By Saër Maty Bâ.


If ‘race’ is dead, the circumstances of its passing must be examined, its funeral organised and – without assumption, endorsement or dismissal – new critical, post-racial processes triggered and affected. Why is ‘post-race’ still an imprecise discourse? Could end-of-‘race’ be a tool for reading (racial) futures?[i]

The above premise and questions inform my focus on the world within film texts (diegesis) in order to examine epic cinema’s ‘black’ bodies as both potential channels of a journey from planetary conviviality to planetary humanism and breakers of racial hierarchy within cinema. To this end, epic films have been chosen for two inter-connected reasons. First, they embody, epitomise, and/or converse with, major contemporary debates – theoretical, practical or critical – in film and cinema studies: cross-culturality; the transnational, diasporic, ‘postnational’; and digital technology as generator of/affect on the workings of power in and on the body. Second, blackness seems glaringly absent from these debates, despite ‘black’ bodies’ over-determined presence within epic films, past and present.[ii]

Thus, with, in and through epics I am generating new debates on planetary humanism as post-race – i.e., a planetary humanism ‘capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other’ (Gilroy 2004: 4) – something which might be timely in our current moment of ‘race’ and ‘raciology’ crises. Stated differently, I work towards crafting an open-ended process, one that might erase racial hierarchy, by allowing ‘black’ bodies a fluid relation, conversation, synchronisation (across screens, cultures, histories, and time) denied them with/in/through the Euro-Occidental, rigidly raced cinemas. Such crafting entails, in turn, adopting a doubly panoptic framework able to re-position bodies as post-modern and to argue that ‘as far as “race” is concerned, what you see is not necessarily what you get’ (Gilroy 2000: 23). For ‘black’ bodies to deeply disturb our perception of racial borders, Michel Foucault’s reductively Euro-centred panopticon must be challenged, while Paul Gilroy’s tentative moves beyond ‘race’ to a cosmopolitanism yet-to-come are taken issue with (though drawn upon as well). The point is: the so-called post-race moment must critique prophecies, extraterrestrial contact zones, and/or science-fiction-cinema-inspired black and white alliances.

In order ‘to prevent us from flying into stratospheric weightlessness and irrelevancy’ (Naficy 2007: xiv), I follow up the theoretical sections of the article with in-depth analysis of selected film scenes and sequences from two landmark epics: 300(Zack Snyder, 2006), set in Sparta, and Zulu(Cy Enfield, 1964), set in South Africa, to illustrate my ideas. (Of course Zulu, a pre-digital-era film is additionally featured here in order to burn the illusion that so-called new epics such as 300 have solved any endemic problems linked to race, gender, humanism and similar issues, that have affected the genre throughout cinema history.)


‘It is said some lives are linked across time. Connected by an ancient calling that echoes through the ages.’ (Prince of Persia, [Mike Newell, 2009])

A recently published volume, The Epic Film in World Culturekindly rates my contribution therein as having introduced ‘a new vocabulary to epic discourse’ (2010: 15). The rating warrants detailed quoting here, not least because that vocabulary was used to read, among other matters,

‘the black male characters of epic films as an instantiation of cross-currents of different concepts of time, belonging, and destiny that Paul Gilroy calls Planetarity and Conviviality, considering the […] nomadic status of the black epic hero as making visible the importance of the “contact zone” in epic discourse. The wide geographies and intersecting domains of ethnicities and empires in epic films find their crossing points in characters such as Juba [Gladiator], Draba [Spartacus], and Cinque [Amistad]. […] Bâ points out the value of Gilroy’s […] planetarity and conviviality for conceiving the utopian, forward-looking register of the epic text.’ (Burgoyne 2010: 15)

Furthermore, that contribution focused on the world within/of the film (diegesis). It ensured that planetarity and conviviality were linked to Gilroy’s Black Atlantic theory, which ‘unfixes and ex-centres space’, and to Contact Zone theory, which ‘reaccents the need to establish, between black bodies in epic cinema, further multiple, cross-diasporic links and experiences’ (Bâ 2010: 369). Thus, the present article carries forward an interpretation of ‘black’ bodies as unchained to conceptions or readings and potential blind spots already identified in the above contribution (without rehearsing or illustrating theories invoked therein).

Arguably, in epic cinema or any epic film, each ‘black’ body analysed carefully reveals an intricate set of theoretical rhizomes: Xerxes (in 300) and Cetshwayo (in Zulu), on whom I focus mainly, as well as the other ‘black’ bodies examined in these films, are no exceptions. However, before this article’s aim and objective can be properly laid out, the plot summaries of 300 and Zulu must be given, while the following questions are discussed: what does ‘epic film’ represent today? How do 300 and Zulu relate to it, or why choose 300 and Zulu (among many other possibilities) for in-depth analysis?


Set in 480 BC, 300 tells the story of the three-day battle of Thermopylae opposing the ‘Persian’ army of king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) – over 100,000 soldiers – to a Greek alliance of 301 Spartans and about 700 Thespians. The battle, in which three hundred Spartans perished, began after a ten-day stand off during which Xerxes gave king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) the opportunity to retreat or surrender. Spartan-Thespian defeat might not have been so quick without the Greek shepherd Ephialtes’ (Andrew Tierman)[iii] defection: he showed Xerxes a secret path behind Leonidas’ men. Narrated by survivor Dilios (David Wenham), 300 is a long flashback framed between opening and closing sequences set in its diegetic present.

Zulu: The Battle of Rorke's Drift

Set in 1879, Zulu recounts the story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift (South Africa), a small Catholic mission station transformed into a field hospital for the British Army’s 24th Welsh regiment. The Zulus, encouraged by their recent annihilation of the British army at Isandlwana (South Africa), attack the station repeatedly. Though outnumbered, the 24th regiment manages to withstand assaults by the Zulu impis until the latter withdraw. Zulu closes with voiceover narration listing names of the Roark’s Drift British soldiers, dead and alive, awarded the Victoria Cross.


‘Where historical films transcend discrete national public spheres, either in their making or reception, and deliver multiple messages […] initially the scripts, and later the film texts and the linked public discourses, travel along international networks of circulation, being refashioned, repackaged and re-argued as they travel.’ Carolyn Hamilton and Litheko Modisane (2007: 117)

Within the past two decades or so, the West (Russia here included) has been actively re-dividing and re-colonising the planet by fomenting new wars, manufacturing new enemies and switching its allegiances; which nations/peoples are good or bad depends on the West’s economic, political, and military interests: Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran are cases in point. According to western (il)logic, Israel’s nuclear capability is justifiable but Iran must definitely not go nuclear – at least, according to the USA and Britain. In fact, there is no credible evidence that Iran’s nuclear-energy ambitions are military but, akin to Iraq’s never-found weapons of mass destruction that justified Gulf War II, it may just be a matter of time before a western military assault on Iran takes place. By raising these issues though, I am not rehearsing the well-documented opinions that a film like 300 attracted from left-wing and right-wing US American analysts, or from Greeks and Iranians (for examples, see Cyrino 2010: 26.) simply because, in my view, all these opinions project contemporary agendas onto a historical film set in ancient times – a highly problematic approach.[iv]

Similar reflections apply to Zulu when considering what Carolyn Hamilton and Litheko Modisane call its ‘public lives’ (2007: 101-103). Within the last twenty-five years, in the West (in this instance, the US and Britain), these ‘lives’ have been dominated by opposite scholarly readings of the film while a third, African, voice muddled crucial matters related to Zulu, rather than offer a way out of problematic western readings of the same film.[v] As cases in point, Sheldon Hall (2002) argues that, because of their familiarity with US civil rights debates, US film scholars concentrate on Zulu’s ‘ethical and political’ matters, while on the British side Kenneth Cameron (1994: 103), focusing on Africa’s differing links to US and British interests, argues that US American slavery makes ‘Africa […] inextricably linked to American fear and guilt’, a fear mediated onscreen by defeating and rendering Africans ‘as inhuman savages’. And yet, British interests seemed to have ensured that Zulu ‘offered neither of these [two] resolutions’ (Hamilton and Mondisane 2007: 103).[vi] Additionally, the Zulu body was/is marginalised in past or contemporary attempts to examine imperialism, racism and classism in and around Zulu.[vii]

Stated differently, Cy Enfield and the other Zulu filmmakers’ attempts to create ‘a sense of human parity between the two warring sides’ (Hamilton and Mondisane 2007: 101) fails miserably because, no matter how noble their intentions and leftist their politics, they do not attempt to understand the complexities of Zulu culture and society.[viii] Instead, Enfield et al project ‘white’-western/Euro-American perspectives onto the Zulus, whom they transform into footnotes within the film. At the same time, these filmmakers’ Euro-American concepts of nation, race and class cannot, wholly or accurately, help us understand the Zulus – just like (white-Eurowestern) Marxism and Marxist theories are incomplete and inaccurate for grasping ‘black’ history of/and resistance (see Robinson 2000: 2).

Zulu: Ethnographic spectacle?

Thus, Zulu may have had ‘the advantage of rewriting imperial history for a new audience,’ but ‘ethnographic spectacle was the central iconographic strategy’ of its revisionist representation of the Zulus (Hamilton and Mondisane 2007: 102); Zulu embodies a time-resistant double problem from which it must be dislodged: its inadequate reading of the Zulus and what sets it in motion – i.e. the western conception of nation, race and class. These problems are ingrained within the film’s diegesis, something that in turn renders the projection of post-apartheid and/or post-imperial realities onto Zulu futile. All in all, we should avoid the problematic projection of contemporary agendas onto Zulu, a historical film set in the 1960s.

In fact, at this juncture, the reader must be clear about the following three points regarding 300, Zulu and my diegesis-targeted approach to both. First, today’s world is characterised by sharp and contradictory pleas to ‘national, ethnic, and religious belonging’ and requests a wide ‘reconsideration of the [epic] genre from a variety of perspectives’ (Burgoyne 2010: 1). Second, the epic genre’s key defining features are useful to this article: ‘tactility’, ‘eroticism’ and ‘sensuality’ (Burgoyne 2010: 2). Third, today’s epic film symbolizes ‘an appeal to cross-cultural structures of belonging and identification’ (Burgoyne 2010: 4) and, as a result, is a ‘postnational’ project focused on wide narratives of ‘affiliation and community across ethnic, religious, and geographic boundaries’ (Burgoyne 2010: 4) able to support readings against the grain.

Cetshwayo kaMpande, c. 1875.

With this line of thinking, I read 300’s ‘Persian’ god-king Xerxes, Zulu’s Zulu king Cetshwayo, other ‘black’ characters (individuals in 300, a so-called faceless mass in Zulu) in order to transcend blind-spots, and various border- and boundary-restrictions. Accordingly, these bodies, and this article, create further relations, processes of conversation, and synchronizations between ‘black’ bodies in epic cinema that are conducive to critically positing, in the ultimate section of this article, foundational elements of a debate on planetary humanism – with/in and through cinema – during our moment of race and raciology crises. In the meantime, I emphatically take exception to the following deceptive and false statement made about 300, one which highlights also what is lacking from Zulu’s narrative framework: ‘[…] contemporary filmmakers are now crafting their narrative strategies to engage with and promote broad cross-cultural and even universal structures of identification, affinity, and inclusivity’ (Cyrino 2010: 27).

