The Green Knight doesn’t have to discuss the race to make its racial messages clear
In David Lowery’s highly-anticipated medieval blockbuster The Green Knight, Dev Patel’s role as Gawain adds another element to the adaptations of Arthurian epics. Lowery’s film is obsessed with colour and symbolism. However, skin colour is not mentioned from its colour-coded sequences to its tour-de-force monologue about green and red. The casting choices heavily influence the film’s adaptation of a medieval romance between chivalry knights. This brings out modern anxieties about identity, race and the outsider experience.
Historisch speaking, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Asians or other dark-skinned people wouldn’t have been an uncommon sight in the sixth century, British Isles. This was the era just in the wake of the multi-continent Roman Empire, and trade through Africa and Asia would have been well-established. The Arthurian features a Muslim knight, which is a worthy subject for a TV series or movie. This means that Arthur’s inner circle wasn’t as Aryan as we have seen it in movies.
But the usual whinging that accompanied Patel’s casting demonstrates just how entrenched Arthuriana is in the Western imagination as a tale of White Excellence. It is not surprising that gains in the past were uniformly Wonder Bread-toned. This includes Excalibur’s Liam Neeson and King Arthur’s Joel Edgerton, who coincidentally returns from Camelot as The Green Knight’s Lord of the house, where Gawain faces many, uh? Temptations.
The character’s traditional place in the earlier chivalric romances — as one the noblest and honourable of Arthur’s knights — has been reclaimed by previous film Gawain’s. Patel is a novel character because he is the first Gawain on the silver screen to be a man of colour and because he is the first to be a fuckup, without a title, and spend his time in the brothel or tavern than on the battlefield. Patel stands out in Arthur’s pale court, roaming around its fringes like an insect in the Christmas pudding. Lowery may have cast Patel primarily for how cool he might look on a horse, but intentionally or otherwise, putting a man of colour into this role emphasizes Lowery’s characterization of Gawain as an outsider.