Dashiki | Once we were warriors, kings and queens

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Siv Ngesi, Chioma Umeala, John Boyega, Thuso Mbedu and Masali Baduza at the The Woman King special screening at Ster Kinekor at Mall Of Africa. Photo: Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images
Siv Ngesi, Chioma Umeala, John Boyega, Thuso Mbedu and Masali Baduza at the The Woman King special screening at Ster Kinekor at Mall Of Africa. Photo: Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images


Don’t underestimate the power of representation and seeing yourselves in movies. I learnt this at the pre-release screening of The Woman King last week.

Loosely based on the true story of the Dahomey kingdom in what is now Benin, the film is set in the 1800s and 1900s and tells the story of one of the continent’s feared woman soldiers.

From the minute local actor Thuso Mbedu’s short video message asking everyone to enjoy the film as much as everyone enjoyed making it was screened, the atmosphere in the theatre was electric. The thunderous applause was saying:

This is a local girl who is one of us and is now part of the Hollywood elite. It’s possible for us to also make it someday.

The story is about the Agojie, the regiment that protected and defended the Dahomey nation, led by the fierce Nanisca (Viola Davis). Mbedu, who plays Nawi, features in all the important milestones of the story.

Two factors are influencing the unstoppable wave of success that The Woman King is still to gather like a tsunami as more countries like ours release the movie this weekend. It dares to tell the story of unlikely African heroes in the Agojie warriors, and all its key crew members are women, from director to writer and producer, and with Davis co-producing.

READ: Photos | Thuso Mbedu brings The Women King fever to SA

The people in the theatre were so happy to see empowered versions of their ancestors in contrast to those hanging from trees at the height of the slave trade, that there was not even room to criticise any part of the film.

When the women warriors slit their opponents’ throats and raised their victims’ heads in the air in victory, the audience clapped merrily for that unusual display of the magnificence of sheer black power.

Fortunately, the battle scenes are not washed with litres of blood, but rather concentrate on combat skills meant to stun and entertain. When the slave master was killed in a scene of chaos, the audience nearly stood up in celebration, so elated were they. It was as if the celluloid moment was a small justice for all the atrocities years of slavery had brought to African civilisations.

Because stories of when we were once warriors barely make it past the pitching stages in Hollywood, it took four towering established women figures for The Woman King to see the light of day. After Covid-19, after untold personal and global devastation, we crave affirmation and inspiration.

READ: Thuso Mbedu and John Boyega get real about The Woman King

This is the reason the movie grossed $19 million (R342.4 million) in its opening week last week, $7 million more than Sony had predicted. It is credited as one of the most significant movies to get bums back in seats.

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