The representation of women as fierce warriors is slowly beginning to get democratized and normalized in the film industry, and it is about time! Cinema is giving audiences strong women to look up to, and recently, a specific tribe has been serving as a strong inspiration for major movies: the Dahomey Amazons.
This tribe inspired the famous Dora Milaje in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther movie for Marvel, and more recently, the warriors from the highly anticipated The Woman King. The movie stars Viola Davis and Lashana Lynch as the leaders of the Agojie, fierce warriors protecting their tribe from colonizers.
But who were the real African Amazons, why were they so spectacular, and why do they serve as such an inspiration nowadays? Let’s go back in time and find out!
What is ‘The Woman King’ about?
The movie takes place during the 19th century. The kingdom of Dahomey has a unit of female Amazon warriors known as the Agojie. As the French colonial empire threatens their kingdom, General Nanisca trains a new generation of women, including her daughter Nawi, to fight back.
The movie stars multiple award and Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis as General Nanisca, while Thuso Mbedu plays her daughter Nawi. It’s actually the very first movie the 31 years-old South-African actress stars in. Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, No Time To Die) stars as the fighter Izugie, and John Boyega as Ghézo.
The director Gina-Prince Bythewood (The Old Guard) talked about the movie’s representation of these women:
We didn’t want to show them as one thing: badass women who killed. They also laughed, loved and cried. We wanted to show their full humanity, not just the cool part that would look good in a trailer.
The cast and crew of the movie is also very woman-centred, as was The Old Guard, with 85% of its cast and crew being women. To be as close to its source as possible, the movie was shot in South Africa.
Who were the real African Amazons?
From the 17th to the 19th century, there was a group of women warriors called the Mino (Mi-No), which means “our mothers” in Fon. During that time, the Mino were strong of approximately between 4,000 and 6,000 women and represented about one-third of the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey (current Benin). Some women could become a Mino willingly while others were forced to do so.
Their training was intensive and began at a young age. It included fights, weapons handling and extreme exercises such as crossing a thorn construction or defeating a bull with bare hands. Their strategy was based on only one rule: kill without concern for their own life. To achieve this, the Mino would consume high amounts of alcohol before the fights. The captives of the Amazons are usually decapitated.
As long as they were Mino, they were not allowed to have children or be married. They had to make a vow of celibacy before their deity Dewin, which was supposed to provoke certain pregnancy for the amazons who had broken the rule of chastity. These women’s regiments were highly respected and even had a semi-sacred status, which was strongly linked to the Fon people’s belief in voodoo.
The last known survivor of the Mino warriors was a woman named Nawi (like Nanisca’s daughter in the movie). In 1978, while reporting from the village of Kinta, a Beninese historian met Nawi, who said she had fought the French in 1892. She died in November 1979, she was more the 100 years old. I wonder if the movie’s Nawi will be the last of her tribe as well.
How does pop culture honour these warriors?
There have been multiple representations inspired by the Mino women over the years, in literature, on television and on the big screen, but it’s definitely since 2017 that the impact of the African warrior women can be strongly felt in pop culture.
The most obvious representation remains the fierce and brave Dora Milaje we saw in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther movie in 2018, defending their King and Kingdom as the Mino did. Another obvious depiction of the African warriors was in 2020’s Lovecraft Country TV show when in episode seven, you could see a scene with Nawi (played by Sufe Bradshaw) among the Mino.
Now, of course with The Woman King, an entire movie is dedicated to them, led by one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood and a diverse cast to best represent the story of the Mino. This demonstrates, in my opinion, that there is a growing interest inside Hollywood to adapt real stories and populations that the audience hasn’t seen before. It is genuinely refreshing and can mean so much for all women and other underrepresented communities watching those movies.
I think that we may as well consider DC’s amazons of Themyscira to have a loose inspiration from the Mino, don’t you?
What do you make of this feature? Are you looking forward to seeing the movie when it’s released on October 4th in the United Kingdom? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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