Why Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Was the Greatest Action Movie of My Great Black Childhood

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There’s no shortage of media I remember fondly for their bond to my childhood – video games that were actually repetitive, old lyrics I now know to be terrible, movies that adult-me would find insufferable – all tinted through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is not one of them. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves we got right.

From inspiring speeches to astoundingly progressive racial commentary – both blatant and some surprisingly subtle –it wasn’t just an empty 90s action movie; it had some of the best dialogue in an action film, with a cult following of millennials and Generation X’ers to whom its lines are iconic.[quote_right]I thought him a generic Black sidekick at first, but no, Azeem was nothing of the sort. [/quote_right] In fact, it’s a movie almost entirely memorable through its assortment of the most hype and hilarious quotes. Prince of Thieves was English folklore, mixed with history, mixed with one of the best representations of Blackness in a white-led, Eurocentric film. Among non-Black mainstream movies, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves had the most memorable pro-Black representations of my childhood.

And it started and ended with Azeem, the Great One.

Played by Morgan Freeman, Azeem met Robin of Lockley in a Jerusalem prison where they were cutting the hands off thieves. First off, you might think this was young-Morgan Freeman, and relatively speaking you would be correct, because he’s 300 now. He wasn’t really young then, though – Robin Hood premiered in 1991 and Morgan Freeman was born in 1937. He looked 45, but Morgan Freeman was actually 54.

When Robin’s friend was called for his turn, Robin did the illest thing you’ve ever seen as he shoved his own hand on the chopping block, offering his own in his friend’s stead. “This is English courage,” he said. What did Robin do, fam? What did Robin do?! He pulled back at the last second to start a prison escape to bring he and his friend back home. Prisoners screamed through the chaos of the riot as Robin tried to break the chains of a fellow prisoner. When they wouldn’t break, he heard a voice behind him.

“YOU CANNOT SAVE THEM, CHRISTIAN.
BUT YOU CAN SAVE ME.”

It was Azeem, Black and shiny in all his glory, tied with a mere rope to the wall behind him. Azeem was a Moor, ostracized and feared, but when Robin asked why he should save him he made a simple, compelling case: “If you do not, we are all dead men.” And so it began that Robin saved Azeem’s life, and Azeem made a vow to follow Robin on his path until he saved his in return.

I thought him a generic Black sidekick at first, but no, Azeem was nothing of the sort. A moral compass, sage, and fierce fighter, Robin mistook Azeem for another type of dude when they first got off the boat in England. Robin’s in the fucking muck, kissing the mud like an animal, and it was the first of many moments of “what is this white nonsense?” in the film. When Robin tried to ditch his companion by having sailors take him by force, Azeem put them in the dirt and spit bars. “No man controls my destiny,” he said. “Especially not one who attacks downwind and stinks of garlic.” That’s when I knew. I didn’t even understand what he meant because I was like 8 years old but I knew Azeem was real.

And that was just the beginning. From Robin discussing women to him trying to control Azeem’s future, it was clear that Azeem was his intellectual superior. A display of force was met with equal force. A display of mistletoe was met with, “Where I’m from, Christian, we talk to our women. We do not drug them with plants.” He wasn’t a sidekick, nor subservient – he was fulfilling a vow, and he’d do it on his own terms. The first time Robin was attacked, Robin screamed, “Azeem! Time to fulfill thy vow!” Azeem was like… nah. He was busy praying. My man had priorities. Robin came back all mad that his sidekick didn’t help because he hadn’t yet learned that Azeem isn’t in the sidekick business. “You whine like a mule,” he said. “You are still alive.”

[quote_left]He never begged for his humanity. His self-worth was secure despite everyone around him; he never put on for the white gaze in a land where he was quite literally the only person of color. [/quote_left]Time and again Azeem was the quiet erudite warrior who never – not once – begged for his humanity. He never showed off, never touted his ability. His self-worth was secure despite everyone around him; he never put on for the white gaze in a land where he was quite literally the only person of color. In one short scene, a blind Duncan complained of Moors and Saracens, and cursed them as ungodly savages. Robin had never clued him in that their new friend was Black, so even though “Azeem” is probably the 12th-Centrury version of “Reggie,” Duncan never had Black friends so he was none the wiser. “Azeem… what manner of name is that?” Duncan asked. “Irish? Scottish?” Azeem practically replies, “Who, me? Oh I’m Moorish as fuck. You should see your racist ass face right now, you look terrified.”

In that sense Prince of Thieves was much like The Wire, where Black characters defied surface-level perceptions by being consistently astute, while all the White characters were understatedly portrayed as consistently stupid. Among nearly countless examples, my favorite is when Azeem, keeping watch atop Lady Marian’s wall, saw Guy of Gisbourne and Nottingham’s men riding towards the castle. “Look,” Azeem says, handing his homemade binocular to Robin. Looking through the binocular, Robin jumps back, takes a second look with his naked eye at the soldiers riding a football field away, and tries the binocular again as to understand the wizardly of it all. When he draws his sword and tries stabbing a soldier through the magnifying glass, Azeem snatches it back and looks at him with what can only be described as a combination of wonderment and disgust:

“How did your uneducated kind ever take Jerusalem?”

“God knows,” Robin said. “God knows.” Shortly after, Guy of Gisbourne taunted Robin to coax him into his death, and once again Azeem proved himself Robin’s better half. Guy taunted, “Robin of the Hood! Son of a devil worshipper! Your father died a coward, cursing your name and squealing like a stuck pig!” Robin wanted to go out and get himself killed, and Azeem had to talk him down, explaining “You will bring no justice to your father by dying this day.” Azeem was meant to fulfill a vow to save Robin’s life, but he actually fulfilled it a thousand times over.

