A Quest for the Black Knight: Casting People of Color in Arthurian Film and Television
By Kathryn Wymer
This Year’s Work in Medievalism, Volume 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 nonwhite 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?
Top Image: Martin Lawrence and Marsha Thomason in Black Knight (2001) – IMDB