Re-perceiving 300 and Zulu’s diegetic worlds from a ‘black’-body perspective might well be one way of achieving such broad cross-culturality, while avoiding unsafe claims to universality. Such a perspective helps us steer clear of and forestall the pervasive Eurowestern-centred condemnation of how the West perceives and receives non-western epic films. Though I do not address the West’s auto-critique of how non-western epic films are received and denied status within the West per se, such an auto-critique does echo issues raised in 300’s and Zulu’s own reception and status, as well as western filmmakers’ and scriptwriters’ attitudes to non-western cultures on film. Put simply, Eurowestern-centeredness is a curse – but why and how is it so? How can such a curse be avoided?

By declaring that ‘[t]here seems to be an unspoken premise that constrains the epic genre exclusively to the doctrines and the foundations of Western civilization’, Dina Iordanova (2010: 104) signals a serious problem that, in my view, calls for a de-westernisation of the epic ‘genre’.[ix] However, Iordanova’s own Eurowestern-centred perspective, as we shall soon see, does not permit engagement with de-westernization processes; nor does Iordanova’s non-commitment to film-textual analysis do anything to dis-place issues against which she justifiably and thoroughly argues. Below, the thrust of Iordanova’s thesis is explained succinctly and my claims justified.

Iordanova takes international box office successes of no less than fourteen epic films as proof of how contemporary film markets are conceived and valued and argue that, in terms of films’ major profits, international markets dominate domestic ones. Iordanova also compares costs, profits, and overall box office receipts to show that ‘Asian cinema’ (her focus) is on the rise. More to the point, Iordanova contends that in the ‘West’ a greater understanding of non-western cultures has failed to follow the recognition of Asian epic films, e.g. from Thailand and Kazakhstan, ‘which display most of the ingredients of successful epic films, [but] remain beneath the radar of Western audiences’ (Burgoyne 2010: 7, paraphrasing Iordanova). Iordanova also demonstrates and deplores usefully that manifold contradictions involving taste, lack of greater intellectual and informed awareness of Asian cultures, and of (epic) film genre issues, seem ‘to limit the humanistic and political value of the globalizing movement of epic cinema’ (Burgoyne 2010: 8). Nonetheless, the ‘genre matters’ section of Iordanova’s chapter (pp. 117-118) exposes her non-engagement with both the de-westernisation of epic cinema and the necessary close re-reading of epic film texts. For reasons of fairness and clarity, Iordanova must be quoted in detail before being challenged with question-comments.

‘Most definitions of the epic do not limit the concept to specific civilizational or religious boundaries; therefore, Eastern and Southern, Confucian and Muslim societies, as well as Christian and Western cultures ought to be able to equally successfully produce epics that display the vital mimetic and cathartic qualities needed for a work of art to qualify as epics if scrutinized in the context of Aristotelian canon of epic poetry.[x] Most films mentioned in the course of this investigation would qualify as epics also in the terms of Hegelian aesthetics, in particular keeping in mind Hegel’s view of the epic protagonist as “situated individual,” a free human being who is faced with adverse circumstances and overwhelmed by the larger context in which one finds himself [sic]. [….]. In addition, [films such as Hero, Jinnah, Lagaan, Asoka or Mongol] qualify as epics in that they are all technically accomplished lavish spectacles, […] deal with heroic historical or mythic protagonists, […] build on the dialectics of social and personal duties and conflicts, and […] look at the relationship between individual action driven by ideas of moral duty and the political repercussions of such action on society and history at large. Yet, when it comes down to critical reception and film historiography, they are not likely to be listed in the annals of the epic genre.’ (My emphases; Iordanova 2010: 117)

Iordanova’s approach is disturbingly Eurowestern-centred. Do Asian cultures, from which the above-mentioned films emerge, not have figures like (or indeed different from) Aristotle and Hegel able to contextualise the same films as Asian epics/films? If these cultures do, why not investigate their thinkers and bring them to bear on the film texts – or, at least, indicate how this is to be done? Should these Asian films not be read differently in order to reach an understanding of why they are routinely being excluded? Put another way, is it not the case that the (white?) West just does not get these films, and/or is too lazy to study the Asian cultures that motor and empower Asian films? My answer to all the above questions is an emphatic ‘yes’ for, as Iordanova demonstrates, even when Asian films are made ‘to adjust narrative structure and moral message’ in line with western conventions (e.g., Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower) their fate in the West remains unchanged. Therefore, at this juncture I must ask how one is to approach 300 and Zulu, two western’ films that make little sense without the non-western cultures re-presented therein.


‘Power works in the depths and on the surfaces of the body, and not just in the disembodied realm of “representation” or of “discourse.”’ Steven Shaviro (1993: viii)

Focusing on these films’ diegesis, I suggest a new perspective on the epic genre via (its) familiar tropes of the body, eroticism, sensuality and sexuality; ethnographic spectacle, and the glorification-denigration of Zulu bodies.[xi] Thus, I keep key characteristics of the contemporary epic film firmly in mind – such as the cross-cultural and the ‘postnational’ mirroring the diasporic and transnational states of today’s globalized world – as well as how digital technology may have been mobilized to demonize ‘black’ bodies (300). The ultimate aim is to allow Xerxes and Cetshwayo to relate, converse, synchronize with each other and with other diegetic ‘black’ bodies in epic cinema, fluidly and in an open-ended process that may lead to the ultimate erasure of racial hierarchy: hence planetary humanism. In so doing, after laying out the theoretical contexts emerging from 300’s and Zulu’s diegesis – which prefigure and motor my sequence analysis and temporary conclusions on epic cinema – I use the following assemblage of film scenes and sequences to illustrate my reading.

In 300: king Leonidas and Spartans kicking ‘Persian’ messengers into a dark pit; Leonidas and queen Gorgo’s love-making as counterpoint to an orgy in Xerxes’ large tent (during which Hunchback Ephialtes is successfully tempted to betray Leonidas); Xerxes’ first encounter with Leonidas; and young Leonidas slaying a massive hungry black wolf in a narrow passage. In Zulu: the elaborate Zulu maiden dance; king Cetshwayo and his order to kill his impi; and the Zulu’s final salute to the 24th Welsh regiment.


‘[…] the tradition and impulse to represent the black body as strange, repulsive, or reductively sexual have only been repressed. [….]. […] a rarer occurrence is the representation of black racial identity as a spectacle of oddity in and of itself.’ Adilufu Nama (2008: 71, 83)

‘Black’ identification, ‘black’ belonging

The first theoretical point to elucidate is what kind of blackness relates to Xerxes, Cetshwayo and the other bodies in 300 and Zulu, or what makes them ‘black’. I have argued elsewhere that definitions of the category black must stay ‘fluid, inclusive and cross-fertilising’ so that ‘black’ can acknowledge ‘difference’ while being ‘an expansive, transmutation-friendly, dialogue-establishing way of theorising identities’: in short, a theory of ‘black’ leaving no space for fixation and essentialism (Bâ 2007: 32). Posited thus, ‘black’ translates race as a cultural dialogic affiliation rather than a phenotypic fixation, something which, in turn, allows the affected bodies to resist and then deflect the modern and post-modern, colonial and hegemonic racial hierarchies putting white/light at the top, black/dark at the bottom, and various light-to-dark skin tones in-between. Moreover, through what Paul Gilroy (2000: 129) calls ‘diasporic identities’, this theory of ‘black’ enables relations, conversations and synchronizations between ‘black’ bodies in epic cinema.

Non-racial trans-black histories: race and gender hierarchies (un)masked

Zulu: Monstrous murder?

Diasporic identities are persistently ‘impure cultural forms’ because ‘creolized, syncretized, hybridized’, especially if diasporic bodies ‘were once rooted in the complicity of rationalized terror and racialized reason’ (Gilroy 2000: 129). Put differently, if Xerxes, Cetshwayo, and other ‘black’ bodies in 300 and Zulu, are monstrous, corrupt, and militarised imperialist murderers, they did not become so without warning. I argue that this is the case despite the fact that the filmmakers deliver these bodies to viewers without their indexical relations to diasporic connections akin to those granted to Spartans (as part of ‘Greece’) or the 24th Welsh regiment (as belonging to Britain and the British empire). Instead, in 300 and Zulu ‘black’ bodies are offered as an unchanging quintessence enfolded in what Gilroy (2000: 129) calls in another context ‘a shape-shifting exterior with which [the ‘black’ body] is casually associated;’ a complete, uninterrupted and ‘integral’ interior ‘protected by a camouflaged husk.’

As we shall see shortly, 300 and Zulu impose this ‘black’ unchanging same on viewers at denotative and connotative levels, while the films’ diegetic worlds contradict such an imposition-depiction. Basically, 300’s and Zulu’s diegesis argue that Xerxes, Cetshwayo and other ‘black’ bodies on display or camouflaged in the films share the same features of identity and belonging while at the same time totally overlooking the fact that such sameness must remain non-reified. In other words, that sameness must be incessantly ‘reprocessed’, retained and adjusted resolutely outside the confines of ‘tradition as closed or simple repetition’ (Gilroy 2000: 129).

I would therefore argue that without a complex idea of ‘blackness’ – resolutely anti-Spartan, anti-British empire and anti-racist – Xerxes could never have gathered the variety of cultural bodies mobilised against Sparta or Cetshwayo and the Zulus outwit/defeat/spare the British military. Furthermore, this idea of ‘black’ diasporic identity and belonging, contrapuntal to 300’s and Zulu’s essentialist intentions, is always loose, free and flowing: it forces us to capture changeable forms that are able to ‘redefine the idea of culture through a reconciliation with movement and complex, dynamic variation’ (Gilroy 2000: 129-130) – a point that brings us to the specific ways in which we can begin, within Snyder’s and Enfield’s respective films, to re-perceive Xerxes, Cetshwayo, ‘black’ bodies, and ‘Persian’ and Zulu identities. It bears repeating that these ways are diasporic for they allow a re-examination of the notion of ‘essential and absolute identity,’ a form of ‘nationalist and raciological thinking’ (Gilroy 2000: 125) with which they are incompatible. With this line of thinking, rather than keeping us within the gates of a bleak, plain and absolute ‘dualism of genealogy and geography’, 300’s Xerxes and ‘Persia’, Zulu’s Cetshwayo and Zululand, as well as ‘black’ bodies, supply us with helpful signs and hints for explaining another ‘social ecology of identity and identification’ (Gilroy 2000: 126).

