Arriving in the wake of Marvel’s Black Panther, the film highlights the links between the saga of the real-life Agoji women, who fought in the former Kingdom of Dahomey (located in modern-day Benin), and the all-women comic-book world protectors known as Dora Milaje.
Watching Black Panther star Nyong’o take in the similarities between the popular superhero story and the real-life lionised legion of women is fascinating. But it’s the Agoji that drive that fascination. So powerful and regimented were they that they were said to have casually slung their male captives over their shoulders after battle, carrying them back alive as a display of prowess to their king. But there are other intricate facets of the story that Warrior Women glosses over: the complexity of the history of Benin and the Agoji, as told by their direct descendants and the descendants of their “enemies” alike.
While Nyong’o herself is engaging and genuinely invested in the things she learns, it’s the stories of the people that are the most absorbing, particularly the reality of the “recruitment” of these women, some of whom would have been forced into lifelong servitude against their will.
We also learn about the 300-year-old battle songs of the Agoji; the oft-maligned and misunderstood Vodun religion; the pain of Martina, Nyong’o’s translator/tour guide, whose mother uncovers a moving ancestral relationship with the almost blindly celebrated fighters, and eventually – though with little room to explore it in the detail it warrants – the kingdom’s part in slavery.
This is not a neat tale of indisputably impressive badassery or triumph over evil. It’s messy; it’s history. But with 15 minutes to go before the end of the documentary, it’s a lesson that comes almost too late. A fact that Nyong’o accidentally touches on herself, noting that “the role of fantasy is to create the heroes we can’t have in the real world, because people are complicated”. Quite.