Black Arthur: Netflix’s “Cursed,” or A Defense of Diverse Casting

Much of the negative response to Cursed — an audacious and original take on the Arthurian legends — stems from those who find its representation of dark-skinned heroes and supernatural “fays” “ahistorical” or unfaithful to the sources. Cursed indeed departs sharply from the medieval fiction genre, which tends to evoke an all-white pre-modern Europe through fantasy, as in Game of Thrones, or historical narrative, as in The Tudors or The White Queen.

The first few episodes of Cursed are at times clumsy, to be sure; but the show gets better as it progresses. I found the last half of the season riveting and the diverse casting — including of a black Arthur — convincing and even moving, juxtaposing with a jarring and even pathetic dissonance what we imagine as a post-racial world, in which people of all skin tones easily mingle, and an eerily familiar one driven by the red paladins’ hatred of the fays.

Netflix’s casting approach deserves defending for the sake of not only this particular series, but also others resisting the all-white norms of the medieval fantasy genre. By way of example, then, the following response to critics of Cursed’s black heroes and fays gestures at a framework for justifying diverse casting in any screen production evoking medieval Europe:

First, those insisting on fidelity to the Arthurian source materials and their historical context prioritize racial over linguistic, sartorial, culinary, and other material and physical forms of authenticity. If we are being historically true, shouldn’t we expect the characters to speak in the fifth-century Celtic language known as Brittonic? Isn’t the use of late medieval and early modern music, dress, and other cultural forms — or, more accurately, the imposition of a modern and largely fictional image of medieval or Norman England on a fifth-century Celtic past — equally unfaithful to the latter? Shouldn’t everyone presented in these legends be dirty, ugly, and short — and have terrible teeth? If we can anachronistically modernize the speech, dress, music, food, and appearance of the represented characters to mirror modern life and its imagined past, then why can’t we also project our multi-racial modernity onto these legends?

Second, legends are not, by definition, “historical.” In other words, there is no “historical” reason for the Lady of the Lake and other supernatural creatures from these legends to be white. Cursed portrays some fays with horns and snake skin. Why is it so problematic if these and other legendary figures are played by black (or, in some cases, Asian) actors?

Third, to the extent that viewers want the fifth century Celts to look like our modern image of late medieval England — a period seven or more centuries removed from the presumed date of the Celtic resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain (the historical event mythologized in the Arthur legends), it bears mentioning that there were in fact dark-skinned people, including Africans and Arabs, in England from the Crusades through to the Tudor period. In his 1185 chronicle, for instance, Richard of Devizes writes casually of the habitual presence of African “garamantes” in London. There is even evidence of a black presence in Britain during the Roman occupation, traces of which inflect the Arthurian legends. Britons thousands of years ago may also have been dark-skinned. There is, in the end, nothing pure about the British or any other “race.”

Fourth, the Arthurian legends refer to several black-skinned characters, including the African Queen Belakané, who is “black as the night,” and her son Feirefis, whom Arthur invites to join the Round Table. There is also Moriaen, who according to the Flores Historiarium “was all black, even as I tell you: his head, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth.” One hopes such characters will make an appearance in a later season of the show. (There is much more to say about blackness in medieval and early modern Europe. Most of the critics of the show seem ignorant of such figures in the legends and of the many points of contact between medieval Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, especially during the thousand year Afro-Arab presence in southern Europe and due to trade links as far north as Norway — whence the presence of Arab coins in Viking burial grounds. Best to get one’s history from scholarship, not the Hollywood fantasy of a white Europe realized, for instance, in such fictional worlds as the Westeros of Game of Thrones.) The point is that black skin wasn’t foreign to the Britain of the Arthurian legends.