Conversely, I argue that 300’s Sparta and the Spartans’ relation to Ancient Greece and ‘Persia’ on the one hand, and Zulu’s real but unseen – and therefore imagined by the 24th Welsh regiment – empire-influenced relation to England and Wales on the other hand, belie national constructs prone to anxious boundary-erection. The Spartans’ and the British (English and Welsh) soldiers’ respective anxieties push them to retreat into a deceptive and perverse sense of security or ‘sanctity of embodied difference’ (Gilroy 2000: 127). The Spartans and the British encode biology ‘in cultural terms’ (Gilroy 2000: 127). This coding informs and sustains the Spartans’ infanticides of new-born male babies considered physically imperfect and therefore unworthy of becoming Spartan warriors. The coding also fulfils similar functions in relation to both the British soldiers’ fight against a mass of so-called faceless Zulus and the ‘empire’ these soldiers defend and embody. Thus, Spartan, English and Welsh bodies are enrolled ‘into disciplinary service’ at the same time as their respective nations encode cultural specificity into a genetically-determined ‘understanding of bodily practices and attributes’ (Gilroy 2000: 127). Once decoded, such encoding reveals the Spartans and the British as breeders of discrimination and racism.


In effect, early in 300 king Leonidas refuses to submit to Xerxes’ imperial ambitions because some of his fellow Greeks, i.e. ‘those [Athenian] philosophers and boy lovers’ – or, put crudely, gay-paedophiles – had already turned Xerxes down. Consequently, Leonidas goes on to clarify, there is no chance that the warrior Spartans (beautifully-toned, ultra masculine) could accept slave-holding, so-called god-king Xerxes’ authority. Similarly, early in Zulu, at Cetshwayo’s, the guest of honour Father Otto Witt (Jack Hawkins) tells his daughter Magrieta (Ulla Jacobsson) that the erstwhile Zulu military victory at Isandlwana was a ‘massacre’; shortly afterwards, Father Witt would also say to the Roarke’s Drift garrison soldiers refusing to flee with him: ‘can’t you see? You’re all gonna die [i.e., at the hands of massacre-prone Zulus]!’ Witt’s statements – when joined together, and then connected to British soldiers’ conversations about the Zulus throughout the film – embody racist tropes similar to those at play within 300.

The encoding of cultural specificity accents gender differences too. Spartan national reliability and uprightness rests upon ‘the integrity of its masculinity’ – queen Gorgo’s elevation in 300 as Leonidas’ equal notwithstanding. In other words, Sparta’s ‘nationalist biopolitics’ and accepted ‘version of gender hierarchy’ confine women’s bodies to reproducing an ‘absolute ethnic difference and continuance of blood lines’ via the family as its central tool (Gilroy 2000: 127).[xii] It is worth noting that such gender hierarchy is only disturbed when 300 seeks to demonise ‘black’ bodies, while in Zulu it is repeatedly invoked when the Zulus denote/connote a faceless mass providing ethnographic spectacles for the western (‘white’) gaze, as the elaborate maiden dance sequence illustrates.

Film con(ing)texts: historical sources and queer points; subaltern imperialism, pre-industrial identity and savage venerability

The above evolving theories of 300 and Zulu are only useful if the overlapping layers of the films’ textual fabrics are unpacked. Put differently, what do we know about these films that justifies/strengthens such theoretical reading?

Zack Snyder’s film will always challenge the aficionados of binary, neat divisions between fact and fiction because 300 is far removed from the film’s historical source: ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ account of the Thermopylae battle. Snyder’s film is based on co-producer and artist Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300, itself drawn directly from ancient Greek sources but mixed with the Hollywood film The 300 Spartans (Rudolph Maté, 1962).[xiii] Therefore, 300’s thrice removal from history/reality is useful for it generates possibilities of dialogue with that history/reality, while enabling the identification and triggering of a doubly panoptic framework of analysis.

I argue that such a framework is necessary when demonstrating, as per the textual analysis below, that the unpredictably rhizomorphic ‘black’ bodies (i.e., as Persian/Moor/Asian, and the like) can in a single view take in, and show everything, they are assembled with. This taking in-showing process aims at the coercive forces shaping these bodies diegetically for viewers, while seeking out connections with other ‘black’ bodies across films/screens, histories, cultures and time. These ‘black’ bodies-assemblages are visual and luminous. By virtue of being panoptic, these bodies are also always-already ‘concerned with whatever is visible’, while displaying acts and those responsible for those acts: in short, these ‘black’ bodies-assemblages are primarily ‘a system of light’ (Deleuze 1999: 28).[xiv] Moreover, ‘black’ bodies demonstrate that ‘confinement refers to an outside, [that] what is confined is precisely the outside’[xv] and, thus, concur with Gilroy’s argument, already mentioned, that these bodies constitute uncompleted, interrupted and non-integral interiors unprotected by a camouflaged husk. With this line of thinking, ‘black’ bodies’ double panopticity takes theoretical cue from Michel Foucault’s panopticon idea only to un-do its cruxes in three main ways. First, ‘black’ bodies challenge punitive/imprisoning forces at work within the panopticon idea. Second, as unmanageable prisoners, they cannot be transformed into ‘potential targets of the authority’s [query: the filmmakers’?] gaze at every moment of the day’ (Danaher, Schirato and Webb 2000: 54). Third, ‘black’ bodies escape the same authoritative, watchful, systemic gaze that is pursuing them throughout various social bodies, histories, cultures and time zones.

In summary then, ‘black’ bodies undo the privilege of the warder/prison guard/filmmaker for, while s/he is seen as s/he sees, ‘black’ bodies see one another as well: everything is visual and luminous while the architecture (of the panopticon/prison) is amended, even though for Foucault ‘our key political and cultural concern should […] be […] the issue of truth itself [in this case, ‘black’ bodies] understood as a site of contention and struggle’ (Edgar and Sedgwick 2002: 76). Consequently, the point of theorising ‘black’ bodies as doubly panoptic is that double panopticity allows them to cease being merely contrapuntal to, footnotes or objects of the ‘white’ bodies’ gazes and disciplinary regimes (e.g., Spartan).[xvi] Furthermore, double panopticity, combined to dialogue, informs and puts in bold relief 300’s three queer points to which I will now turn: the exaggerated celebration of Leonidas’ heterosexuality and parallel de-masculinisation of Xerxes; the digitally-affected ‘Persian’ messengers and Xerxes; and gender hierarchy, sensuality and sexuality.

Jacques-Louis David: Leonidas at Thermopylae, 1814

Leonidas’ monogamous ‘white’ heterosexual male body and Xerxes’ so-called promiscuous bisexual-to-homoerotic ‘black’ body cannot be understood appropriately through spectatorship.[xvii] Instead, it is the erasure of ‘black’ bodies from critical discourses on 300 that must be interrogated.[xviii] In so doing, the film’s first queer point emerges in bolder relief for two reasons. First, I have found no record that the physique of ‘white’ actors has been photo-shopped, or interfered with digitally in other ways. Second, 300 is held together aesthetically by digital technology[xix] and a stylised colour scheme made of intensified ‘light and dark contrasts in a dominantly sepia color scheme, punctuated by red and black visual accents’ (Thompson 2010: 55). We could then concede, temporarily at least, that 300’s ‘bulging [‘white’] muscles are thoroughly real, accentuated only by tan make-up and body oil’ (Cyrino 2010: 22), while ‘black’ bodies are heavily pierced, and/or covered with baggy-style clothes and capes – a point I will return to shortly.

The second queer point of 300, achieved digitally, affects the ‘Persian’ messengers to Leonidas, and Xerxes. Basically, while the filmmakers leave ‘white’ Spartan-warrior bodies untouched and natural, they interfere with ‘black’ ones: the messengers’ and Xerxes’ voices are deepened to invoke monstrosity and non-human-ness, while Xerxes’ body is made bigger than the lean Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro’s.[xx] Put another way, in 300 ‘black’ bodies are rendered threatening and placed on a continuum of black-monster motifs. For example, parallels are made between young Leonidas fighting a wolf on the one hand, and adult Leonidas and Spartans fighting Xerxes and the ‘Persians’ on the other hand: wolf equals ‘Persian’, and ‘Persian’ equals beast and monster.

Regarding 300’s third queer point, the question is does/could Xerxes desire the masculinised, unambiguously heterosexual, Leonidas? At best, one could only give a perplexing answer to this question because Xerxes’ so-called promiscuity, indeterminate bisexuality-to-homoeroticism transforms him into a contested and contesting contact zone. Indeed, Xerxes’ body (in association with other ‘black’ bodies in 300) exposes Spartan racism and Spartan inner-national conception of place and gender hierarchy. Xerxes’ body also positions him inside a vortex of ‘black’ convivial-planetary (diegetic) dialogue at play within the multiple histories of epic cinema or epic film, of which Zulu is also part and parcel.

At this juncture, I must emphasise that Xerxes is an imperial coloniser but, because of the idea of changing sameness already invoked, cannot be excluded from convivial-planetary ‘black’ dialogue. At the same time, although ancient Greek sources do not describe the historical Xerxes, or so it would seem, at least ‘from ancient relief images, scholars can surmise that [Xerxes] probably had a long, thick beard […]’ (Cyrino 2010: 24). Yet, we now know that 300 reproduces faithfully Miller’s comic book in order to drastically differentiate the diegetic Xerxes from his historical index. Moreover, both texts accentuate visually ‘Persian’ and Spartan corporeal differences and, by the same token, reveal clearly the extent to which Miller and Snyder invent and interfere with Xerxes’ body. For example, Leonidas’ beard is strikingly similar to the historical Xerxes’. More to the point, Leonidas’ beard is made to emphasise his unambiguous masculinity, while Xerxes’ clean-shaven body – head and face included – his makeup, piercings and movements accentuate his queerness. However, the interesting paradox is that 300 conceives Xerxes as an ‘imposing, nine-foot tall Persian king’ (DiLullo 2007: 71) and as a monstrous threatening beast in a manner that is irreconcilable with Xerxes’ facial and other bodily movements within the same film. The incompatibility comes from the fact that, unless Leonidas is within the picture, literally or metaphorically, Xerxes’ movements never make sense. Let us now turn to Zulu’s own three con(ing)texts, i.e. ‘Welsh’/subaltern imperialism, the baseless image of the Zulus, and ways in which Zulu disturbs the certainties of empire shown in earlier imperial-minded films.

Subaltern imperialism unleashes overlapping layers of complexities about Zulu and imperial ideology: a ‘Welsh’ regiment saves British racial-colonial pride, notwithstanding the fact that some of its soldiers are English. Historically of course, the Welsh have been the victims/subjects/objects of and challenged English imperialism. At the same time, as they – not the supposedly superior English – save the Roark’s Drift neck of British imperialism, I would concur with Peter Davis (1996: 154) that Zulu’s story is one of ‘Welsh […] heroism’ and that the Welshmen’s victory was a ‘consolation prize for a country appalled by the Isandlwana shambles.’ Of course, the fact of the Welsh waging imperial wars for English-dominated Britain – against Africans fighting types of ‘white’ cultural and military prejudices akin to those underwent by the Welsh – makes the latter’s subaltern position even more complex. Therefore, to distinguish between ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’ within the deceptively homogenous ‘white’ regiment has exposed the first con(ning)text of Zulu while opening new possibilities of reading both the film’s story, and British imperialism.

