By Daniel Garrett
Director: Gil Junger
Starring: Martin Lawrence
New Regency/Fox Films, 2001
The story of a black man who finds himself in a world of power and conflict that is alien to him, a world in which he has no resources but his own personality and instincts, could be one of profound existential meaning: but it is a plot intended for entertainment, and an excuse for different kinds of buffoonery, in Gil Junger’s movie Black Knight, something I saw on the small screen on a recent early summer afternoon. Starring Martin Lawrence in a performance that he is inclined to give whenever he is presented to the public, it begins with him making crude faces and noises as he goes through his morning ablutions. He dresses casually (for much of the movie he is in a sports jersey) and arrives at work, which is a small amusement enterprise that has a rival in something called Castle World, a kind of Disney theme park. His manager calls a meeting to rally her employees to compete with Castle World, but Martin Lawrence’s character Jamal is unenthusiastic. She admits that she had high hopes for him but that he has disappointed her. It is a classic statement, in films and in life: the character, frivolous and self-centered, has a chance to recognize his limitations and redeem himself, but will he?
Martin Lawrence’s Jamal finds a medallion in the playland’s moat, reaches for it, and is transported to another world, fourteenth-century England. His twentieth-century black slang—irreverent but proud, forceful but silly—is an anomaly. He meets one of the king’s chambermaids, Victoria, a pretty brown girl, whose commitment to social dissent we will learn (the king has deposed the true queen and some of the people are involved in quietly rebellious planning). Victoria is surprised that Jamal can read and write; and he asks, “Who you been dating? You’ve got to raise the bar.” (It is funny, as it has a double meaning, for the past and the present.) Jamal is mistaken for an important messenger (a small irony, as in our time messengers are not that important, but, understandably, then, when communication between countries was crude and difficult, they had some importance); and Jamal as messenger meets the king. It takes Jamal time to understand that the world he is in is not entertainment, not a Castle World play—when a man is beheaded, Jamal begins to realize he is in another dimension.
Some of the film’s scenes are designed and photographed in ways that suggest that the director is not unaware of the possibility of delicacy: such as in a court scene in which unnamed people do a traditional dance (and, later a scene of a quiet countryside). But that is not the predominant tone. The king serves Jamal with his own hand, the same hand the king uses to attend to his dog and Jamal looks disgusted. Jamal is referred to several times as a Moor—and he comments that he is starting to like the word less and less (a pun; and an acknowledgement that there are different ways of saying “unworthy,” or the “n” word). Of course, Jamal leads the court in a new dance—to Sly Stone’s “Dance to the Music” and he, very inadvertently, saves the king’s life but then, seeing the king’s casual cruelty, decides the king is crazy and becomes sympathetic to the rebellion. When Jamal deflowers the king’s daughter, Jamal loses the king some political support from a planned but cancelled marriage. After this and that and this and that, Jamal is captured and freed and fights with more than expected courage, and the rebels win—and Jamal returns to his own world and recommits to his job.
It seems an indulgence to read such a film for political insight or to critique it for lack of relevance: but because of the ongoing issues involving black identity and social participation, almost anything can become fodder for such concerns. The fact is that Martin Lawrence’s Jamal is a very recognizable character: his sense of fun and his irresponsibility can be seen on American streets on any given day. What is sad is how he got that way, out of self-betrayal and the betrayal of his potential by his own community and the larger society: his intelligence given no engagement or respect, his honor ignored until it ceases to exist—with fantasy the only recompense.
Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail addresses are D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com and firstname.lastname@example.org