Fifth, the Arthurian legends evolved over centuries, sometimes in opposed directions. Morgan le Fay, for instance, gets completely different treatments from one century to the next. All renditions of the story, including modern ones, require new interpretations of the rich trove of contrary materials. Art demands appropriation and re-interpretation that crosses cultural, ethnic, and yes — even racial lines. Doesn’t Italian literature from its very incipit express continuities with Arabic antecedents? Didn’t Shakespeare recast Italian stories into English blank verse? Are we to dismiss Kurosawa’s interpretation of King Lear (Ran, 1985) — widely viewed as a filmic masterpiece in the Japanese tradition?

(It’s quite different, incidentally, when such appropriations do not recognize their sources: for example, “Swiss” chocolate and “French” green beans elide their central American origins or antecedents. But with Cursed there is no question of theft without acknowledgement: the source material and cultural context is clear.)

With the Arthurian legends, we are ultimately bound not by the strictures of an imagined, pure-white Britain imposed on the source material, but rather by the exigencies of endless narrative possibility and hence directorial agency. Any modern screen interpretation of these stories necessarily requires a conscious interrogation of race: Does one want an all-white cast? If so, what work does that do, and for whom? What image and notion of whiteness does the work communicate? Is it possible to tell this story without insisting on the pure whiteness of each character?

Proponents of an all-white cast will, of course, fail to defend the historicity of their notion of whiteness. The idea that Celts, Anglo-Saxons (who invaded the British isles in the fifth or sixth century), and Normans (who invaded Britain in the eleventh century from France) are all part of one “white” group reflects the contemporary relevance of a “white” identity to critics of diverse casting — not an actual identity relevant to Britons in c. 500 A.D. or 1200–1400 A.D., which is the time most of the legends were written. If anything, the Arthurian stories oppose light-skinned Celts to Anglo-Saxons, who may have been more akin to the Germans that even the early modern Benjamin Franklin viewed as too “swarthy” for America.

The need to see an all-white screen interpretation of the Arthurian legends ultimately reflects a desire to project a fantasy of a pristine, pure, and uncontaminated white world or past filled with beautiful people (see especially The Tudors). This image serves only to give “white” people who need it — consciously or not — pride in an authentic, uncontaminated, and ultimately invented racial identity.

These same people complaining about the diverse casts of shows like Cursed are silent when, in Troy (2004), a Hollywood interpretation of the Greek legends of the Trojan war starring Brad Pitt, we see no sign of the African army that, led by the warrior Memnon, defends the city in the actual Greek source material. It’s perfectly fine to cast Americans speaking English to play the part of Greeks from 2500 years ago — just keep the blacks out, thank you.

Do we ever see figures like the African philosopher Wilhelm Amo, who held a professorship in Germany in the mid-eighteenth century, or like the black Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a leading composer in France in the 1770s and a major figure in the French Revolution, in period representations of Enlightenment Europe? Do cinematic evocations of the American war for independence represent the black bodies that littered the revolutionary battlefields? Do we see the blacks fighting Nazis in Europe in WW2 films? Where are the critics demanding “racial” “authenticity” in these cases?

In all events, one cannot divorce contemporary questions of race from medieval fantasies. Remember the dark-skinned “eastern” men with elephants fighting the white “men of the West” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? Remember Daenerys being held up and worshiped as a kind of white savior by the dark-skinned slave army she “freed” — and then retained as an army still bound to service — in Game of Thrones? There can be no whiteness without its contraries: given the unconscious or conscious glorification of whiteness by both a white audience and, in a vicious cycle, dark-skinned others still internalizing the racial hierarchy, one cannot but construct and valorize whiteness and debase its opposites in any articulation of the medieval fantasy genre. It is for this reason that Cursed’s black Arthur triggers so much hostility.

Netflix’s job isn’t to prop up white identity; it’s to make great art. And in this case, after a bit of a slow start, they have done an admirable job. For sheer audacity, relevance, and entertainment value, Cursed deserves praise for revealing fantasies of pure, medieval whiteness for what they really are.

Hassanaly Ladha is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut.

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