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Lupita Nyong’o on the real-life warrior women who inspired Black Panther

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Helen Bownass
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Nupita N'yongo

The actor tells Stylist about her journey to meet the all-female tribe who inspired Marvel’s Black Panther.

Black Panther took a jaw-dropping $1.3billion at the global box office when it came out in 2018. Yet how many of us know that the Dora Milaje, the film’s all-female warrior tribe, were inspired by a real group of women called the Agoji?

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 In a new documentary, Oscar-winning actor Lupita Nyong’o, who starred as the fearsome Nakia, travelled to Benin, West Africa, to learn more about these powerhouse warriors from the 17th-19th centuries. 

How did you first learn about the Agoji women?

My curiosity was piqued on Black Panther – the Dora Milaje ended up being this beacon of feminism and femininity. We see women in the African context who were the first fighters for their kingdom, who protected their king. It was quite radical for African women to have that kind of portrayal, even in a fictitious story. 

Lupita as Nakia with co-star Danai Gurira in Black Panther.
Lupita Nyong'p with Danai Gurira in Black Panther.

You call your own ignorance a travesty in the documentary. Why did you feel that way?

My education has been skewed towards the Western world so in my adulthood it has taken conscious effort to decolonise my mind. This trip was part of that decolonisation. A history like this should be louder and known around the world. All too often history is written by men. In many instances, women are fighting for their context, to keep their stories alive. When you erase the history of a people, it’s a very smart way to disable them, because people then don’t know what they are capable of. It takes documentaries like this to rewrite the history.

What did you admire about these warrior women?

They were valiant fighters who didn’t ascribe to cultural norms. I would have been one of their number because I am opinionated and wilful. They were doing something out of the ordinary but still living in a very patriarchal system. How do you find freedom within constraints? Somehow one does. I experienced that playing Patsey [in 12 Years A Slave]. The instinct for freedom is a human one. 

Lupita traveled to West Africa to meet Agoji.
Lupita traveled to West Africa to meet Agoji.

Was this a journey you expected to be on?

No. I’ve never done anything like this but I said yes before I even knew how it would be possible. I am tired of hearing about African history from someone else. Doing this was a recommitment to learn about my people and to recognise how important it is to preserve your understanding of yourself and your lineage in order to keep your life in context. That’s transformative. 

Photography: Channel 4, Marvel

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Helen Bownass

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