‘This Is a Sick Joke’: First Glimpse of Denzel Washington in ‘Gladiator II’ Exposes Racism Among Critics Accusing Film of “Blackwashing” History

Denzel Washington has found himself caught in the fray of a raging discourse about the racial accuracy of his role in “Gladiator II,” as first glances of the new project have surfaced online.

The two-time Academy Award winner is draped in royal blue and golden garb as he appears to sit upon a golden throne in a widely circulated photo on X. The Ridley Scott-directed sequel to 2000’s “Gladiator,” which starred Russell Crowe, will debut in theaters on Nov. 22 after spending years in development.

The timepiece follows the original film’s theme of taking place during the run of the Roman Empire and draws story inspiration from some real-life events and people. Washington portrays a character named Macrinus. The star gladiator, Lucius, is played by white actor Paul Mescal.

denzel washington gladiator 2 controversy
Denzel Washington’s role as Roman Emperor in ‘Gladiator II’ provokes racist Critics following claims that history is being “Black-washed.” (Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

Statues, books, and more have historically depicted people from this time and beyond as white, hence the outrage that has bubbled to the surface by those disappointed in Washington’s casting.

Some X users believed that Washington’s character, Macrinus, is based on the Roman emperor Marcus Opellius Macrinus.

“The bastardization and blackwashing of European history continues. This is a sick joke,” a critic wrote on X. In a follow-up tweet, the person declared, “When they swap a fictional White character, their excuse is: ‘It’s just fiction, not real.’ When they swap a historical White person, their excuse is: ‘It’s just acting.’ They want to erase White people from history and corrupt our history.”

However, director Ridley Scott tells Vanity Fair, “Denzel is an arms dealer who supplies food for the armies in Europe, supplies wine and oil, makes steel, makes spears, weapons, cannons, and catapults. So he is a very wealthy man. Instead of having a stable of racehorses, he has a stable of gladiators. He’s beautiful. He drives a golden Ferrari. I got him a gold-plated chariot.”

The real Macrinus is believed to have been from Maurentanai, now recognized as the nation of Algeria in North Africa. He briefly served as emperor of the ancient empire after orchestrating the assignation of emperor Caracalla in 217 AD.

Other critics took issue with the depiction of Black people in ancient Rome.

One X user questioned, “Roman era??? Blacks ???”

Another critic chimed in, “The first Gladiator wasn’t woke and it is widely liked and respected. This movie is designed to ruin the memory of that one.”

A third user suggested that the casting would have been accurate if Washington were playing Septimius Severus, an emperor who ruled from 193 to 211 AD and hails from present-day Libya.

A fourth expression of disapproval read, “Guarantee they see this as retribution for what they call ‘whitewashing,’ everything.” Even more racist indignation was observed as an X user wrote, “I just discovered the word n—gafied today and something tells me I’m going to start hearing it more and more,” and several others altered photos of white actors to appear Black on posters for made up films like “Porch Pirates” and “Dark Zuckerberg.”

Other than being a wealthy arms dealer, Scott describes Washington’s character, Macrinus, as being “pretty f—king cruel” to gladiators under his thumb. Details about his storyline in the film’s plot remain unknown.

Last year, the revered film star was at the crux of controversy regarding Netflix’s “Hannibal.” Washington starred as the ancient Carthaginian general whose home county is Tunisia. Parliament member Yassine Mami said, “There is a risk of falsifying history: we need to take position on this subject,” in response to the military general being portrayed as Black.

Tunisian newspaper La Press called the casting a “historical error.” However, others were able to suspend their prejudices for the work of fiction aimed at entertaining audiences.

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