High fantasy, especially that of the medieval persuasions, is a subgenre we don’t see much of, but when we do, we flock to the cinema. There’s just something so inciting about their blend of the ethereal and the rustic. In a sense, it creates a nostalgia for an era of storytelling before any of us.
So, I was more than elated when the announcement of The Green Knight came from A24. Not only because it promised the usual beauty you get with their pictures, but also a gritty and contemporary twist on chivalric romance? I mean yes, 1000 times yes! While rolling in my excitement, I also noticed the choices made with the cast. There seemed to be some purposeful choice to have POC actors. I mean Gawain himself is played by the awesome Dev Patel. But the realms and spaces brown people occupy are… kind of questionable. It isn’t a blink and you’d miss its scenario, but follows points on a checklist I'll dive into later. And personally, it opened a dialect about whether medieval fantasy has space for multi-ethnic portrayals. Would that lean into cultural appropriation? And even if it did, is that a bad thing? Check out the detailed "The Green Knight" review with cultural appropriation.
Medieval fantasy has historically never been a safe space for POCs. Whether it’s for adults, like Hard to Be a God, or for children like Snow White, more often than not, the most luck we have in seeing ourselves is a side character who will surely be dead or evil. Although I’m just as frustrated as other BIPOC fans of the genre, in this particular case I can at least see the cogs that led us here. Medieval stands out from other fantasy subgenres in how based in history it is. Sure, something like Legend may have a nod here and there, but a film like The Hunchback of Notre Dame grounds itself by having real places, people, imagery, and cultural touch stones. They are pulling from European cultures during a very white time. So in theory, giving the role to a brown person would be unfair right?
In having the conversation about cultural appropriation and who plays who on screen, I think it is imperative to acknowledge how easy and almost harmless it can feel. As creatives, we are drawn to vibes more than logic. So, sometimes you’ll experience someone’s audition, and, without thinking about it, just feel they are perfect for the role. For me, the decider of when it’s harmful or harmless is dependent on the audience. Here's an example: If Robin Hood were played by a Pakistani woman, then there would be no risk of his 14th-century English roots being forgotten because most of us took a 6th grade history course. But if the shoes were flipped, and an adaption of the Painted Jackal had white men in the leading role, that could run the risk of people assuming the story has a white heritage. Having brown people on set of your LARP session for the big screen isn’t going to hurt anyone’s understanding of the Middle Ages; We’d all be able to digest it for the historical fiction that it is. As I said earlier, I believe The Green Knight kind of gets that, at least a little.