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True story of ‘Woman King’: ‘Black Panther’ meets African history

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One of the most pronounced effects of Marvel’s “Black Panther” was that it empowered a race of people who have long been underserved by Hollywood to consider an alternate history not rooted in victimhood.

In Wakanda, black audiences were able to 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 who defended themselves against the men.

In fact, the Dora Milaje were modeled after the Agojie female warriors (also known as Dahomey Amazons), who defended the West African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) in the 1800s and were the force society’s dominant military. 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.

In 1823, the kingdom of Dahomey was under the control of the Oyo empire, richer and influenced by the West. He was forced to pay tribute in the form of virgins, guns and captives to be sold into slavery to European colonizers.

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

(Ilze Kitshoff/Sony Pictures)

“You had this kind of David and Goliath situation where the slightly smaller nation decided to push that back,” said Cathy Schulman, the film’s producer. “And of course it was the Agojie who led the fight.”

The idea of ​​making a film about the Agojie was born during a trip to Benin in 2016 where Bello discovered the warriors for the first time during a visit to the Palais des Rois d’Abomey, the royal palaces of the kingdom of Dahomey in the city of Abomey.

“She said, ‘Can you imagine if one day we made a movie about this incredible group of female soldiers who caused such an act of resistance that slavery stopped for a while? “, recalled Schulman, who was then an executive at STX Entertainment.

Schulman pitched it to the top brass at STX who agreed it sounded like a good idea, but were unwilling to offer more than $5 million to fund it, doubting it would have much box office reach. .

Nonetheless, they came up with an initial concept and crafted a pitch that “went through many different stages in many different places”, before they were finally able to sell it to Sony Tristar. “It was a constant push and fight to convince people that we deserved a big budget, that we deserved to tell a story like this,” Bythewood said.

In many ways, the movie can only exist now thanks to the massive success of the Marvel movie. “‘Black Panther’ was absolutely a game-changer,” Bythewood said. “It changed the culture and proved something that I think we all knew but the industry didn’t understand, which is our power as an audience.”

Thuso Mbedu in

Thuso Mbedu in “The Woman King”.

(Sony pictures)

“For me, ‘Black Panther’ was all this exploration of, ‘Can you imagine an African nation with an agency to become prodigious?'” Schulman said. “And I thought, ‘But wait, there’s an African nation that had its own agency that became prodigious. We don’t have to pretend.