When it comes to screen-ready English folk stories, you can't do better than "Robin Hood"... which might be why Hollywood has done Robin Hood so many, many times.
The famous thief is a core cast member in "Once Upon a Time"; he's the action hero of a dozen feature films, with another four in development as we speak; he's the singing, dancing star of "Robin Hood: Men in Tights"; he's even been a talking, wealth-redistributing, Disney-animated fox in a cap and a tunic. (But no pants, because that would be weird.)
And yet as many times as Hollywood goes back to Sherwood Forest, one thing always seems to stay the same: nearly everyone there, from Robin Hood's band of Merry Men to his ladyfriend Maid Marian, is white.
That might change, however, in the upcoming "Robin Hood: Origins," which promises to be a gritty and authentic historical retelling of the tale. Last week, Deadline reported that three ladies have been shortlisted for the role of Marian, including English actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
If Mbatha-Raw is cast, she'll be the first black woman to portray the character, and only the second person of color ever to join Robin Hood's onscreen crew... unless you include the Sherwood Forest Rap brigade from Mel Brooks' "Men in Tights" spoof, but we're not sure they count.
Unfortunately, the public response to the casting announcement hasn't been all positive. Reactions have ranged from skepticism to disbelief to outright hostility over the possibility that a black Marian could be historically accurate. (One commenter snarked, "Nothing says 'more authentic approach' than a black actress as a 16th century woman of nobility.")
But are they right? Is it really impossible that a noblewoman in pre-Enlightenment Europe might have also been black? MTV News reached out to the author and curator of Medieval POC, a blog which tracks evidence of the presence of people of color in art through the ages, to get some facts.
MTV News: Whenever a non-white person is in the running for a historical role like Maid Marian, it seems like somebody always shows up to argue that people of color simply didn't exist in England (or wherever) during the time period in question. Where does this idea come from, and is it actually correct?
MedievalPOC: The thing that gets people who are overly invested in ubiquitous whiteness riled up about Robin Hood is that it is considered to be a product of a culturally isolated European past. This misconception about European history happening in a cultural vacuum is often taken as a given, which fuels the "historical accuracy" defense of all-white casts. But it should be obvious that you don't have silks and spices without Asia, and you don't have gold and salt without Africa. A medieval Europe with these things cannot exist without a global system of trade, and you can't have trade without travel. Even the classic European Steeple Hennin (the peaked "princess hat" beloved by American children to this day) had its origins in the Boqta worn by Mongolian women.
MTV: The earliest references to Robin Hood started appearing in the 15th century, in the form of ballads. What evidence is there of people of color in England at that time?
MedievalPOC: People of color have been present in Britain since the time of the Roman Empire. One of the most famous archaeological examples is that of Ivory Bangle Lady, a noblewoman whose grave was discovered in a Roman graveyard in York, England. The quality and quantity of the clothing, jewelry and other items found amongst her grave goods show that she was of high social standing, and various tests of her remains showed that she was certainly of African descent.
In the realm of literature, you have the 13th century Arthurian Romance of Sir Morien, the tale of a black knight who was joined on his quest to find Aglovale by Lancelot and Gawain. When it comes to art and religious iconography, not only is one of the biblical Magi commonly depicted as a black man in European paintings and illuminated manuscripts, so is the Queen of Sheba, and of course the Roman Saint Maurice (especially in German art). There are also various accounts of black British musicians like John Blanke, a trumpet player at the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII, who was also immortalized in the Westminster Tournament Roll (1511).
MTV: The character of Maid Marian has evolved somewhat over two centuries' worth of Robin Hood lore, but we usually see her portrayed now as a noblewoman. Is there evidence that supports Gugu Mbatha-Raw being cast in that role? How common was it to see people of color at court in pre-Enlightenment England?
MedievalPOC: You should definitely consider the entourage of the Hohenstaufens, rulers of the Holy Roman Empire circa the 1190s. Both Henry VI and his successor Frederick II had a great many black Christians among their favored courtiers, guards, attaches and servants. There are also multiple documents showing that many black courtiers were a part of King James IV of Scotland, including records of wages, single payments, and gifts for black women of the court. (It's very unlikely they were servants, considering gifts from the King's treasury bestowed on them including slippers, silks, gloves, ribbons and a great deal of pure gold currency.) Moreover, there were also several massive tournaments that were documented and celebrated in verse and song in the honor of a "Black Maiden" or "Black Lady". The first was in 1507, in which the winner was revealed to be King James himself.
MTV: So, there's no reason why a woman like Gugu Mbatha-Raw couldn't play Marian. Is there any reason why one should?
MedievalPOC: A case could be made for that. You have to consider that you're not looking at historical documents or figures, but rather what the people who created these archetypes considered aesthetically pleasing. It's commonly thought that Medieval Europeans considered "fairness" to be synonymous with "whiteness", but that ideal didn't necessarily solidify into conceptualizations of race based on skin color until later. The devaluation of dark-skinned people was part of colonialist justification for their exploitation, enslavement, and genocide. And there are enough exceptions to the black and white paradigm of Medieval values and its supposed correlation to human skin colors to make me question it at least a little bit. It's worthwhile to wonder if our ideas about Medieval aesthetics and values have been skewed by racism from the intervening centuries, rather than originating in the time period in question. Reconnecting with primary sources can possibly help us come to a better understanding of how Medieval Europeans conceptualized beauty.
The fact is, media being produced today are often intended for a global audience, a diverse audience, and positive, non-stereotypical representation of diversity makes historical sense. It's good to keep in mind that our own society and culture influence what we see when we look at history. We're not impartial observers, and our own expectations and experiences will affect what we think is valuable, beautiful, and yes, historically accurate.