By: Dr. Calenthia Dowdy, ROJ Trainer
Deep anticipation was what I felt rising inside me as I sat in my seat at the movie theater Friday night of The Woman King. It was opening weekend and I was determined to be in that number. Knowing that this story was not fictitious but was based in the fact of a real woman warrior group called the Agojie made me swell with a bit of pride.
Set in the 1800s Dahomey kingdom of West Africa where the Agojie, an elite military regime of women take part in protecting their kingdom. The Agojie existed circa 1600-1904 as one of only a few known all-female military units in the world. Also known as the Dahomey Amazons, from the kingdom which thrived during the 18th and 19th centuries in what is now modern-day Benin. The film did not disappoint. It was epic, cinematically stunning, filmed in South Africa, along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town. The warrior women are portrayed as strong, agile, smooth-bodied, and beautiful. Viola Davis plays the formidable Nanisca, General of this women’s army, whose primary task is to train the next generation of woman warriors. And that she does.
There are multiple angles one could take when writing about this film, but for this brief reflection I want to focus on representation, identity, and preparing a new generation. Viola Davis said it wasn’t easy having the film made and she was concerned that once made it might not see the light of day. The reason for that was because movie
executives believed the film was not viable. Who cares about a story centering black people, especially black women? Black African women with agency, power, strength, and confidence would not sell they said. Viola Davis was on a mission to prove these movie producers wrong, and she did. The weekend The Woman King opened in theaters it soared to the number one selling film of the weekend, pulling in nearly 20 million that weekend. Not bad for a film believed to have no viability. However, more importantly to me, was that feeling I had when I arrived at the theater. That excitement and anticipation I felt was because I was preparing to see me a black woman represented positively on the big screen. If it mattered to me, an aging black woman that I see myself, I know it mattered even more to the young black women and girls showing up at the theater to see larger-than-life images on screen that looked like them. Representation matters.
Identity matters. So much of what we learn about ourselves as people in the world, we learn from those most intimately connected to us at birth. We are enculturated from very young to be much of who we become. And then we enter a broader world where people may look, act, move, breathe differently, and hold the earth as if it belongs to them. That broader world makes us question who we are, how we look, laugh, smell, and love. Whiteness takes up all the space and some of us who are not white begin to question our own identities. Seeing a film like The Women King affirms and holds up black and African womanhood and identity as valuable, bold, beautiful, and good.
Finally, the natural and easy intergenerational connections in the film brought me joy as diverse African women lived, loved, supported, and challenged one another. General Nanisca, an aging but apt general fought alongside her younger charges as she taught them the rules and moves of warfare. I liken this to movement building today. For a movement to be most effective it must be intergenerational. Without giving away too much of the film, in case you haven’t seen it yet, the learning goes both ways. The elders have a lot to teach and pass on to younger soldiers, and young soldiers have a lot to teach the elders. We fight together, and when the battle is over, we dance and celebrate together. Agojie!
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