From Cotonou to Hollywood, the Amazons of Dahomey headline

In the sky of Cotonou or on the screens of Hollywood, the Amazons of Dahomey are set up as a model, 130 years after having fought the French colonial troops in the south of what is now Benin.

The Agojié, these women warriors who constituted the elite unit of the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries are on the poster of “The Woman King”, a Hollywood blockbuster, worn by the actress Oscar winner Viola Davis.

The $100 million-budget film premiered Saturday in a cinema in Cotonou, Benin’s economic capital, the same day as its theatrical release in the United States.

In the dark, pride could be read on the faces of the guests lit by the huge screen of the Canal Olympia cinema.

On several occasions, the applause resounded, in particular during the most heroic scenes played by Viola Davis.

In the film, the 57-year-old actress plays Nanisca, a seasoned warrior who trains the next generation of recruits tasked with fighting against a rival larger African kingdom and European slave traders.

“My blood froze at one point. For the princess that I am, certain sequences of this film touched me a lot”, affirms at the exit of the room Sylvine Sènami Ghezo, a descendant of King Ghézo, sovereign of the kingdom between 1818 and 1858.

30 meter statue

“These brave fighters were able to give their lives for the celebrity of the surname that I carry today”, adds visibly very moved this 37-year-old employee.

For Bahunde Efanam, a 15-year-old high school girl who came with her parents, the film is a slap in the face. “We women are combative, but we too often allow ourselves to be intimidated and discriminated against. We are sometimes afraid to speak or take the lead when we are capable of great things,” she says.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the film has also caused its share of controversy: In the United States, some are calling for a boycott of the film, claiming that the Amazons were defending a kingdom that actively participated in the slave trade. In Benin, the film is perceived by others as a new “cultural appropriation” of Hollywood, the feature film having been shot in South Africa and the actors, almost none of whom are Beninese, imitating the accent of Nigerians , its English-speaking neighbour.

However, this is not the first time that the Amazons have been popularized by the 7th art and Hollywood: the warrior Dora Milaje in “Black Panther”, blockbuster of the year 2018, had also been inspired by Beninese fighters.

The opus number two, which comes out in theaters in November, should also give them a more important place.

Faced with the success of the Amazons abroad, the Beninese government has decided to make it the new visual identity of the country, at a time when it seeks to develop its tourist potential thanks to its rich history.

Thus, on July 30, the eve of Independence Day, President Patrice Talon inaugurated in the heart of Cotonou, a bronze statue over 30 meters high representing one of these valiant warriors.

Patriarchal society

“This statue will be in our eyes and those of our visitors, the symbol of the Beninese woman, that of today and that of tomorrow”, declared Mr. Talon during the inauguration of this monumental work produced by the sculptor. Chinese Li Xiangqun.

The Amazons are “a source of inspiration on a daily basis”, assures AFP Senami Totin, a 28-year-old women’s rights activist, who is delighted with the new place given to this figure in her country.

“In a patriarchal society like that of Benin, it takes a lot of courage and determination to lead the fight for the emancipation of women,” she said, citing unpunished rapes, forced marriages, the eviction of women from inheritances, but also the lack of representation of women in decision-making bodies.

This violence, this lack of equality and representativeness, is not the prerogative of Benin. So the warriors are a model far beyond the West African country.

Thus “The Woman King” – with an African-American director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and a predominantly black and female cast – is intended to be “a gift”, explains Viola Davis.

This film is for “the little girl I was when I was six years old”, declared the charismatic American actress during the preview at the Toronto festival on September 10. “For the little girl who was traumatized, for the one who was told she was ugly, for the little girl who was not seen, and who was numb,” she added.

“Viola I see you”, launched the actress. “I see all the little chocolate-colored girls like you.” (AFP)

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