A Quest for the Black Knight: Casting People of Color in Arthurian Film and Television
By Kathryn Wymer
The Year’s Work in Medievalism, Vol.27 (2012)
Introduction: The first thing everybody notices (or perhaps does not even need to notice) about films set in the Middle Ages is that all the characters are usually white. The fantasy of the Middle Ages has always been the exclusive province of European colonialism, representing the historical legitimation of white Christian European domination; a non-white character in such a landscape would surely seem “unrealistic” and need explaining. ~ Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman, Cinematic Illuminations, 353-354.
In the quotation above, Finke and Shichtman attempt to explain assumptions a contemporary audience might bring to Gil Junger’s film Black Knight. The title of the movie alone highlights race as a key issue in the film. Martin Lawrence’s character Jamal is out of place for many reasons: he is a twenty-first century American man who has time-traveled hundreds of years into the past of a distant country. However, the film’s advertising campaign specifically focused on his race as a distinguishing feature. Racial difference between his character and the white society he visits remains a central issue throughout the film and is frequently a source of humor. The way the film uses race as the basis for comedy raises the question of why it should be considered funny to cast a black actor in a film set in the medieval period. Must actors of color be portrayed as the “Other” when (or if) given roles in films made in the West about the European Middle Ages?
This essay will address the roles assigned to actors of color in films and television shows that draw upon the Arthurian legend. Modern audiences remain fascinated by the legend of Camelot, and there continues to be a wide variety of adaptations of the Arthurian stories. As the British Empire grew and shared its cultural heritage, the legend of Arthur became part of the legacy that was handed down to the citizens of the Empire’s colonies, including those citizens of British ancestry as well as those whose ancestors were enslaved peoples or the indigenous peoples of colonized territories. The fact that current audiences for the legend are made up of a more diverse population may account for the increased diversity in casting for many of the adaptations for film and screen. However, though there are more people of color in Arthurian film and television productions, progress toward inclusivity has not been quick or simple to achieve. Adaptations such as A Knight in Camelot (1998), starring Whoopi Goldberg as Dr. Viven Morgan, and Black Knight (2001), starring Martin Lawrence as Jamal Walker, explicitly convey an awkward modern American attitude toward incorporating people of color in a fictionalized medieval setting. The fact that these adaptations place such an emphasis on skin color implies that there is something uneasy about that presence for the audience. On the other hand, the more recent BBC television series Merlin (2008) casts Angel Coulby as Gwen without once bringing up the issue of the brown skin tone of her character’s family. In this current British television series, people of color are included regularly as cast members without any caveats or explanations. This essay will examine the casting of actors of color in film and television adaptations of the Arthurian legend to offer a commentary on how the changing nature of inclusivity in these dramatic interpretations is rooted in postcolonial concerns about redressing the British Empire’s historical oppression of people of color.