“Are you not entertained?! Are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?!”
Urban millennials might identify these words with Jay Z’s “What more can I say”, but movie fans will recognize them as the ones shouted by General Maximus Decimus Meridius after he tore through six gladiators in the desert arena he was forced to fight in.
Today the award winning movie “Gladiator”, directed by Ridley Scott, celebrates its 15 year anniversary. It's a film that you still cannot help but watch every time it's re-aired on network television. The main character, Maximus, is played by Russell Crowe. He was a Roman General, hesitantly set to ascend to the throne as Emperor until the jealous and evil Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) murdered his Father, Emperor Marcus Aurelias. He then tried to kill Maximus, which failed, but managed to murder his entire family, resulting in Maximus becoming a slave, a gladiator and then eventually the hero who would kill Commodus and put Rome on the path to being restored as a Republic.
The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Russell Crowe took home the award for Best Actor. But while the movie is a classic, filled with great fight scenes, anger, revenge and heroism, it is the storyline within the movie that holds great cultural significance and impact for Black America, and it is only fitting that we look at the movie and what it represents as we witnessed the events that unfolded in Baltimore last week.
Imagine being well respected in your town, village or city. You have a great family, wealth, the respect of others and you’ve worked hard for everything you’ve achieved and earned. Then one day it’s all ripped from your grasp; you’re taken from your family to an unfamiliar place, your status in society has been stripped, you’re given rags to wear, you sleep in quarters with strangers and your name has been taken from you. You’re no longer in control, you now have a master and your freedom has been taken away.
You’re a slave.
If you closed your eyes to picture these words, you could envision “Roots” or “12 Years a Slave.” Some might recall the words of Khalid Muhammad at the start of Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads.”
“Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name. Robbed of our language. We lost our religion, our culture, our God. And many of us, by the way that we act, even lost our minds.”
But it’s also the story of “Gladiator”, and this is an indirect, almost subconscious, reason why Black people can relate to this movie and to the life story of Maximus. Slavery knows no color, but for Black America, the impact, significance, brutality and horrid events of slavery are all too real, with many aspects of that period of time still existing today.
During the time period of the movie (180 AD), the ever expanding Roman Empire was built on war and slavery. Read novels of historical fiction by great writers such as Conn Iggulden, Harry Sidebottom and Ben Kane and you'll visualize how slavery operated during the Roman empire in vivid detail. Slaves were in the households, fields and smithies of the Roman upper class. Slaves were cheap and treated worse than animals in many cases, most holding less value than a war horse or a bronze shield.
But then there were the gladiators, slaves that were cheered as they killed or received a “glorious death.” They were stripped of their names, drilled as killers or purchased as bait for easy kills in the arena to satisfy the blood thirst of the crowd. Maximus lost everything, finally ending up as an elite gladiator called both “Spaniard” and “Gladiator.” This distinction in slavery is similar to the parallel existence of the field and house negro during American slavery.
While it’s ironic that his closest friend in the movie is a black man by the name of Juba, who is portrayed by Djimon Hounsou, it’s no surprise as the Empire stretched into Africa, which meant that the slave trade would follow suit. So now we see a man fighting for not only his life and revenge, but for his freedom, name and proper position in life. When he is recognized for his fighting skills and for his true identity, he becomes a threat that must be eliminated.
This is the plight of black men in America, which is another reason why, subconsciously, this movie is so popular with men of color. Talk to any man of color who has seen “Gladiator” and watch his reaction. Most likely he’ll quote the movie, and if he’s even slightly athletic, he’ll act out to appear gladiator-esque. We love the movie for the action and because it’s a great movie, but we also love the movie because we identify with the protagonist, Maximus.
We felt his anxiety and fear as he rushed home to his family. We felt his pain when he saw his wife and son hanging after being raped and murdered. We felt the hatred and anger that boiled inside when Commodus told him how they died. We exulted when he told Commodus “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the armies of the North. General of the Felix Legions. Loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelias. Father to a murdered son. Husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
And we clenched our fists in frustration and anticipation when he let Commodus know “The time for honoring yourself will soon be at an end….Highness.”
Maximus could be a representation of modern day protesters, fighting for justice and equality. They have stood up to the establishment and powers that be and demanded righteousness. We witnessed protesters clash against the police-formed shield walls in Ferguson and Baltimore, a formation that the Roman infantry was known for.
The modern day civil rights activists, made up of all colors, fight for justice, equality, the belief that “Black Lives Matter” and the desire to make society better. In "Gladiator", Maximus and his gladiator brothers, also comprised of different cultures, fought for their families, their right to be free, their lives and for the vision of Rome that would make it a better society.
Some have taken the position that modern day Black athletes are similar to gladiators. They compete in arenas or stadiums, they are employed by wealthy owners who can trade them or cut them and they play to the enjoyment of the crowd. Many current day athletes are afraid to express their views or opinions for fear of sponsorship retaliation or potential revenue implications.
While we have experienced a sort of renewal of the Black civil rights era athlete, the t-shirts worn by Derek Rose and the game-time protest of the Clippers pale in comparison to the actions and willingly voiced opinions of Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. Even the NFL combine and draft have conjured images of slavery for some, and while the comparison of these athletes to classical gladiators is a stretch, it is an interesting perspective that does hold some similarities.
Gladiator was more than a great movie. Maximus was more than a great character. It’s a movie that you can watch for entertainment, drama and action. He’s a character that you can admire, sympathize with and aspire to become in some ways. It’s a movie that depicts the reality of history, with a protagonist that represents individuals and groups of people fighting for basic human rights and justice.
Gladiator is a story that could easily be viewed as a representation of Black history in America. Maximus could easily be seen as a representation of the Black male experience in America.
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Maximus and Juba became brothers so easily.
Strength and honor.