Color in Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword

[This is a spoiler alert, just in case]

This week Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens and the reviews are beginning to come in. I saw the film at a pre-premiere screening last weekend because I was interested in the part that Djimon Hounsou as Bedivere plays in this adaptation.

Whatever the critical reception (A Variety critic is calling it “a loud, obnoxious parade of flashy set pieces’ ; as I type it has earned 7.1 stars on IMBD), the choice of Hounsou to play Bedivere seemed to demonstrate a determination to include people of color within the Arthurian imaginary. Such casting mirrors what seems to be a perceptible, but still rather slow-moving trend in other fantastic and/or heroic worlds. That this was important for the studio was suggested by early rumors that Idris Elba was sought after for the role of a Merlin-like figure.

In many ways this decision is not an innovation. As Maghan Keita showed us in “Race: What the Bookstore Hid” in Why the Middle Ages Matter (2011) and as has been noted recently in a Public Medievalist piece on race in the Middle Ages, medieval texts presented people of color within the Arthurian story world (Sir Morien, the son of Aglovale and a Saracen princess; Feirefiz, Parzifal’s brother from a different mother; and Palamedes and his brothers). But as far as I know, none of these knights has found a place in contemporary films (I don’t think any of them were in Monty Python’s Grail film, Boorman’s Excalibur or Bruckheimer/Fuqua’s 2004 film).

Additionally, Kathryn Wymer has pointed out (pdf) that Hollywood has cast black knights, such as Whoopi Goldberg (A Knight in Camelot (1998)) and Martin Lawrence (Black Knight (2001)). Yet, in these comedies the blackness of these figures within the Arthurian world is a source of unease, tension (and so the premise for comedy).

But the casting of Hounsou as a knight (without irony) is innovative within the world of contemporary re-imaginings of Arthurian legend. Interestingly in light of previous absences of people of color, Bedivere simply appears without a backstory or explanation regarding his skin color. As far as I recall, there is only one commentary on Bedivere’s skin color (in a facetious comment from Arthur when he is trying to ascertain who Bedivere is and the young man asserts that Bedivere cannot be his father). In this regard, he is mostly seen as unremarkable.

In addition to Hounsou, the movie presents two people of color as part of the young Arthur’s entourage (before he is recognized as king). Tom Wu plays George, who trains the young Arthur in martial skills; and Kingsley Ben-Adir plays Wet Stick, a member of Arthur’s criminal crew in Londinium. While the addition of these characters increases the diversity of the cast, neither significantly challenges or overcomes contemporary stereotypes.

Indeed, George (Wu) and Wet Stick (Ben-Adir) are not characters from the traditional medieval Arthurian world, and the roles seem to fit (in the present film) more the London underworld that characterizes Ritchie’s signature films (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), and also perhaps his two Sherlock Holmes films). Here that world has been transposed to Londinium which with a simple change of name now wears medieval garb. George (Wu) runs a fighting school allied with Arthur’s crew that could be read as a boxing club or gym in a present context, and here takes on a martial arts aura presumably because of George’s ethnicity. Wet Stick plays a member of the crew whose role struck me as more supporting than leading (but prominent enough not to be expended in the fighting). If we remove the medieval setting, these roles essentially fit contemporary Hollywood convention at first glance. (And to be frank the George character shamelessly and shamefully rehashes tired Asian stereotypes)

By contrast, Bedivere, then, is the one of these three who does figure in the traditional Arthurian landscape, and therefore asks viewers to read the character with that tradition in mind. In Ritchie’s take, Bedivere is not part of the young Arthur’s Londinium crew, but rather a former knight of Uther (Eric Bana), Arthur’s father. After Uther’s death, he leads a band of resistance against the tyrannical Vortigern (Jude Law). While there isn’t as much popular knowledge and reputation surrounding Bedivere (as there is for Lancelot, Galahad, Gawaine and some others), he is known as one of the earliest members of Arthur’s table and considered a loyal steward/marshal to the extent that he can be seen as the king’s right hand (in this regard, somewhat overlapping the role allotted to Kay).

Based on this general characterization and from the previews and early descriptions, it seemed to me Hounsou’s Bedivere was going to play a Man Friday role to Hunnam’s Arthur, or perhaps a Danny Glover to Mel Gibson in the Lethal Weapon series. But this reaction may have been too quick in its efforts to find Hollywood guilty of stereotyping. While Bedivere is a loyal ally of the Pendragon family, in casting him as a leader of a resistance (during the period when Arthur is unaware of his status) the film appears to endeavor to give the character an independence and individuality (in so much as such things are possible in these types of films). In short, this Bedivere plays a larger and different role from the conventional Hollywood sidekick or mentor.

So the black knights of medieval imaginations—Morien, Feirefiz, Palamedes and others—are still not found in our modern cinematic imaginary of the Middle Ages. Yet, in an important sense their presence is now there: people of color in a space that has been imagined as white for a long time. A welcome and needed development.

I look forward to seeing how these roles are elaborated (Ritchie has indicated an interest or willingness to revisit the world he has directed). As the film winds down and the new king must think about governing, he knights a number of his London friends. One of them already has an Arthurian name; Percival becomes Sir Percival. No surprise there. George, although not a name associated with Arthur’s knights, becomes Sir George. Sensible. And Wet Stick becomes … Sir Tristam! One of the most recognizable figures of the Arthurian world.

Ben-Adir as Tristam in a future installment could be an exciting step in reclaiming (while re-imagining) the place of a black knight in Arthur’s court. And, who knows, we might see the Morien envisioned by a creative designer from Baltimore realized in books and screens.

Morien as imagined by URAEUS (Richard G. Tyler II) from his Behance site.

[Much more can and I hope will be said specifically the way these characters fit pre-conceived notions and challenge those conceptions. For example, Hounsou’s previous roles in action films set in a geographic or temporal distance (Gladiator, Guardians of the Galaxy) help make him seem familiar in the role of Bedivere. And the casting of Angel Coulby as Gwen in BBC’s Merlin series set an important precedent, even as this precedent highlights the paucity of women in Ritchie’s take. Shortcomings kept well in mind, we can (I think) nonetheless see sincere gestures of well-meaning intent in this film and promise that the worlds of fantasy will continue to expand (and endeavor to include). A full and proper analysis would also incorporate Helen Young’s Race and Popular Fantasy Literature (2016) which I am really looking forward to reading after the end-of-semester cram ends (hopefull) this week =)]