. And thus, the country was called Dahomey, meaning “in the belly of Dan”, present day Benin (pp. 172-173). This kingdom became strong enough to prevent raiders but was also powerful enough to raid other neighboring kingdoms.

The Agogie Warrior women fought alongside their male counterparts. Women, as warriors in the Dahomey came about as a result of centuries of losing men in war and the trading of captives of war for other items. The Africans did not know the magnitude of the dehumanization utilized by European slavery because they only knew indentured servitude. Once voluntary trade turned into forced trade, with entire kingdoms being raided and all of the men, women and children being carted off, never to be seen again until their ascendants returned home some 400 plus years later through the door of return. Major wars were lost by the Dahomey people before the Kingdom began to rethink their role in the peculiar institution.

I appreciated how the women warriors were humanized through their sister hood of care. Historically correct was their pledge to celibacy so they could remain focused on defending the Kingdom against invasion. Their expert marksmanship, attention to detail and self-discipline. Some accounts say that the Dahomey committed ritual sacrifices to ward off evil spirits. The Agogie warriors, just like the Haitian freedom fighters conducted traditional spiritual ceremonies to strengthen their resolve to fight for freedom or death over continued subjugation. On the other hand, how many ritual sacrifices take place every day in modern United States in the name of American patriotism, but not seen to be so?

On a personal note, the movie showed me that I am Amolara, which means born at the right time, with purpose, regardless of how I was conceived. Don't boycott the movie. Go see it for yourself and make your own decision. Until we tell our story, we will always be at the mercy of other folks’ worldviews, opinions, and portrayals of us.

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