Zulu’s second con(ning)text is the way in which, while creating the Zulus’ image for a twentieth century audience, the film bypasses the pre-industrial idea of what the Zulus represent. Pre-industrially, the latter stand for ‘power, heroism, bravery and nobility’, but Enfield’s film positions them ‘in the natural realm of wildness’ (Hamilton and Modisane 2007: 114). In other words, Zulu taps into the stereotype of Africa as darkness, a jungle and primitive space epitomised by the Zulus’ savage nature.

And yet, quoting from Hamilton and Modisane (2007: 114), I would argue that Zulu’s third con(ning)text is that it disturbs the certainties of empire ‘presented in earlier [‘Hollywood-style’] films’ but does this in so restrained and understated a manner that viewers may not notice. This disruption emerges from the way in which film bypasses and reroutes its problematic depiction of the Zulus (see above) so that they may appear strong and venerable. Put differently, Zulu produces a Zulu image rigidly crafted from deeply-rooted stereotypes: literary, colonial, and political (i.e., from apartheid) (Hamilton and Modisane 2007: 118). In short, one must be cautious when reading Zulu imagery and representation in Enfield’s film – a point to bear in mind particularly in relation to analyses of sequences involving the Zulu maidens, king Cetshwayo, and the Zulu impis saluting the victorious Welsh regiment.


‘Earth and water’: ‘Persian’ messengers and the Spartan pit

As already mentioned, 300 is a flashback framed between two sequences in the present. In the first one, Dilios speaks to Spartan warriors around a camp fire about Leonidas’ life. Dilios introduces, illustrates and justifies Leonidas’ treatment of ‘Persian’ messengers while at the same time conveying the filmmakers’ attempt to direct viewers’ reading of ‘Persians’ towards the idea that the latter are savage and inferior bodies. This dual aim is achieved through extreme close-ups and low-angle shots (of Dilios), wide shots (of Dilios and Spartan warriors), and part of Dilios’ speech:

A beastly ‘black’ monster’s face.

‘And now, as then, a beast approaches/Patient and confident, savoring the meal to come/But this beast is made of men and horses, swords and spears/An army of slaves vast beyond imagining ready to devour tiny Greece/Ready to snuff out the world’s one hope for reason and justice/[…] it was King Leonidas himself who provoked it.’

At this point, 300 cuts to a wide shot of a golden sunset, dark clouds with ‘Persians’ emerging from behind a mountain, clothed in light-coloured burkas[xxi] and riding dark and extravagantly ornamented galloping horses. Next, the camera tracks behind (the) five riders heading towards the city of Sparta. From the sunset to the riders’ arrival inside Sparta, the sequence is painstakingly in slow motion, seemingly vindicating Dilios: the dark beast(s) came from the ‘East’. The theme of beastly ‘black’ monstrosity is emphasised by the low-angle close up of the nameless main messenger’s[xxii] glow-eyed, penetrating, cold and threatening stare, one accented by his jet-black chiselled face, piercings (nose and eyelid), glowing jewellery and gold-plated black hat (Figure 1). The messenger’s arrogant self-assurance, his belief in Persia’s superiority and the successful outcome of his mission are explicit. In the next shot, Mensah’s character, still silent, lifts five crowned skulls from the side of his saddle in slow motion as a warning that he wants king Leonidas.[xxiii] When the two men and their respective parties meet, the messenger demands – with a deep, monster-like, digitally-manipulated voice – Sparta’s ‘earth and water’, i.e. submission to Xerxes. Here, viewers discover that Mensah’s character is also sexist and misogynistic for he says of Spartan queen Gorgo (Lena Heady): ‘what makes this woman think she can speak among men?!’. Gorgo’s retort is quick: ‘because only Spartan women give birth to real men’.[xxiv] In order ‘to cool our tongues’ (Leonidas), the king, queen, Spartan warriors, the messenger and his four soldiers walk (unbeknownst to the five ‘Persians’) towards the pit, with the camera tracking back in front of them; Mensah’s character says partly:

Messenger [Looking back and down at Gorgo]: Xerxes conquers and controls everything he sets his eyes upon. [….]. All the God-King requires is […] a simple offering of earth and water … a token of Sparta’s submission to the will of Xerxes.

Leonidas: [….]. Spartans have their reputation to consider.

Messenger [Voice deepened further; he articulates every word]: Choose your next words carefully, Leonidas. They may be your last as king.

Leonidas: [….]. Earth and water; you’ll find plenty of both down there. [….]. Oh, I have chosen my words carefully! Perhaps you should have done the same!

Messenger: This is Blasphemy! This is madness!

Leonidas [after Gorgo’s nod of approval]: Madness? This – is – Spaartaa! [Simultaneously, in slow motion, Leonidas kicks Mensah’s character into the dark pit. Leonidas’ warriors follow suit by slaughtering and pushing the other ‘Persians’ into the same pit as Leonidas turns back and walks away from the scene – still in slow motion.

Oriental, Moor, ‘Persian’ (in)visibility.

Slow motion, close ups of bodies disappearing into the dark pit, and costuming combine to emphasise these so-called slaves’ facelessness and beastliness. Indeed, ‘Persian’ soldiers seem undecipherable; their brown-and-beige ornamented garb-burkas denote eastern, oriental, Moor, and/or ‘Persian’ geo-cultural location but, additionally, makes them almost invisible. Visibility and agency do not seem to matter for bodies unworthy of Spartan mercy; they are ‘provoked’ (Dilios) only to be slaughtered and disposed off as beasts (Figure 2). Sparta can now carry on its work for ‘reason and justice’ (Dilios), e.g. by preparing for war against a massive army of threatening ‘Persians’. Such a process of pursuing so-called ‘reason and justice’ through war, I argue, requires that Spartan women keep at birthing body-perfect ‘real’ men bound to serve their nation’s warring ideals: hence the next sequence analysis, which begins with a statement on Gorgo’s body.

‘White’ heterosexual love-making vs. …

‘Because only Spartan women give birth to real men’, Gorgo said to Mensah’s character. Gorgo, invented from outside 300’s historical sources, is presented as the epitome of a physically-perfect female figure – at least, by Spartan standards – with a sexualised, fetishised and barely clothed body from which any hints of mixed/oriental/Mediterranean looks are removed.[xxv] Yet, in the grand scheme of 300’s body politics and gender hierarchy, Gorgo’s diegetic elevation only serves two purposes: to fulfil male sexual needs and have babies. Not only does she willingly offer herself to corrupt Spartan politician Theron (Dominic West) for brutal rape in order to save Sparta, Gorgo also satisfies her own (husband’s) sexual needs in order to give birth to Sparta’s ‘real’ men. This birthing purpose gives 300’s representation of Gorgo and Leonidas’ love-making sequence all its literal and symbolic importance. Camera angles and shot types emphasize Gorgo and Leonidas’ bodily perfection while slow motion, slow music and black-and-white cinematography accent their sensuality and gentleness.[xxvi] In turn, cinematography, mise-en-scène, the couple’s symphonic sexual interpenetration and facial expressions accentuate their passion to serve the Spartan nation by procreating – as shown below.

Procreating for Sparta.

Gorgo cures her husband’s insomnia and related dilemma regarding Sparta’s imminent war against Xerxes with loving and intense sex. More to the point, at the onset of love-making, Gorgo’s ‘ask yourself […] “what should a free man do?”’ relaxes Leonidas who proceeds to match her passionate sexual performance. In less than one minute of film time, viewers witness seven thrusts/acts of sexual penetration – synchronized with heightened orgasms – interspersed with five short fades to black for a maximum visual pleasure effect. It bears repeating that this heterosexual lovemaking is a fervent endeavour to birth for the (Spartan) nation. Gorgo and Leonidas know that his chances of surviving Xerxes’ attack with three hundred Spartans and allied Greeks are slim if not inexistent. Therefore, the seed of Leonidas, a soon-to-die ‘real’ man, must be sown inside the womb of a consenting Spartan woman’s physically-perfect body, not least because ‘Sparta will need sons’ (as Leonidas declares elsewhere in the film).

In summary then, I re-invoke Gilroy in order to reiterate Spartans’ belief in the ‘sanctity of embodied difference’, their encoding of biology ‘in cultural terms’ and understanding of ‘bodily practices and attributes’ in genetic terms. Put differently, Spartans foreground a ‘nationalist biopolitics’ that conscripts women to continuing the Spartan blood lines, though the latter perform these duties with heightened anxiety because, at birth, the fruits of their sexual labours might be discarded alive in a pit for being physically imperfect by Spartan standards.

… black queer-porno-corrupt-promiscuous lust

In opposition to the Gorgo-Leonidas lovemaking sequence, the one in Xerxes’ huge tent where hunchback Ephialtes betrays Leonidas[xxvii] lasts longer (i.e. two minutes) while foregrounding dark-brown bodies, and dark backgrounds draped in see-through black veils behind which near-naked women dance. According to Tara DiLullo (2007: 102),

‘[…] the once ostracized Ephialtes is delighted by the lavish freak show that awaits him […]. It’s an orgy of the bizarre […]. […] Snyder showcase[s] the opulent debauchery of Xerxes’ court using high-end makeup, prosthetics, prop creation, and lush set design. Using color palettes that denote royalty, such as deep crimsons and purples, the environment captures the regal stature of Xerxes while underscoring the potency of dark, basic desires.’ (My emphasis)

The camera pans across the tent to reveal shots from Ephialtes’ point of view, in slow motion. Viewers first see a well-toned (male/female) body, face and shoulders covered with a male black goat’s head and, like other bodies in the sequence, with a profusion of glittering golden jewellery: this body’s left hand holds a cane or musical instrument the top end of which resembles a mosque minaret. Then, the camera reveals successively two topless male bodies, one each playing the flute and the drum. The next deep-focus type shot shows four women, sexually-appealing and perfect-looking, whose physique may denote black African, Asian, and European phenotypic coding: closer to the camera, the black and Asian women gaze at Ephialtes; in the middle of the shot, a slim one move dexterously her hips and lower body as if to appeal for sex while, further back, a ‘white’ woman lays on a couch, seemingly intoxicated. At this point in the sequence, the camera height is lowered in order to match Ephialtes’s eye-line.

...difficult to locate racially or in terms of gender and sexuality...

A close up of two women’s faces – one whose jewellery painstakingly denotes as ‘Arab’ and another, blonde, wearing a leather necklace invoking sexual bondage or sadomasochist sex games – reveals, as they move out of shot, a sitting person’s limbless torso, who is difficult to locate racially or in terms of gender and sexuality. As cases in point, the lean and hairless torso appears masculine while the made-up and jewelled face invokes femininity and Southeast Asian phenotypic coding; s/he attempts to seduce Ephialtes though her/his gender and sexual indeterminacies may well connote hetero-, homo- or bi-sexuality. Moreover,

Ephialtes: naked deformed monstrosity as guest of lavish freak show.

from Ephialtes’ perspective this person/body is valued in ‘Persia’, but would be rejected in Sparta, if not killed at birth due to corporeal imperfection. Interestingly, it is precisely at this juncture that the sequence cuts to Ephialtes, showing him up close without his Spartan cape or shield and revealing his naked deformed monstrosity. Similarly, the next two shots confirm that so-called imperfect bodies are also used to tempt Ephialtes, something which makes him feel even more at home in ‘Persia’: two women (one on the left, ‘white’; and the other on the right, Arab/mixed race) kiss passionately before turning towards him/the camera; the second woman smiles and, in the same process, slowly reveals scars on the right side of her face that match those on Ephialtes’ own face and shoulder. Then, a third, plum woman, whose face remains unseen, literally brings her small flat chest onto Ephialtes’ face.

