The Agoji, an all-female military group in the kingdom of Dahomey (Benin today) from the 1600s-1800s, have rarely been depicted on screen and never as the heroes of the story. The Woman King, starring Viola Davis and set to hit theaters on September 16th, will change that. What was the real story of the Agoji, and how does it compare to the movie? And how did this moment in history influence other stories we love, like Black Panther?
The Real-Life Agoji
The Agoji, also known as the Mino, were a military regiment for more than a century in the Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa. Because so many men had died in wars with neighboring states, the Agoji were created to defend Dahomey in the late 1600s, likely by King Houegbadja. They remained a unit all the way until 1904 and were recruited both from captives involuntarily and free women. When British travelers started writing about the Agoji in the 1800s, they named them “Amazons” after a similar group of women from Greek mythology. One of them, Richard Burton, wrote that they were not allowed to marry during their service and often had relationships with each other.
The group played an important role in the Grand Council of the kingdom, often advocating for peace in opposition to male military units. When Dahomey was colonized by the French in 1904, the group was disbanded, and many of the members returned to relatively normal lives, though some continued to train recruits (though they never fought in battle again). The oldest surviving combat veteran of the Agoji, a woman named Nawi, died in 1979 when she was over 100 years old.
The Woman King
In the upcoming movie The Woman King, Viola Davis stars as the general of the Agoji, Nanisca, fighting forces that have enslaved her people along with new recruit Nawi. Real-life accounts of the group support the claims that both of these characters really existed, but the details have been changed. In the movie, the warriors are shown to be incredibly disciplined and powerful, and Nanisca takes on power that some think no woman should ever have.
Davis told Variety that she endured 20 hours a week of martial arts, strength, and weapons training to get ready for the role and that it was the most physically challenging part she had ever taken on. By all accounts, it seems to have paid off; the trailer shows intense battle scenes and impressive physical feats by the whole cast, which also includes Lashana Lynch and John Boyega.
Connections to Black Panther
The Agoji were the main inspiration for another famous group of onscreen women warriors, the Dora Milaje from Black Panther. Lots have been written about this connection, and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a Dora Milaje in the Marvel franchise, even interviewed a woman who trained with former Agoji in 2019. But one important similarity between the movie depictions of these groups stands out: the opportunities they provide for more representation in Hollywood. As Davis stated about her upcoming role,
I’ve never had a role like this before. It’s transformative… There’s always a vision you have for your career, but there are very few roles as an actress of color. Dark skin with a wide nose and big lips. I’m just gonna continue to say it. Those stories are extraordinarily limited.Davis, to Variety
The Woman King premieres on September 16th. Check back here for more movie and pop culture news on Bookstr!