The ‘Gladiator II’ Trailer Is Already Getting Insufferable Backlash

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Almost 25 years after the first Gladiator, Ridley Scott is about to deliver a sequel, having weathered interruptions like the SAG-AFTRA strike and, weirdly, the FBI raid on P. Diddy.

The trailer for Gladiator II released yesterday, and while a degree of skepticism is understandable given our current IP-obsessed media landscape, it’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of what’s promised.

If so many legacy sequels are concerned with giving the audience more of the same, Scott at least has the good sense to offer way, way more of the same, making its already-epic predecessor look as restrained and low-key as a Jim Jarmusch movie. Naval battles in the Colosseum! A guy riding a blood-spattered rhinoceros! Denzel Washington being avuncular yet undeniably sinister! Paul Mescal’s biceps! Did you like the malevolent, vaguely effeminate Roman emperor in the first movie? Now there are two malevolent, vaguely effeminate Roman emperors! Are you not entertained, indeed!

And yet for all the spectacle on display, one of the elements attracting the most attention was the choice of music: two-thirds of the way through the trailer, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” roars in over the booming orchestra, with Frank Ocean keening about gods and non-believers as Jay-Z barks about blood staining the Colosseum doors. While the trailer has been received mostly positively, the use of the song is a noticeable sticking point across social media. “Blasphemy,” one said; “It’s about Rome, not the Bronx,” another sniffed.

Now, it’s true that a “No Church in the Wild” needle drop is kind of a corny move, especially because it was so obviously reverse-engineered from the fact that the lyrics briefly mention the Colosseum. “Using a Pop Song, But Epic” is one of the hoariest trailer tropes going, and it’s perfectly reasonable to roll one’s eyes at it. But the affronted tone of some reactions seems, well, reactionary, as though it’s somehow sacrilege to use a hip-hop song in the context of ancient Rome.

The thumbnail of noted “anti-woke” YouTuber Nerdrotic’s reaction to the trailer, a photoshop of Mescal’s character wearing gold chains and a Pan Africa pin, throws that reactionary streak into ugly relief. (Never mind the fact that a song being in the trailer doesn’t mean it’ll show up in the movie: a Super Bowl commercial for the first Gladiator used a Kid Rock song, for pete’s sake.)

That earlier comment about it being “Rome, not the Bronx” dovetails with some questionable discourse about the involvement of Denzel Washington.

One tweet wondered why Washington was “allowed to do a NY accent in a film set in ancient Rome”, while an article from USA Today subsidiary For The Win, while supportive, said that Washington was “basically playing himself”. Of course, he isn’t playing himself any more than Paul Mescal or Pedro Pascal is, but the suspension of disbelief required to accept a Roman slave speaking in an Irish brogue is apparently not extended to Washington, despite the fact that he is Denzel Washington and has more than earned the right to deliver his lines in any accent he damn well pleases.

The typical anti-woke cudgel of “historical inaccuracy” has been bandied around, but it really doesn’t apply here - and in a novelty for the Gladiator series, it’s because something actually is accurate, rather than boldly and purposefully inaccurate. The character Washington plays, Macrinus, was a real person hailing from northern Africa, specifically an area that is now in modern-day Algeria. As a Berber, he probably didn’t look much like Denzel Washington, but he certainly wasn’t white—and he amassed great power and status in his lifetime. While Rome was hardly enlightened, it was an empire of some 60 million people, with various skin tones across all levels of society, up to and including Emperor.

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Perhaps this article seems needlessly defensive. The naysayers quoted here are decidedly in the minority on the film, and most of them are just some people giving their opinion on social media. But whenever a trailer for a high-profile film comes out these days, especially when the film has a certain cultural cache like Gladiator, battle lines end up drawn almost immediately.

Every spurious opinion is delivered through a megaphone; conservative crusaders count the number of people of color and bleat about wokeness like panicked goats; freelance writers pitch think pieces very much like this one to serve as rebuttals to the aforementioned bleating, thereby amplifying them further. It’s an exhausting cycle, and it’s one that shows no sign of being broken. To answer the question posed by the headline, people are being weird about the Gladiator II trailer because we’ve become incentivized to be weird about every trailer.

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