‘Black’/Oriental/‘Persian’ queer-porno debauchery.

Next, the sequence returns to the perfect-female-body theme with Ephialtes seeing, from the bottom up, a clearly not-white, slender yet curvy beautiful young woman dancing sensually, wearing jewellery on her genitals and chest in order to heighten Ephialtes’ sexual desire.

Another woman is shown lying on her back with bare large chest on show, before the sequence descends into a choreographed contemporary ‘Lynx Effect’ deodorant advert.[xxviii] Women close in on Ephialtes and from under, next to, and behind him, simulate sexual intercourse and touch Ephialtes as he gets closer to Xerxes’ throne; he quickly acknowledges Xerxes as his god-king and, in exchange for women and wealth, betrays Leonidas.

Women close in on Ephialtes.

In the end, it is fair to say that 300’s filmmakers use the above sequence in order to build up to Xerxes’ words to Ephialtes – uttered in a preposterous, digitally-deepened robot-like voice à la Yul Brynner.[xxix] The words bear quoting in detail before offering a much needed alternative interpretation of the same sequence:

‘Your gods were cruel to shape you so, friend Ephialtes. The Spartans too were cruel to reject you. [….]. Everything you ever desire, every happiness you can imagine, every pleasure your fellow Greeks and your false gods have denied you, I will grant you. [….]. Embrace me as your king and as your god. [Ephialtes accepts.] Lead my soldiers to the hidden path that enters behind the cursed Spartans and your joys will be endless.’ [Ephialtes accepts in exchange for women, wealth and, he insists, a Persian army uniform. To the last request, Xerxes answers: ‘Done!’]

For the alternative interpretation to work, the diegetic Spartans’ narrow worldview and the filmmakers’ own intentions for the sequence – both bio-political – must be done away with or, at least, temporarily suspended in order to allow the following six points, accented by the sequence’s slow motion cinematography, to emerge:

  • The minaret-topped cane/musical instrument connotes Islamic culture[xxx]
  • The flute player could be Indian (South Asian)
  • The drum is a djembé, seemingly from West Africa, North Africa, and/or the Mediterranean
  • The four sexually-appealing, perfect-looking women could be Asian and European
  • The sequence is full of the so-called disabled (e.g., the Arab/mixed-race woman with a face half-scarred) unambiguously valued in ‘Persia’
  • The facts of sexual indeterminacy and curvy larger women reflect Persia’s inclusive and convivial-planetary mindset that is nowhere to be seen in Sparta

In short, with the sequence in Xerxes’ tent, 300’s filmmakers attempt to picture ‘Persia’ as dark, mystic, and queer-pornographic; corrupt, promiscuous and lusty. Nonetheless, I argue that the same sequence emerges as a prerequisite for planetary humanism. Stated differently, planetary humanism is a notion-mindset that Xerxes and other ‘black’ bodies already personify or constantly try to emulate as we shall see. Examining that personification-emulation must begin with a compulsory re-interpretation of the wolf motif in 300, a task to which I will now turn.

Totem Deaf: Leonidas and Giant ‘Wolves’/Xerxes

The first flash back of 300 features adolescent Leonidas’ confrontation with and slaying of a jet-black wolf whose size and eyes prefigure those of Mensah’s character.[xxxi] As Snyder explains, the confrontation was crafted visually by considering if ‘the scene was best served by elements that were practical, virtual, or some combination of the two. Whatever it took to make those frames real’ (my emphasis; DiLullo 2007: 19, quoting Snyder). Furthermore, Dilios voiceover narrates the clash as follows:

‘Claws of black steel, fur as dark night/Eyes glowing red, jewels from the pit of hell itself/The Giant wolf [is] sniffing, savoring the scent of the meal to come/It’s not fear that grips [Leonidas], only a heightened sense of things. [….]. His hand is steady; [as Leonidas kills the wolf in a narrow passage] his form: perfect.’ (My emphasis)

Therefore, I argue that 300 foregrounds a beast in order to then use allusion and parallelism as ways of informing viewers about black/Persian/Asian/Indian/African/Arab, and/or mixed-race bodies.[xxxii] The symbolic importance of Leonidas confronting the wolf in a narrow passage[xxxiii] has already been discussed convincingly by scholars (See Cyrino 2010: 32-33 for example).

However, the direct allusion-parallel made between the wolf on the one hand, and the ‘bestial Persians’ (Cyrino 2010: 33) and Xerxes on the other hand, barely discussed by scholars if at all, stands on shaky ground and needs further attention. This is because, currently, that direct allusion-parallel offers nothing substantial beyond signalling the obvious fact of the colour ‘black’ being a motif in 300, the arrogance of Sparta disguised as stoic suicide, and Sparta’s racist sense of difference. Similarly, if ‘[t]he lamda, or Greek “L,” stands for Leonidas, Lakedaimonia [aka Sparta], and perhaps lykos, or “wolf,” the king’s totem’ (my emphasis; Cyrino 2010: 38, footnote 63), despite the lambda being a visual motif in 300, the above allusion-parallel makes no sense in terms of totems because a totem is supposed to be a guardian/protector treated with deference, nurtured and allowed to live. Killing one’s totem seems therefore senseless; it is an arrogant and mad act that results in the killer being cursed, gravely injured and/or dead. In this line of thinking, Leonidas is a multiply-cursed body for having killed a wolf and the ‘Persian’ messengers and warriors supposedly symbolising his totem. Moreover, 300’s diegetic Spartans’ and the filmmakers’ intentions notwithstanding, the wolf-black/wolf-‘Persian’ allusion-parallel can only make sense if an alternative reading of it is provided, as I attempt below.

Leonidas’ spear eventually bleeds Xerxes (the wolf/totem) in battle, but Xerxes’ powers (military and totemic) kill the arrogant, rebellious and cursed Leonidas. From this perspective, it becomes possible to argue, usefully, that by the time Xerxes and Leonidas meet in 300, both have already mutated into something different from what the film’s aural/visual voice wants viewers to hear or see. It bears repeating that Leonidas is a haughty and cursed body conscripted within heterosexuality, and facing imminent death at the hands of his totem: i.e., the sexually-liberated, powerful but humanist Xerxes. Emperor Xerxes may be drunk with or even self-deluded by divine ambition but he is heading an empire of hundreds of thousands of souls belonging to and coming from various criss-crossing histories, cultures, religions, traditions, social systems and continents and, seemingly, endowed with fluid sexualities. Of course, imperialism must be denounced but, at the same time, I doubt that a power-blinded slave-master, arrogant, sexist, murderous and savage beast could acquire and run Xerxes’ complex empire, which ‘stretched from the steppes of China to the shores of the Mediterranean. [….]. Fierce in battle, wise in history’,[xxxiv] Xerxes comes to his meeting with Leonidas determined to avoid slaughtering Spartans and their allies. As emphasised by Xerxes’ words to Leonidas (spoken in that hybrid, Brynner deep voice) the former additionally attends the meeting free from the stigmas 300 ascribes to his body:

A totem’s attempt to redeem an arrogant cursed body.

Xerxes [down from his giant gold-plated throne]: Come, Leonidas. Let us reason together. It would be a regrettable waste; […] nothing short of madness were you brave king and your valiant troops to perish all because of a simple misunderstanding. There is much our cultures could share.

Leonidas [referring to Xerxes’ soldiers that Spartans already killed]: Haven’t you noticed? We’ve been sharing our culture with you all morning.


Xerxes: You Greeks take pride in your logic. I suggest you employ it. Consider the beautiful land you so vigorously defend. Picture it reduced to ash at my whim. Consider the fate of your women.

Leonidas: [….]. You have many slaves, Xerxes, but few warriors. There won’t be long before they fear my spears more than your whips.

Xerxes [Low-angle shot of Leonidas facing the camera with Xerxes’ jewellery-covered hands on Leonidas’s shoulders]: It’s not the lash they fear, it’s my divine power. [….]. I can make you rich beyond all measure. I will make you warlord of all Greece. You will carry my battle standard to the heart of Europa.


Leonidas: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant. That few stood against many, and before this battle was over that even a god-king can bleed. (My emphasis)

It bears repeating that Leonidas’ spear bleeds Xerxes but Leonidas and his warriors lose at Thermopylae. The cursed Spartan dies, and it seems pointless and ineffective to insist on reading Xerxes in comparison to Leonidas, or to debate the Spartans’ revenge battle of Plataea.[xxxv] Instead, what is needed in relation to Xerxes is an investigation of how – despite or because of his imperial ambitions – he can/cannot relate, converse and synchronise with other ‘black’ bodies in epic cinema. This investigation features in the conclusion where the possibility of a ‘black’ planetary humanism within the diegetic world of epic cinema, and in a post-race discourse context, is suggested. Meanwhile, I turn to Zulu for close textual analysis.


As already mentioned, the process of reading Zulu image and representation, including king Cetshwayo’s, calls for caution and an acknowledgement of Zulu complexity. However, Cetshwayo can only be analysed with accuracy once the female-Zulu and male-impi bodies under his command are addressed. This is because the sequence examined next shows women performing the Dance of the Maiden with their future warrior husbands; it connotes also the idea that both sets of sexes form a compact anonymous gender-fused crowd. Last but not least, the filmmakers present or appropriate impis as a ‘faceless mass’ (Davis 1996: 155).

Elaborate maiden dance, and mass anonymity

Desire-fuelled, gender-equal corporeal scrutiny.

The dance is performed bare breasted and, if Zulu tradition is respected, without underwear.[xxxvi] We are shown a low-angle shot of female buttocks and close-ups of heads and breasts, amid the wide and medium shots of four hundred or so dancing Zulus. These chaste women are unambiguously marked as birthing bodies for the Zulu nation, though, unlike Gorgo/Spartan women, they and the wider Zulu communities do not pretend to ‘give birth to real men’, let alone to be the only beings capable of it. As illustrated in the two opposite lines of women and men coming very close to and then dancing in pairs around each other, each Zulu maiden seems to have picked their husband (and/or vice versa) before the ceremony or to be in the process of doing so during the dance. Up close and personal, couples exchange downward gazes denoting a desire-fuelled but also gender-equal, corporeal scrutiny. Additionally, the dance performance is explicit enough to not need ‘white’ missionary (i.e., the Witts’) ethnographic spectacle or pseudo-ethnographic gaze for intelligibility; not only does performance allow the dancing Zulu bodies to resist ‘white’ definitions, it also permits them to challenge ways in which the cultural concept of ‘whiteness defines us and limits us’ (Forster 2003: 2).

