In March, this year, Variety treated us to news of a three-series project deal between Sony Pictures and EbonyLife. We couldn’t say much on what to come even when our very own Oprah Winfrey, Mo Abudu mentioned the coming of a ‘fascinating story of the Dahomey Warriors’. While most of us forgot about that event due to lack of details on the production from EbonyLife, something common in their recent productions, pessimism rose regarding the collaboration because of Wayne Garvie’s comment. The President of Sony Pictures Television proudly said ‘Our aim is to help EbonyLife create a portfolio of African content that will fulfil their aim of being one of Africa’s prime creator[s] of premium content.” As if EbonyLife and Nollywood haven’t created a portfolio of blockbuster contents.
All that is over now. We’ve probably gotten over Wayne Garvie’s comment and EbonyLife has promised us so much this year that their collaboration with SPT is just as significant as anything we are expecting from them. But recently, an animation series, ‘Dahomey Mothers’ started showing on BBC Africa’s Women Who Changed the World docu-series and this excitement is forcing us to revisit the Nollywood-Hollywood version of the Dahomey female fighters we were promised by EbonyLife and Sony in March. Not just that, we also remember that before the announcement of EbonyLife and Sony collaboration, an equally excited TriStar Pictures announced the starring of Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o in a feature film, ‘The Woman King’, a story around the general of the Dahomey all-female warriors and her daughter.
“The Woman King’ is the powerful true story of an extraordinary mother-daughter relationship, and there’s no-one more extraordinary than Viola Davis and Lupita Nyong’o to bring them to life.” — Hannah Minghella, President of TriStar Pictures.
“The Woman King’ will tell one of history’s greatest forgotten stories from the real world in which we live, where an army of African warrior women staved off slavery, colonialism and inter-tribal warfare to unify a nation.” — Cathy Schulman, Welle Entertainment
If you have seen ‘Black Panther’ then you know a few things about the Dahomey female warriors. The fictional Dora Milaje — that badass all-female army in ‘Black Panther’ was modelled after the historical Dahomey Warriors, also called the Dahomey Amazons. Although the group was started by King Houegbadja, the third King of Dahomey, it was his son, the fierce King Agaja that formally established and armed them with muskets. Agaja defeated Savi, a neighbouring kingdom in 1727 with the Dahomey Amazons. When Ghezo came to power in 1818, he expanded the army and transformed them into a ceremonial force.
However, as BBC Africa began the docu-series, ‘Dahomey Mothers’, a positive narrative that shines more light on the bravery and role of the Dahomey female army in the Dahomey Kingdom, questions are being asked subtly on the sensationalism in Western narrative and whether this recent attention will rewrite or endanger Africa’s history. To put it more plainly, will these narratives ignore the complicated history of the Kingdom of Dahomey, especially its significant role in the Atlantic Slave Trade? And back to Hollywood, how will TriStar Pictures’ ‘The Woman King’ tell the story of the Dahomey Warriors? Will EbonyLife and Sony reflect on the role of the Dahomey female warriors in the slave trade?
The Kingdom of Dahomey played a significant role in the slave trade. They became a major supplier during the reign of Tegbessou by raiding their neighbours and far territories. But the most important question is, however, whether the Dahomey Amazons supported the kingdom’s slave activities. John C. Yoder’s work, ‘Fly and Elephant parties: Political polarization in Dahomey, 1840–1870’ and Zora Neale Hurston’s book, “Baracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” shed more light into the political roles of the Dahomey Amazons.
According to Hurston, it is true that the Dahomey Amazons took part in slave raids, taking captives for their kingdom and an example of that is their role in the raid against Abeokuta. It can also be said that most of the Dahomey escapades were influenced by their need to supply goods for the slave trade in exchange for European goods such as firearms, fabrics, knives, bayonets, and spirits. Yoder’s work, however, shows that the Dahomey Amazons, even with their participation in the raids were not pleased with the trade.
Between the 1840s and 1870s, the Amazons were part of the Dahomey Kingdom’s Grand Council and they actively participate in the Kingdom’s policy debates. In Yoder’s account, the female warriors wanted a peaceful and commercial relationship with their neighbours and power rival, Abeokuta. Yoder also went further to confirm that not only did they opposed the slave trade, they also proposed a shift of attention from the slave trade to palm oil trade with Europe, especially, England.
Now that we have settled that, it is important to note that Hollywood’s stories of the Dahomey female warriors may ignore these significant roles of the Dahomey Warriors. From what we have seen so far, Tristar’s ‘The Woman King’ will focus on the First and Second Franco-Dahomean Wars. Also, the narration of Western media regarding this film somehow shows a glimpse of what to come. In March, Patrick Hipes of Variety wrote: “‘The Woman King’ tells the story of Nanisca (Davis), general of the all-female military unit known as the Amazons, and her daughter Nawi (Nyong’o), who together fought the French and neighbouring tribes who violated their honour, enslaved their people, and threatened to destroy everything they’ve lived for.” Will Sony and EbonyLife series follow this narrative too?
It is against these narratives that the question of whether Hollywood is selective in its representation of Africa’s past while focusing on sensational stories and narratives that sells. A minor example is how African media followed and reproduced the mainstream narrative since the attention began in March. It is not totally a wrong narrative, the Dahomey female warriors are brave and historically influential figures and are deserving of such sensations, it is however against the selectivity of western narrations that the concern of how this story will be told arose.