Is Sunjata's Epic Verse a Better Fit for Netflix's Cursed?
As we all know, new scripted content has been mostly scarce during the COVID-19 Pandemic. With New York City, Hollywood, and every major United States Theater chain being under strict shutdown orders, the Entertainment Industry has hit an unprecedented standstill. As we continue to endure these tough times, one mighty streaming champion has risen above the rest. This streaming Titan is none other than Netflix. It seems almost weekly that Netflix is adding a new series, movie, documentary or reality show to its lineup. Even with a vast majority of the population being unemployed, it still seems hard to keep up with Netflix’s quickly growing catalog of entertainment. One standout among the streaming giant’s latest content has been the new King Author inspired series, Cursed.
The series, Cursed, places a new spin on the King Author tales by shifting the female heroin, The Lady of the Lake, into the forefront as the protagonist. The series also makes a trail blazing move by casting King Arthur with a black actor named Devon Terrell, who is most notably known for playing President Barack Obama in 2016’s biographical film, Barry. With the necessity for representation being at an all-time high, this fresh take on King Arthur is notable, but is it enough? Although it is necessary that we see our faces in media, it is just as important that we can hear our stories as well. As of 2020, there have been at least 13 different films focusing on the European Medieval fantasy of King Arthur and his merry knights of the round table. Its about time we highlight the reality and mythology behind America’s citizens of African descent.
Between the billion-dollar success of Black Panther and America’s obsession with the Arthurian tales, Hollywood stands a lot to gain from finally depicting one of history’s black heroes. A perfect place to start would be the story of Mali’s King Sunjata.
Sundiata Keita was the first emperor of Mali. In English speaking narratives, his name is more commonly spelled as Sunjata. Unlike King Arthur, Sunjata is a real-life historical figure, however similar to Author’s story, the sharing of Sunjata’s tale became a legendary tradition which has been orally shared since the early 13th century.
This epic started with the King of an African city, Maghan Kon Fatta. Maghan was known for being an attractive king. Because of the King’s beguiling features, many referred to him as Maghan the Handsome. Just as any noble, Maghan was concerned with solidifying his legacy. This need was piqued when he encountered a soothsaying hunter. The hunter predicted that Maghan would produce a great ruler, but there was one catch to the soothsayer’s prophecy. Maghan’s great son could only be conceived from the loins of an ugly woman.
The entire kingdom was aware of the prophecy, so two hunters set off on a quest to bring life to the soothsayer’s foretelling. They heard rumblings of a distant land which was being terrorized by a monstrous buffalo. The king of this land was desperate for relief from the monster’s tirade. While traveling to the foreign kingdom, the two hunters bestowed an act of kindness onto an old woman. In exchange for their kindness, the old woman granted them the secrets to defeating the buffalo. After the hunters did indeed manage to defeat the buffalo, the grateful king gave them the option of choosing any woman in his kingdom. The hunter’s chose the least attractive woman they could find. Her name was Sogolon, and she was a hunchback with distorted features. The hunters presented Sogolon to King Maghan.
King Maghan already had a wife, Sassouma Berete, and a son, Dankaran Touman, but in order to fulfill the prophecy, he took Sogolon as his second wife. Before King Maghan and Sogolon could consummate their marriage, the King had to provide magic to relieve the woman of the wraith spirit which possessed her. Once the evil spirit was vanquished, they consummated their marriage, and Sunjata was conceived.
Queen Sassouma’s jealousy filled her with hate for Sunjata. She told several disturbing lies and rumors to defame the boy’s prophetic reputation for greatness. Unfortunately, the queen’s lies weren’t the greatest threat to Sunjata’s destiny. The boy’s head was entirely too large for his small body, causing him to be crippled and unable to walk. Even with all Sunjata’s setbacks, the King still admired his son’s wisdom. He provided Sunjata favor and gifted him his own Griot, who would craft stories of Sunjata’s feats and accomplishments.
One such accomplishment occurred when Sunjata was only seven years old. His stepmother, Queen Sassouma, taunted and berated our hero and his mother because of Sunjata’s inability to pick leaves from the Baobab tree. Finally realizing his destiny and domain over mystical elements, Sunjata called upon the magic of iron rods. Using the rods, he lifted himself and walked for the first time. The rods also greatly amplified his strength. Instead of picking leaves from the tree, Sunjata pulled the entire tree from the ground and carried it to his mother.
Queen Sassouma and Prince Dankaran were made furious by the King’s obvious favor for his younger, crippled son. After King Maghan’s death, the Prince and Queen turned the elders against Sunjata. Queen Sassouma then enlisted the help of the kingdom’s nine greatest witches to kill Sunjata and Sogolon. Sogolon and her son fled the city in exile.
While in exile, Sunjata traveled to many distant lands. During his travels, tales of his strength and charisma became legendary. He and his mother eventually settled onto the Mema Kingdom. The great general of the Mema armies, Moussa Tounkara, was impressed by Sunjata. Sunjata joined the Mema army and worked his way up to become the heir to the kingdom’s throne.
Meanwhile Niani was conquered and overthrown by the Sorcerer King, Soumaoro Kante. King Dankaran was no match for the Sorcerer King’s forces, so the king fled and abandoned Niani to Soumaoro’s wicked rule. Soumaoro’s cruelty proved to be too great for the people of Niani, so the city’s citizens desperately called for Sunjata’s return.
With a portion of the Mema military and legions of fighter’s he’d befriended from his travels in exile, Sunjata marched upon Niani to face the Sorcerer King. Even with his great strength, Sunjata was no match for Soumaoro’s magic. In order to overcome this threat, he’d have to once again call on the mystical elements for another gift. This time, he was granted a magical arrow. During battle, he nicked Soumaoro with the magical arrow, causing the Sorcerer king to lose all his powers. Sunjata hunted down the powerless Soumaoro and ended his evil reign for good by slaying the fallen king.
Sunjata became the first ruler of the great Mali Empire. One little known fact is that Mansa Musa, who is famous for being the world’s wealthiest man of all time, was Sunjata’s great-nephew. Sunjata's story is theorized by many to have influenced Disney’s The Lion King. Also, a West African graphic novel, Sunjata: Warrior King of Mali, was written and released in 2008 by Author, Justine Korman Fontes. We should all definitely make sure to purchase a copy. This captivating story which is little known throughout the United States, has already greatly impacted the world. This fact alone proves the story of Sunjata is just as, if not more, deserving as King Arthur’s of a high budget, well-written cinematic treatment.
Mansa Musa (pictured above)
Have you had a chance to watch Netflix’s Cursed? If so, would you like to see Sunjata's live action story as a more favorable option to the series’ race-bent king? Sound off with your comments below, and as always, Keep it Konkret!