Enfield’s film does not caricature Zulus per se, although, beyond the dance sequence, impis are featuring therein ‘just to charge, repeatedly, and to die’ (Davis 1996: 155). For example, viewers can witness a (crane) shot showing a mass of dead Zulu bodies, one which goes upwards and towards a line of British soldiers standing on a barrier placed above the same ‘black’ corpses.[xxxvii] The shot and the scene in which it features corroborate Zulu mass anonymity (not mass savagery) in the performance of war and death. This is because Zulu handles this issue subtly and, more to the point ends with strong evidence that the Zulus and king Cetshwayo are planetary humanists, as we shall see.

King Cetshwayo, and the impi killing

Hamilton and Modisane (2007: 112) argue usefully and accurately that in Zulu Cetshwayo is ‘both brave and barbaric’ and that ‘[u]ltimately, Cetshwayo’s character remains elusive and underdeveloped […]’ (my emphasis). However, overall their approach lacks the nuance required to generate new and further readings of the diegetic Cetshwayo. This is because Hamilton and Modisane seem to miss a crucial point: the king’s elusiveness and underdevelopment must be (seen as) the site/s of such readings. In other words, instead of searching (exclusively) for the historical Cetshwayo, i.e. for the real world – a process that would risk giving in to binary oppositions between fact and fiction – we must also and predominantly excavate the world inside Zulu. Elusiveness and underdevelopment can thus be made to speak, something which in turn makes Cetshwayo escape the filmmakers’ original intentions at the same time as it leaves us with one remaining task to perform: find out how such an escape takes place.

Cetshwayo/Buthelezi: multiple flowing histories, agencies, and cultures.

Zulu’s Cetshwayo comes across as a supreme leader reigning over a faceless mass of devotees that he leads in battle, and kills or spares at will. Shown in one of the many Zulu assaults on the ‘Welsh’ regiment station, Cetshwayo’s presence on the battlefield is doubly important. This is because he is played by the leader-chief of the Zulu nation – and great grandson of the historical Cetshwayo – the UK-educated Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The latter problematises the diegetic Cetshwayo whose body becomes fluidly traversed and re-crossed by multiple flowing histories, agencies, and cultures (Zulu/African, and British). Put differently, within and through Buthelezi’s body, the historical Cetshwayo speaks to the present – i.e., the 1960s post-(British) empire Zulu nation and his descendant – while Buthelezi himself relates to his own past. Consequently, the diegetic Cetshwayo becomes a figure speaking to the past at the same time as he brings past and future into the (diegetic) present of Zulu. This play on time echoes my earlier point about Cetshwayo’s humanism and connectivity to Xerxes across time and space; it also points towards the fact that Cetshwayo (diegetic, and/or historical) precedes and transcends ‘white’ British colonial figures and his insubordination to British military occupations of Zululand.[xxxviii] Therefore, not only should Cetshwayo be read as a self-sufficient affective hero, he ought to be perceived also as resisting the careless, blinkered filmmakers whose knowledge of African/Zulu culture seems limited or distorted.[xxxix] The same would apply to many demonised or otherwise degraded ‘black’ bodies on screen. In fact, if we refer back to the dance sequence, we can see how these filmmakers’ depictions can be inconsistent.

For example, following Magrieta and Father Witt’s exchange about the Zulu maidens, news of Zulu victory over the British at Isandlwana reach Cetshwayo. The king and his so-called faceless mass of subjects proceed to celebrate but Father Witt is angrily disappointed that, while he was talking peace, the Zulus were massacring British soldiers. Father Witt attempts to leave with his daughter, climbs on his horse-drawn carriage, but Magrieta is spotted by an impi. The latter alerts everyone, including Cetshwayo, while preventing Magrieta from boarding the carriage. The inconsistency emerges from Cetshwayo’s order to kill the impi on the spot. Is it sensible for Cetshwayo to execute his warrior? I would think not, unless we find acceptable the way in which Zulu determines Cetshwayo’s agency through and for whiteness (as norm and ‘race’) while ignoring that while whiteness is ‘performed and reperformed in myriad ways […] so that it seems “natural” to most,’ it still ‘lacks an original’ (Foster 2003: 2). Thus, the order to kill exposes the filmmakers’ binary conception of Cetshwayo as simultaneously compassionate to ‘white’ people and unforgiving towards ‘his own followers’ (Davis 1996: 151). In turn, the same binary approach perverts momentarily Cetshwayo’s planetary humanism. In short, the incident puts ‘white’ Christian over ‘black’ Zulu, ‘white’ missionary over ‘black’ warrior, ‘white’ life over ‘black’ life. Each of these binaries makes no diegetic sense unless meant as a consistent ridiculing of Cetshwayo’s intellect – one more pressing reason for insisting in restoring Zulu agency in Zulu.

Zulu salute to victorious British soldiers

Human(ist) Zulus salute ‘fellow braves’.

In Zulu, the Zulu impis perform war dances and sing war songs. At the same time, their final song is a tribute to the bravery of the Welsh regiment. The Zulus salute British soldiers by raising their shields, spears pointing obliquely towards Roarke’s Drift, before withdrawing. Magnanimous in defeat, the Zulus know when to stop to avoid further, unnecessary bloodshed.

History records the battle of Roarke’s Drift as a Zulu defeat; the British sent Cetshwayo to prison in Cape Town, and Zululand was divided into ‘thirteen independent miniature states, each to be ruled by a separate chief in conflict with his neighbours’ and eventually ‘formally annexed by Britain’ (Pakenham 1991: 88). Concurrently, given the Zulu’s numerical superiority, they could have attempted to finish off the Welsh regiment and probably succeed: that much is clear visually and aurally from wide shots of impis on the hills. Therefore, the salute sequence echoes Xerxes’ humane/humanitarian attempt to reason with the Greeks in 300, and such inter-reel, inter-diegetic, trans-cultural or trans-historical echoing puts Xerxes and Cetshwayo in dialogue with one another. Both kings’ ways of dealing with war, peace and humanity are strikingly similar. As a case in point with particular reference to Zulu, after all, Father Witt is mistaken when he declares that Cetshwayo and Zulus let their women marry only to become widows. Instead, judging from the film’s ending sequence, the Zulus’ agency, cognitive capacity and intelligence informs and sustains their choice of life over the senseless slaughter of their colonisers. This last point must be emphasised because, on the surface at least, Zulu’s ‘successful exploration of the human side of war’ excludes the Zulus and, barring maybe Cetshwayo, the ‘portrayal of fallibility or achievement by individual Zulus is all but absent’ from Enfield’s film (Hamilton and Modisane 2007: 112).


‘[M]ulticultural ethics and politics could be premised upon an agonistic, planetary humanism capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other.’ Paul Gilroy (2004: 4)

‘Nothing is ever definitive. The success of a work of theory should be measured by its capacity to provoke diversities of response, and not by its ability to compel unanimous acceptance.’ Steven Shaviro (1993: ix)

Culture Lines or Colour Lines?

I argue that a move towards planetary humanism requires first and foremost a three-pronged process of repositioning the diegetic ‘black’ bodies analysed above, especially Xerxes’ and Cetshwayo’s on which I have focused. That process should identify: what 300’s and Zulu’s filmmakers have decided to do with Xerxes’ and Cetshwayo’s bodies; how Xerxes and Cetshwayo make these filmmakers do additional things with their bodies that the latter had not planned for (i.e., how they escape the filmmakers’ control); and ways in which Xerxes’ and Cetshwayo’s ‘black’ bodies transcend ancient history and chronological-teleological time in order to speak to our current (21st) century moment.

My argument rests on a belief that our current century/historical moment should be concerned with configurations and models of conflict linked to ‘the consolidation of culture lines rather than color lines’ (Gilroy 2000: 1). Echoing Paul Gilroy’s modernity-focused Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race(11-53) on which my concluding thoughts are based, I add that the 21st Century should be perceived as a moment of post-delineation and post-subdivision of humankind during which ‘race and raciology’ must (if need be!) be indefinitely (put) in crisis.

At the same time of course, culture can be a form of property and, as such, complicates rather than solves the problematic association of ‘race’ with a ‘body’ considered to be separate from the mind; in other words, a body only capable of somatic difference. From what precedes in this article, I suggest that 300’s and Zulu’s filmmakers have conceived Xerxes’ and Cetshwayo’s bodies (and all other bodies) along this somatic line for three main reasons. First, these filmmakers re-confer upon bodies the power ‘to arbitrate in the assignment of cultures to peoples’; second, they call upon bodies to provide evidence of ‘where that culture fits in the inevitable hierarchy of value’; and third, the same filmmakers summon bodies to supply the paramount foundation upon which ‘that culture is to be ethnically assigned’ (Gilroy 2000: 24).

Moreover, 300’s and Zulu’s filmmakers take a problematic short cut to racial corporeality by cultivating ‘[a] compelling idea of the common, racially indicative bodily characteristics’ (Gilroy 2000: 25) in order to create a diegetic binary universe where in-between humans like Ephialtes or the Zulu maidens become second-class citizens, undesirables, victims, rejects and/or easily corruptible. It follows that in 300 as in Zulu all forms of shared aims, unity, and bond are premised on the filmmakers’ approach to the body.[xl] Through the body, these filmmakers’ contradictory stance on ‘race’ and culture, which affects representation in 300 and Zulu, takes us nonetheless a step closer to planetary humanism. Within this line of thinking, I ask: how do the diegetic Xerxes and Cetshwayo escape this problematic-to-ignorant approach to ‘race’ as culture?

X and C Plot Control: Xerxes’ and Cetshwayo’s Body(e)scape

We now know that 300’s and Zulu’s filmmakers have queered Xerxes’ body and rendered Cetshwayo’s elusive and underdeveloped, while offering a framework unable to let viewers know which cultural group Xerxes’ and Cetshwayo’s respective bodies fit in and ‘what it takes to be recognized as belonging to such a collectivity’ (Gilroy 2000: 24). The term ‘Persian’ and the Zulus as a faceless mass seem to be inadequate tools for describing that cultural collective. This is because Xerxes and his so-called slaves, and Cetshwayo and his Zulus, display multiple differences along manifold ‘axes of division: gender, age, sexuality, region, class, wealth, and health’ (Gilroy 2000: 24). ‘Exactly what, in cultural terms, it takes to belong and […] to be recognized as belonging’ (Gilroy 2000: 25) is a question Xerxes’ and Cetshwayo’s bodies constantly ask, but 300’s and Zulu’s filmmakers provide them with no answers whatsoever.[xli] Put another way, Xerxes and Cetshwayo are post-modern black bodies akin to contemporary black athletes and top models, ‘an increasingly powerful [even if] very limited signifier of prestige[, or] further proof that as far as “race” is concerned, what you see is not necessarily what you get’ (my emphasis; Gilroy 2000: 23). In this context, not only do Xerxes and Cetshwayo escape 300’s and Zulu’s filmmakers’ intentions, they also make the same filmmakers do (unintended) things.

