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The Swashbuckling Fantasy of Dev Patel

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As Gawain in David Lowery’s new film and David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s movie before that, the actor is bending the arc of English literary tradition around him.
Photo: Eric Zachanowich / A24 Films

“I see legends,” Gawain says to his uncle, King Arthur, as they look around a room full of aging heroes. “Do not take your place among them idly,” Queen Guinevere responds. Gawain, played by Dev Patel, takes her words to heart and sets off on a quest — the kind of quest that places Patel at the center of an illustrious interpretation of famous English literature. The kind of quest that has, historically, placed white performers at its center.

In 2020, Patel was set to have a banner year of playing customarily white characters. Both David Lowery’s The Green Knight and Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield were scheduled to premiere with Patel in the lead roles. Only the latter movie did, however, months before the pulpy, ahistorical Netflix series Bridgerton, these two projects jointly kicking off renewed discussions about the obvious opportunities and less-obvious pitfalls that come with fully color-blind casting as well as color-conscious casting.

By the time of The Green Knight’s 2021 release, we’ve made it far enough along in the debate to understand a few basic downsides to Hollywood’s takes on inclusive-casting strategies. On one hand, “color-blind” casting — or casting with no professed intention of considering an actor’s identity, à la The Great — runs the risk of rendering race and ethnicity neutral, of turning identity into incidental window dressing. It can ignore the history of the notion that “the best person should be cast for the part,” which, up until recently, almost always meant a white person taking on roles written for their complexion along with everyone else’s. Laurence Olivier as Othello, Mickey Rooney as a Japanese landlord, Charlton Heston as a Mexican prosecutor, John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

On the other hand, “color-conscious” casting — or considering an actor’s identity while casting — has the capacity to overdetermine race and ethnicity, particularly when a director/writer provides little substance in the final product to back it up. Take Tim Burton’s casting of Billy Dee Williams as the traditionally white Harvey Dent in 1989’s Batman. Burton specifically chose Williams with the hope of setting up a Black Two-Face in a future Batman film. Valiant as that idea was, Burton’s interest in “the black/white thing,” as he put it in the film’s DVD commentary, turned race into a tool to further his plot rather than a lived experience for Williams’s character. Moreover, in 1992’s Batman Returns, Burton cast Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Two-Face instead of Williams.

And then there is the extremely unwieldy middle ground between color-blind and color-conscious casting, wherein the practice of scrutinizing someone’s skin and background for an artistic endeavor is not obviously conscious or considerate. There is Hamilton, subversive to some, who hail the musical for taking race onstage and its attendant audience expectations and flipping them on their head, and pandering to others, who shudder at the guilt-free patriotism afforded to audiences watching Black and brown people playing idealized slave owners. There is Bridgerton, seemingly a color-blind show until a late-stage expositional dump that offers an eye roll–inducing logic for why there are so many Black aristocrats in Regency era Britain. The Green Knight, as bold and exciting as it is, seems initially to fall within this middle ground.

Here, the decision to cast Patel as Gawain is intriguing, foremost, for what he brings to the character. Patel has a reputation for imbuing roles with boyish charm, a natural sense of innocence, and pure curiosity. His turns on the British show Skins and in the star-making Slumdog Millionaire lean heavily on these qualities, though both admittedly have a lurid interest in how a young, vulnerable Indian boy moves through the world. The Green Knight is something of a natural evolution for Patel, who plays a young man on the cusp of knighthood in a medieval coming-of-age allegory. He’s naive, perhaps too trusting, and very much driven by his id, as a handful of regretful semen illustrates. Patel plays Gawain like a trust-fund kid whose mother still washes his chainmail, who’s on the precipice of something resembling adulthood more than heroism. After agreeing to play a curious Christmas “game” with the titular Green Knight, Gawain must pay for the fame newly granted him, and Patel’s face beautifully milks every second onscreen as he rides, hikes, crawls, and trips toward his destiny.

The Middle English poem upon which The Green Knight is based makes no explicit reference to the skin colors of its characters, and so, despite hundreds of years of assumed knowledge about who could convincingly take up the role of Arthurian heroes like Sir Gawain, there is plausible deniability behind the casting of Patel. Speaking to Vanity Fair about the traditionally “very white story,” director David Lowery said he was “aware” of the effect of his cast on the story, though he did not change his script once Patel signed on. “When you introduce an element like this, are there any accidental subtexts? I’m very sensitive to that,” he said, “and imagine what people might think. Not the trolls on the internet who were just going to complain; they can all go to hell. But just making sure that we’re not giving a message that we weren’t intending to give.”

