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The story behind “The Woman King”: an interview with politics professor Leonard Wantchekon

<h6>Leonard Wantchekon / Courtesy of Princeton School of Public and International Affairs</h6>
Leonard Wantchekon / Courtesy of Princeton School of Public and International Affairs

Leonard Wantchekon is a politics professor. Over the past year, he consulted with the makers of “The Woman King,” the new historical drama about a group of all-female warriors from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, to ensure the film’s historical accuracy. The Daily Princetonian spoke with Wantchekon about his involvement with the film, and how its subject matter relates to his current research projects and personal life. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity and concision.

The Daily Princetonian: Can you tell us about how an economist like yourself ended up advising a major Hollywood film?

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Leonard Wantchekon: I’m an economist by training. I study political economy and development economics and economic history. Currently I’m writing a book on the lives and legacy of 51 female warriors. So I’m trying to put a face and personal stories behind the myth of those women. I’m also the founder of the African School of Economics. The research I’m conducting on the Agodjie [the female warriors] is actually done with the Institute of African Studies of my school.

DP: How did you become involved with the film initially? 

LW: When [the filmmakers] reached out to the government of Benin, my home country, someone from the government referred them to me. My role was to ensure historical accuracy of key moments in the movie and also to provide details about the cultural context and the social context so that they can make the movie as accurate as possible.

For instance, the word “tribe” is so charged. During my discussion with them, we made sure that it’s used the least possible. Because the kingdom Dahomey is a state in the modern sense. It’s not just a tribe.

DP: It seems like you were involved pretty early on.

LW: After the script was written. Which was fun because I come from there.

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I was born in the region that used to be the kingdom of Dahomey — 35 kilometers from the capital city of the kingdom.

DP: How long did it take to go from the script to the release of the film?

LW: Less than a year. They shot the movie in South Africa, most of last year.

I should also let you know that I’m working on my own documentary on the female warriors. So when I was contacted, I felt like, you know, this will be very complementary to what I’m doing. So, I was very happy to participate. 

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DP: Have you seen the film? 

LW: Yeah, twice. 

DP: Can you share your thoughts on it?

LW: Oh, fantastic! I love the script, and the way it was executed. The acting was superb, well directed. It was very intense. It’s very hard to not be very emotional when you watch it, and I’m not surprised that it’s doing so well.

For a personal reason, there is a member of my extended family [Esseyi] who was one of those warriors who died in the [19]40s. And her son, Narcisse, was basically an uncle to me. And I just realized five years ago that his mother was one of the female warriors.The movie is telling the story of basically a family member. 

And [the real King Ghezo] died in my hometown. This way of celebrating his accomplishment, particularly the fact that he came up with this idea of setting up an all female army, something that was never done before and never done since, it’s personal gratification. I like the fact that it shows that something unique, something revolutionary can come out of Africa. 

African history is not just stories of tragedy, of slave trade, it’s also a story of very strong, innovative institutions that we can still learn from. For those of us who are Africans, it’s great that this movie is showing a face of Africa that most people might not know.

DP: Were there other topics that you were attuned to beyond the use of the word “tribe”?

LW: There was not much misalignment between what [I was] doing and what the film crew was doing. I wanted to make sure that they had the timeline correct. I also made sure that words and terms [were used correctly]. And then [I brought] home the idea that the kingdom of Dahomey was a state in the modern sense. We have bureaucrats; we have military officers; we have a government. The government was also gender inclusive. The prime minister position is gender balanced, with both a male and female prime minister. The king’s mother is a hugely prominent position with huge influence on the government. 

We are talking about highly sophisticated states with modern institutions. I had an interview with [director] Gina Prince-Bythewood, and it went superbly. Something important to stress is that even before I joined, they got the overall story right.

Even today there are still people who are presenting the kingdom based on the narrative built by Europeans, even if it doesn’t make any sense. So the fact that they made these broad choices, were right, and came to me to help correct, I think it’s to their credit.

DP: Could you also talk about your own documentary?

LW: The book is going to be out at the beginning of next year. I already have a proposal. And I got a crew in Benin to reflect the life of Esseyi in my hometown. I organized a conference here and got some feedback on the proposal. 

So hopefully when the book is out, we will have a collection of powerful stories to represent the Dahomey kingdom, to celebrate what these women represented.

It’s so touching to see people believing that women can successfully defend [their kingdom] and beat up men three times their size. So, I want people to believe that this is not fiction.

This is something that the movie presented well. I want to make sure that my own documentary supports this in a good way.

DP: Are there less popular films or documentaries that you believe people should watch after watching “The Woman King”?  

LW: “Amistad” shows the other side of pre-colonial African history and involvement in the slave trade. There are also documentaries on African history by Henry [Louis] Gates [Jr.] from Harvard, and then there’s [“High on the Hog”]. They talk about Black cuisine culture. They cover Dahomey, southern Benin, Philadelphia, South Carolina. So it’s a good way to understand the sophistication and the value of African culture.

DP: Is there anything else you like to add? 

LW: The interview that I had with Gina was to push back hard on the narratives that some people online were developing about Dahomey only being a state involved in the slave trade. They talk about whitewashing the history of Dahomey. And our response was that, when it comes to those women, they came to prominence in 19th century, at the time where the slave trade has almost completely diminished. 

When the slave trade was at its speak, they barely existed and were confined to the palace. When slavery almost ended, that’s when they came to prominence. So, linking them to slave trade is ridiculous. 

[The trade ended], not just because of British advice, but also, because there was domestic opposition to it. And some of the opposition came from, like in the movie, the female warriors.

The Woman King” is currently only available in theaters — where readers can enjoy professor Wantchekon’s contributions to the movie’s historical accuracy and respect for the female warriors from the West African kingdom of Dahomey. 

Auhjanae McGee is a senior in the English department and a senior writer for The Prospect. McGee currently serves as co-director of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Board. McGee previously served as Head Prospect Editor at ‘the Prince.’ She can be reached at ajmcgee@princeton.edu, on Twitter at @auhj_marie, or on Instagram at @marionettes_jubalee.

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