In effect, taking the diegetic Xerxes as example,[xlii] he is clearly not-white, beautiful, graceful and stylish; he is ‘lit, filtered, textured, and toned [and digitally manipulated] in ways that’ deeply disturbs our perception of what racial borders might be erected or, in Gilroy’s (2000: 22) terms, in ways that ‘make the matter of “race” secondary’. When boundaries become uncertain, unstable, elusive, fluid or inexistent, hateful anxieties arise from inability-linked frustrations or moves backward to a time of certainty about racial borders and how to maintain them.[xliii] Xerxes’ fluid body clearly triggers such anxieties as he makes the filmmakers’ conform to his own larger social patterns rather than to theirs.

Stated differently, my point is: what Gilroy (2000: 22) argues regarding de-politicised post-modern ‘black’ bodies – i.e., that their surfaces ‘must now be tattooed, pierced, and branded if they are to disclose the deepest, most compelling truths of the privatized ontology within’ (my emphasis) – takes on different significances with Xerxes (and the bodies displayed in the film sequences marking Ephialtes’s treason) as follows. Xerxes embodies cultural, political and social values to which the filmmakers and their Hollywood-centred notion of film history (e.g., the Yul Brynner reference), and the 21st Century, try to conform actively.[xliv] Xerxes’ body-shifting and -modifying pattern stand for the fact that he is not running away from rhizomorphic cultural blackness. Conversely, the diegetic Spartans and 300’s filmmakers fear, and flee from, that same cultural space because Xerxes’ rhizomorphism baffles them: it is therefore much easier for them to construct Xerxes as eccentric rather than ex-centric, and as one-dimensional and megalomaniac, but they cannot escape Xerxes. This is because, in 300 Xerxes is an affective hero, even though not the chosen ‘hero protagonist’, a characteristic Cyrino (2010: 30) attributes to Leonidas alongside the following qualities, which, I argue, belong to Xerxes as well: ‘the filmmakers unabashedly make [Leonidas] the vessel for the moral point of the story to ensure that the viewers will identify with him and make him the object of their emotional allegiance.’ Indeed, does Cyrino take into account viewers of 300 who are not-white, who are Persian/Asian/Arab/mixed-race, or simply any viewers who conscientiously object to the film’s cultural-racial biases? Similarly, I argue that the battle of Thermopylae ‘projected on screen’ cannot be an absolute/unanimous ‘unifying entertainment’, nor can we say categorically that ‘the [so-called] new epic translates that cinematic mythology [i.e., the national mythology of a free Sparta] into a more global conception of human freedom’ (Cyrino 2010: 28, 29) – unifying and globalised for whom, at whose expense, and at what price?

B(l)ack to Front: …

Cetshwayo as portrayed in Vanity Fair, 1882.

Returning to the issue of planetary humanism, one question remains: can/how can Xerxes, a leader with imperial ambitions, and Cetshwayo, a resistant to British imperialism, relate, converse and synchronise with each other and ‘black’ bodies in epic cinema – once the same bodies’ history, agency, cognitive capacity and purpose ‘are acknowledged as distinct, and taken seriously’ (Bâ 2010: 370)? The question is justified because, up to this article, my thinking on these issues focussed on ‘black’ bodies’ survival and quest for freedom ‘with no pretention to imperial triumphalism or global reach’ (Bâ 2010: 347). Clearly then, on the one hand ‘black’ bodies symbolize a strand of diegetic ontology accenting slavery, migrancy and exile, [xlv] and on the other hand Xerxes and Cetshwayo have imperial ambitions.

And yet, I would call on the logic of planetarity in order to make a case for ‘the importance of flowing multiple times, of fate and memory’[xlvi] traceable and retraceable (with)in the black bodies of characters such as Zulu’s Cetshwayo, Cinqué (Amistad, 1997), Draba (Spartacus, 1960), Sobuza and Dingaan (Winning a Continent, 1916), Sesso (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2008), and the Nubian African Juba (Gladiator, 2000)[xlvii] to whom I shall connect Xerxes shortly in order to give one example of how the point I am making here and in my previous publication on epic cinema works: these bodies and Xerxes are in motion, ‘open, fluid and changing entities’ (Bâ 2010: 348). Thus, given that conviviality is brought alive by ‘radical openness’ (Gilroy 2004: xi) and can be twinned with planetarity in order to speak both to empire-building and the aftermath of empire, we can make Xerxes and these bodies relate-converse-synchronise.

Juba and Xerxes problematise and transcend ‘nation’. Juba makes sense without Maximus (Russell Crowe) while Juba’s ‘outer-national history and culture (vis-à-vis Imperial Rome)’ makes him ‘a physical and “spiritual healer” whose Nubian African knowledge precedes and transcends Maximus’s needs’ (Bâ 2010: 358). Similarly, Xerxes is far too complex to need Leonidas in order to make sense (or Cetshwayo, Father Otto Witt and the ‘Welsh’ regiment, for that matter); Xerxes’ empire precedes and transcends Sparta and Greece and, as opposed to Leonidas and Sparta and Greece’s inner-nationalisms, Xerxes’ perspectives on history, culture, and war are always-already outer-national-to-planetary and humanist.[xlviii] Then again, what is this (possibly) utopian notion-mindset of planetary humanism that these black bodies, once un-raced, and/or in motion towards un-racing, affect?

… Humanism on a Planetary Scale, and Beyond

Paul Gilroy (2000: 2) posits planetary humanism as a ‘transitional yearning’. Planetary humanism can be allied with ‘non-racial, transblack histories’ and envisaged from ‘an assertively cosmopolitan point of view that challenges the version of these themes […] offered by occultists, mystics, and conspiracy theorists’ (Gilroy 2000: 2). With this line of thinking, I argue that epic cinema, and perhaps scholarship on epic films, needs to get away from ethno-history and any assumptions that ‘white’ Euro-American cultures and their derivatives might be morally and legally superior to others on planet earth. Of course, epic cinema, and cinema tout court, is littered with ‘[b]lood-saturated histories of colonisation and conquest’ while at the same time, in epic films, such histories are ‘rarely allowed to disrupt [the above moral and legal] triumphalist tale’ (Gilroy 2010: 55.)[xlix] Neither epic cinema nor epic films seems to find the battles against racial and gender hierarchies advanced in this article relevant or inspirational. As a result, the cultural ‘black’ body – posited in this article as a disruptor of race and gender hierarchy-ing – might just be one way out, but a guaranteed one, for epic cinema and perhaps for cinema tout court, towards planetary humanism and beyond.

Coda: planetary humanism’s other side of nowhere

George Clinton

The death of ‘race’ may yet have a long life to live. As I mentioned in the introduction, the so-called ‘post-race’ moment must critique prophecies, extraterrestrial contact zones, and/or science-fiction-cinema-inspired ‘black’ and ‘white’ alliances: if, ten, years ago the challenge was to ‘bring even more powerful visions of planetary humanity from the future and to reconnect them with democratic and cosmopolitan traditions’ (Gilroy 2000: 355) then, today, we must re-think the tools and methods used to meet it. The problem is not only Hollywood and other rigidly-raced cinemas, it is also the combination of these and a Euro-American – the better Eurowestern – centeredness and arrogance that is constantly re-dividing knowledge, praxis, ‘races’, bodies, images, cultures, etc., into camps. Therefore, unless systematic, multi-levelled and -disciplinary processes are put in place to tackle Eurowestern-ness as an idea and defect – a task well beyond the competence of a single researcher/discipline/area study/c-a-m-p – mobilising Sun Ra, George Clinton, Will Smith (present and past), the films Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), good aliens in alliance with humankind, and the like, may no longer be helpful. Within cinema studies at least, even a quick historical or aesthetic evaluation of genres like the epic or science fiction – diegetic or extra diegetic – would reveal the magnitude and intricacies of any quest for planetary humanism. Planetary humanism is in nowhere land and, as such, frowns upon futurisms and prophecies. Conversely, planetary humanism calls for an-other/a more comprehensive tool kit able to give us access to its nowhere’s – improvisation with a purpose: ‘[i]mprovisation—and the alternative forms of being in community it literally and figuratively gives space to—lies on the other side of the “nowhere” that defines a world in which human potential and community are thwarted and curtailed’; what we need to find is not ‘the here and now of conventional knowing’ about cinematic planetary humanism, but ‘the elsewhere that is the “other side” to this “nowhere”, especially the ‘social practices where intuition, experimentation and expressive transgression sustain an alternative, differential space of human being, creativity, and community (Fischlin and Heble 2004: 17).

Saër Maty Bâ teaches Film, part-time, at Portsmouth University (UK) and is a co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration(Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).



Bâ, Saër Maty (2007) ‘Voix noires: Black Documentary Theory, “The Black Moving Cube”’, in D. A. Bailey (ed.), The Black Moving Cube: Black Figuration and the Moving ImageBerlin: The Green Box, 2007, pp. 31-54.

————. (2010) ‘Diegetic Masculinities: Reading the Black Body in Epic Cinema’, in R. Burgoyne (ed.), The Epic Film in World Culture, New York: Routledge, 2010, pp. 346-374.

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Daly, Steve (2007), ‘Double-Edge Sword’, Entertainment Weekly, March 11. Accessed 15 October 2010.

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————. (2010), Darker than Blue: on the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic CultureCambridge, MA, and London: the Belknap Press.

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Xerxes portrait.

[i] The phrase-concept, ‘planetary humanism’ is from Gilroy (2000 and 2004)

[ii] For a recent example, see Urbainczyk 2010.

[iii] Ephialtes is a severely disabled hunchback. ‘One of the biggest challenges of developing a character like Ephialtes was transforming the anatomically impossible illustrations from the pages of the graphic novel [300] into a three-dimensional appliance that a human could actually wear’ (DiLullo 2007: 51).

[iv] I would add that the Iranians’ grief regarding 300 may well be justified due to insulting recent films like The Wrestler (2008) where there is a wrestler called ‘the Ayatollah’ for example. However, I am uneasy with the idea that ancient ‘Persia’ equals contemporary ‘Iran’.

[v] This African voice is UK-based South African scholar Jacqueline Maingard’s. In South African National Cinema (2008: 129) Maingard puts Zulu, a UK production, under the umbrella of ‘Apartheid Cinema’ and, specifically, within ‘subsidy films for black audiences’. Maingard’s inclusion is unsound because of two points she makes in her book: ‘[…] close analysis of specific films may prove to be valuable in creating new perspectives. The notion of ‘black’ film in this period tended to refer to a film made by white filmmakers for black audiences, and is therefore an anomalous descriptor’ (129). In addition to Maingard not analysing the film closely, her definition of black film is unfit for Zulu as well. She also omits the crucial issue of ‘black’ and African audiences’ relation to the film, and other documentary evidence that, put simply, belie her stance. For example: South African censors banned Zulu to Africans (Davis 1996: 158); indignant Zulu communities had provided the extras for Zulu, a film which, for them, had specific meanings like ‘the strong sense among Zulus of belonging to a warrior nation, and the pride and social bonding this entails […]. It was only a short step from there to fall into the part of the charging warrior, thus reliving the glories of the past – ignoring that on the screen these became the humbling of the Zulu impis’ (Davis 1996: 160; see also p. 159).