In The Green Knight, as well as in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, the lack of distinction between “character played by an actor of color” and “character of color” is key to the subtext, because, like many instances of color-blind or color-conscious casting before them, the narrative place of race isn’t straightforward in either. Patel’s idealistic, scrappy, melancholic performance as Copperfield is supported by a host of British actors who were cast blindly with gleeful abandon. The likes of Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Aneurin Barnard, and Rosalind Eleazar play characters related to, married to, and working with one another, all without any narrative contrivance. White Welsh actress Morfydd Clark (who most recently appeared in Saint Maud) plays Copperfield’s mother. Meanwhile, Nigerian British actress Nikki Amuka-Bird plays the mother of white Welsh actor Barnard. It presents a fictionalized historical Britain populated with anachronistic racial and class diversity, and thus a Britain that features no race, or at least no visible racism, at all.

In The Green Knight, there is more implicit racial math happening. British Indian actress Sarita Choudhury plays the British Indian Gawain’s mother (and King Arthur’s sister). Gawain’s sisters in the film were consciously cast as a result; they are played by Nita Mishra, Tara McDonagh, and Atheena Frizzell. All of this, however, is similarly incidental to the film’s plot. Beyond the linear casting of Gawain’s immediate family, the film doesn’t try to draw your attention to their race in relation to King Arthur (played by white English actor Sean Harris) and his knights, or anyone, for that matter. To be fair, that absence can be refreshing; rather than the didactic, corporate-mandated representation of, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is something to the simple pleasure of watching a wide array of talented bodies and faces in a conventional period film.

But Patel, who received an Oscar nomination for his turn as the Indian-born Australian Saroo Brierley in the 2016 Australian bio-drama Lion, occupies a unique space in this conversation. He’s a prominent, young, undeniably hot actor of color who comes from a specific ethnic and racial cross section of the British empire — born to Indian parents who were themselves born in the former British colony of Nairobi — and whose two latest films adapt British history and lore for new audiences. His opinion on how his identity might factor into these roles has been somewhat vague. Around the release of Copperfield, Patel told Indiewire, “What you do as an actor is, you want to be able to explore. The very nature of our job is to be able to step into different skins and be other people.” Indeed, stepping into different skins is part of the job, but deciding which skin is off limits is where the trouble lurks. Patel seems to be growing tired of the topic. In a more recent New York Times profile, he said, “All this talk of representation and I’m here on top of a horse in chain mail, in the freezing cold, hoping I don’t get diarrhea.” His point gestures to the real issue: It’s not on artists of color, specifically dark-skinned artists, to mark out territory for representation in their respective industries. Racism and colorism are problems generated by white, white-passing, and light-skinned people.

So where does The Green Knight stand in the timeline? Lowery’s casting is inspired for giving Patel a role worthy of his talents, but it is hardly subversive — and not every project that implements nontraditional casting needs to be. Lowery’s film makes no indictments about British imperialism or historical conquest by way of its lead character — which, as the director has stated, was never the intention of his story. Instead, Lowery’s story is specific in its intentions as a meditation on fantasy, on myth, and on authorship of tall tales. Gawain’s journey is a test of self, a story that burrows deep inside Patel’s character, dissociated as he is from the epic world around him. More than anything, The Green Knight makes the case for imagination. It’s Patel, playing a figure who in a later act of the movie ages from distressed and unemployed to hardened and burnt out in the matter of minutes, who handily makes the case for his credibility in the role.

The problem is that some audience members see any diversity as an antagonistic statement. (Take the backlash against the casting of Noma Dumezweni, a British-South African actress, as Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.) Speaking to Indiewire last year about traditional casting strategies, Iannucci mused, “It can’t be the case that a whole group of amazing actors are prevented from having lead roles, because the whole point of making these films now is because we feel the story is relevant, and we should show that it’s relevant by how we go about making it.” Relevance may not be the exact concept he was stretching for, but Iannucci stresses the most fundamental point in favor of breaking free of rigidity and faithfulness to a text by way of color-conscious casting: What does it give the actor, rather than the story, space to accomplish?

When Patel was asked in the same Indiewire interview if he would consider another famous British role, that of the historically white James Bond, he answered clearly: “I also don’t want to be gifted a role, just because of the tokenistic nature of me being a garnish — ‘Let’s sprinkle some diversity into this!’ That doesn’t make me feel good either. If it works for the story, and I feel like I can bring some truth out of this role or embody it well, then that’s what it should come down to.” With Patel at its center, The Green Knight still plays allegorically as a tale about courage, honor, and self-determination. But, more crucially, it allows Patel to bend the arc of English literary tradition around him and affords him the room to give his best performance to date.

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