[vi] Of course, one could go back to the 1960s and examine how the South African apartheid conditions impacted on the shooting of the film, but this is outside the framework of the article. See, for example, Extra/Special Features of the 2002 Paramount Home Entertainment release of Zulu.

[vii] Davis (1996) and Hamilton and Modisane (2007) are notable exceptions to this rule.

[viii] American filmmaker Cy Enfield fled the USA for England during 1950s McCarthyism/the anti-Communist witch hunt (Davis 1993: 153). A refugee in London with almost no connections in the British film industry, he met Stanley Baker (producer of and lead actor in Zulu). Zulu gave Enfield his big European break. Baker, though not a racist, held warped views of the Zulus, which bleed into the film’s depiction of the Zulu body, completely blind to how that body may be able to escape the film(maker)’s original intentions. Indeed, when promoting his film, Baker told American columnist Sheila Graham that ‘[Zulu] women do all the work […] while the men do absolutely nothing except singing and dancing’ (emphasis in original; Davis 1996: 157, quoting the South African Sunday Express).

[ix] This article engages with this process through re-reading ‘black’ bodies in film texts without claiming that these bodies have any monopoly on what makes de-westernizing epic cinema possible.

[x] Iordanova (2010: 116) also writes: ‘[…] the supposedly universal Aristotelian principles of dramatic construction’. Therefore, my query is: if Aristotle’s principles are ‘supposedly’ but not actually universal, why then argue for the recognition of Asian films through an Aristotelian lens?

[xi] Elsewhere, I have made references to films, such as Winning a Continent (Harold M. Shaw, 1916), where the complexity of the Zulus’ bodies are suppressed, thus negating the notion of ‘multiple flowing times and of fate and memory’ connected to these and other ‘black’ bodies (Bâ 2010: 366). I also noted that such depictions came first and foremost from America, Britain, and South Africa (Boers), filmmakers and historians. Boers in particular tend to include Zulu history into their own by seemingly glorifying the former before abruptly turning it into denigration (Bâ 2010: 367; see also footnote 72, p. 374).

[xii] The same could be said of the British because such encoding is central to their empire-building enterprise. However, since Zulu’s diegesis avoids the subject of family and gender hierarchies, as far as the British are concerned, I do not explore it here. Instead, I would suggest that the interested reader explore this issue in the film Zulu Dawn (Cy Enfield, 1979) where it is in sharp focus.

[xiii] Maté’s film had inspired Miller to write his comic book. 300’s battle choreographer, Damon Caro, made Spartan warriors fight with a combination of various Asian martial arts because there is ‘little to go on from the historical record about Spartan combat techniques’ (Cyrino 2010: 22). Moreover, Victor Davis Hanson (2007: 6), as self-confessed Western civilization champion-apologist, rightly urges ‘purists’ to ‘remember’ that 300 ‘seeks to bring a comic book, not Herodotus, to the screen.’ With the same breath, however, Hanson goes on to contradictorily vindicate/uphold Greek historians’ input in the film (because he forecloses all critical dialogues with the history/reality from which 300 is thrice removed): ‘[y]et, despite the need to adhere to the conventions of Frank Miller’s graphics and plot […] the main story from our Greek historians is still there’ (my emphasis). I distance my approach to 300 from Hanson’s.

[xiv] Gilles Deleuze is describing the prison as such when discussing Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘Panopticism’. However, we shall see that ‘black’ bodies refuse to be prisons, that they undo the essence of imprisonment. See also Danaher, Schirato and Webb on Foucault (2000: 53).

[xv] The quotation is from Deleuze (1999: 37) paraphrasing Maurice Blanchot in another context.

[xvi] I have examined this issue in detail elsewhere; see Bâ (2010).

[xvii] For example, to think of either representation as merely resulting from the filmmakers’ intention to attract gay male viewers to 300 would be too narrow an interpretation

[xviii] Not least because such a questioning also stands against the preposterous accusations that 300 is homophobic: see for example Daly (2007: 38).

[xix] Blue-screen, ‘bullet time’, or slow-to-fast editing technique; CG (Computer Generated) blood, or 2D Blood with its ‘spattered ink effect’ (DiLullo 2007: 14; see also p. 58).

[xx] In fact, as far as I have been able to establish, unlike the actors playing Spartan warriors, Santoro was not subjected to a demanding ‘eight-week training and diet’ regime (Cyrino 2010: 23).

[xxi] Sometimes spelled ‘burqa’, this garment is combination of a loose body covering, a head covering, and a face veil worn in parts of the Islamic world.

[xxii] Tall and majestic actor Peter Mensah plays this role.

[xxiii] I must pause to point out that, from comic book to film, the messenger’s Arab-Mediterranean skin tone becomes jet-black and his hair and beard removed (see images from Miller’ book reproduced in DiLullo 2007: 22). 300’s theme of beard-removal/of shaving as gender appropriation-hierarchy (Xerxes-Leonidas) becomes, in this instance, one of wider cultural appropriation.

[xxiv] I shall return to this crucial answer in the next sequence analysed. In the meantime, please note that, as presented in the film, Gorgo’s agency, influence, and status in relation to husband Leonidas do not reflect ancient Sparta’s gender hierarchy/roles, or 300’s own historical sources for that matter.

[xxv] Cf. with the image of Miller’s mixed-/oriental-/Mediterranean-looking Gorgo, juxtaposed with both the filmmakers’ artistic sketches of Gorgo and pictures of Heady as queen Gorgo (DiLullo 2007: 26-27).

[xxvi] In this manner, the couple is enabled to transcend their earlier sharp-tongued answers and brutal incitement to kill ‘Persian’ messengers (Gorgo) and bloody slaying of the same messengers (Gorgo and Leonidas).

[xxvii] One wonders how Ephialtes survived Sparta’s infanticides; his character does not seem to make diegetic sense.

[xxviii] Though there are many, I am thinking about this one in particular. Accessed 24 December 2010.

[xxix] The Warner Bros release of 300 contains, in one session, commentary by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, Directror of Photography Larry Fong, and Director Snyder. The commentary is utterly useless, barring mention of what is ‘real’ or digitally added in the film. However, regarding Brynner, Snyder does mention that they have patterned Xerxes’ voice after Brynner’s whom they have studied a lot when conceiving Xerxes. And yet, the filmmakers’ explanation seems unsatisfactory because, in my view, they have gone much further, creating many conceptual, representational and historical problems the discussion of which is, unfortunately, outside the framework of the present article. Therefore, I will just mention that the filmmakers clearly attempted to transform Xerxes’ physical appearance/body size, body language, and costumes and jewellery (to an extent), into a combination of four Brynner characters: King Mongkut of Siam (The King and I, 1956), Ramses (The Ten Commandments, 1956), King Mongkut (Anna and the King, TV series 1972), and Gunslinger the robot (Westworld, 1973).

[xxx] Its inclusion in the film may, justifiably, be insulting for contemporary Muslim cultures/nations, such as Iran.

[xxxi] The wolf’s eyes and size also anticipate another ‘Persian’ messenger whose darkened face and digitally-deepened, monstrous, voice ends the sequence featuring paedophilic facially-deformed and corrupt Spartan Ephores.

[xxxii] This derogatory attitude becomes even more disturbing if we consider who inspired the costume designs of 300’s ‘Persian tribesmen’ (see colourful drawings in DiLullo 2007: 87): ‘egyptian’, ‘ethiopian tribesman’, ‘indian’, ‘masai tribesman’, ‘mongolian tribesman’, ‘sythian’, and ‘primitives [!?]’.

[xxxiii] Symbolic for Thermopylae and it narrow ‘Hot Gates’, respectively.

[xxxiv] Voiceover narration in The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Mike Newell, USA, 2009)

[xxxv] The battle is shown very briefly at the end of 300. Discussing it would be more appropriate for a sequel to 300, one for which Snyder has closed a deal to write a script: “This movie follows Themistocles and the Battle of Artemisium, which coincidentally happens on the exact same three days as the Battle of Thermopylae [which was the basis of 300]. This one starts off with a quick retelling of the why of the Persian wars. It starts off at the Battle of Marathon and then it goes back to Themistocles finding out that Persians are invading again. And off we go over to learn a little bit about why Xerxes is the way he is.” (Bettinger 2010).

[xxxvi] Pre-empting censorship, Enfield negotiated with the extras who agreed to wear black pants almost invisible to the camera/eye in the finished film. One has to read Michael Caine’s autobiography, What’s it All About? (1996), in order to find out about these negotiations and these women’s off-screen complexity. For example, all the women were Zulu but some lived in the city and frowned upon dancing bear breasted while others lived in the countryside, within their tribe, and would rather dance without pants or brassieres.

[xxxvii] This shot echoes those in 300 showing the fifteen-foot pile of butchered ‘Persian’ soldiers, ‘The Wall of the Dead’ (DiLullo 2007: 74), which the Spartans construct and crash down ‘Persian’ warriors.

[xxxviii] Cf. with the Nubian Juba in relation to Maximus and Rome in Gladiator (2000) (Bâ 2010: 355-358).

[xxxix] Though Baker (and Enfield!) cannot be accused of racism, we have seen in the case of Baker that his knowledge of the film’s subject was limited and distorted, while he made no attempt to correct either. Enfield’s leftist politics could not help him grasp the African context either.

[xl] Notwithstanding, for example, the divergent patterns of cultural diversity the same filmmakers afford (inadvertently?) both Xerxes and his so-called slaves, and Cetshwayo and his Zulus.

[xli] At the same time, the filmmakers provide countless answers to similar questions when Spartans and ‘Welsh’ soldiers/bodies ask them.

[xlii] Cetshwayo and Zulu can be used to make a similar point.

[xliii] This is what Spartans are actually fighting for and, perhaps, what contemporary epic cinema and 300’s filmmakers (the latter being possibly lost in ‘race’) seem to be cultivating.

[xliv] Of course, this takes place with the resulting misunderstandings, blind spots and/or deliberate demonization already noted.

[xlv] Within this strand, in order to make sense, these bodies are diegetically and extra diegetically made dependent on whiteness, a situation from which I have attempted to dislodge them through a new reading (see Bâ 2010).

[xlvi] Bâ (2010: 347)

[xlvii] Gladiator (2000) is the story of Maximus (Russell Crowe) the slave gladiator, and former Roman general who challenges corruption at the heart of the Roman Empire. However, the film features Juba (Djimon Hounsou), a convivial central character who makes sense on his own, but without whom Maximus does not.

[xlviii] ‘Humanist’ because, to name one example, Xerxes waited ten days in an attempt to avoid war/bloodshed against Leonidas and his men.

Detailing the contents of Juba and Xerxes’ relation-conversation-synchronisation is outside this article’s aims and objectives. For examples of diegetic ‘black’ bodies in such a situation across time, space and films, see Bâ (2010).

[xlix] Gilroy (2010: 55) makes these remarks in relation to the political idea of human rights.

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