The best expressions of Azeem’s subtle superiority came from the times he was fed up enough to let Robin wallow in his own consequences. In the lead up to an iconic scene, the merry men weren’t so merry as they walked up Robin and Azeem. Robin had arrogantly attacked the Sheriff’s men, shaking a hornet’s nest, and the Sheriff had retaliated by attacking everyone’s families.

“If it’s fame you seek, Christian…
I think you have it.”

He got up and walked away. HE GOT UP AND WALKED AWAY. Azeem dropped bars and then said, “let me hop off this here tree branch and move away from your ass ‘cause they ‘finna kill you.”

And in return of his trustworthiness and honestly, Robin had Azeem’s back when problematic countrymen were being crazy racists. Robin and Azeem sat with their new comrades under the stars in the forest – for a present-day analog I imagine myself at a Nascar rally – and they tried passing the wine around him. And Robin wasn’t having it. Robin didn’t attack their characters or call them names; instead he had the fundamental courage that most don’t, to call them out for being problematic regardless of the discomfort and awkwardness and consequences that could’ve followed. If there’s one thing Robin always had, it was courage. “Has English hospitality changed so much in six years that a friend of mine is not welcome at this table?” he asked; a simple question with a strong implication. When they gave their worry of Moors being savages, Robin brought his royal privileged-ass self down in the muck.

“He is. But no more than you or I.”

Azeem was birthing babies and teaching men to fight while gracefully making teaching moments out of any given encounter. “Did god paint you?” a child asked. “For certain,” he told her. “Allah loves wondrous varieties.” From counselor to warrior to obstetrician to teacher, Azeem was the real MVP. He was lighting gun powder and walking atop castle walls. He was giving GOAT-level speeches while duel wielding curved Saracen swords, inspiring the people – other people’s people – to fight to be free men. And Robin needed such a partner, because opposite their team was a man who was rich, powerful, and out to kill them and take King Richard’s throne.

Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham is, to the day, one of the best villain portrayals in film. He was sadistic, he was vain, he was evil, and yet endearing enough that I never hated him. And I wanted to see him onscreen because the man had bars. You don’t hear me, let me say it twice – the Sheriff of Nottingham had some of the hardest bars in the history of villainy. I can quote them; you can quote them; you can recall the person you’d quote them with, yelling how you’ll rip their heart out with a spoon in the best Alan Rickman impression you can muster. “Why a spoon, cousin? Why not an axe?”

“Because it’s dull, you twit, it’ll hurt more!”

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Beginning to bitter end, the Sheriff was a god-awful person, yet I loved him. I couldn’t hate him, which carved him into a unique Rushmore of antagonists who were authentically despicable while still likable. Alan Rickman’s depiction of the Sheriff was maniacal, sadistic, and downright evil, but never so repulsive that he genuinely disgusted you like a Calvin Candie, Emperor Commodus, or Ramsay Bolton. He never went too far, and so he did what a villain is supposed to do: make us root against him, but still entertain us. The Sheriff of Nottingham was intimidating and engaging from his opening line to Robin’s father at Locksley castle. “Join us. Join us… or die.”

And of course there was Robin, a leader of men. His courage bordered on arrogance, but was exactly the type of confidence needed for people to join you against insurmountable odds. His speech in the forest is one of my favorite of all time, if only for one line. When the men yelled in fear of the Sheriff’s oncoming wrath they spoke of food, armor, and everything the Sheriff had that they didn’t. One by one Robin shot them down, citing resources from the forest and quoting wisdom from Azeem. Then they said it. They asked the question that stoked the fire of a warrior’s heart. What if the Sheriff takes what they have? Robin turned and looked at them with borderline disgust and indignation.

“Then by god we take it back.”

Fam, that is the most gangster fucking line of my life. I was ready grab my Nerf arrows and die for the cause. Duncan was blind and even he was ready to fight. He was old and blind but it didn’t matter when Robin inspired the warrior in him. “Point me towards danger, Azeem! I’m ready!” Duncan said that shit! Can you imagine that? Duncan wanted to be spun around like a game of pin-the-tail so he could ride out for Robin. Where Robin led, people followed. Friar tuck went from biting Robin’s ankles to joining the squad and waxing philosophical about his life’s passion.

Even the soundtrack was on point. Robin had me listening to a Canadian with laryngitis singing about love, back when the music videos were filmed through scenes from the movies. “You know it’s true. Everything I do… I do it for you.” You’re singing it right now in your head automatically; you can’t help it. Bryan Adams had the hardest cats in the hood singing love ballads to the Lady Marian. I can’t name a single other Bryan Adams song, but I can tell you every lyric of “Everything I Do” and what it looked like when the guitar solo dropped in Sherwood Forest.

And so there it is. Azeem, the Great One; The late Alan Rickman and his Sheriff of Nottingham; Robin of Lockley, the leader of men. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves wasn’t just great for 1991 – it’s actually one of the most memorable action movies of a generation, and one of the best pro-Black representations in a non-Black film. It brought the second-highest movie gross of the year, and an award-winning performance from the late Alan Rickman for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Critics be damned, this movie meant something to a lot of us. And even though we’re older now, 25 years removed, it means something to the fans that can still quote its lines and smile in its memory. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe Robin Hood really did get it right. Either way, I have some threats to make that don’t involve an axe or a sword, but a spoon.

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  • Jordan Calhoun is a writer and pop culture savant in New York City. He holds a B.A. in Sociology and Criminal Justice, B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Japanese, and an M.P.A. in Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy. He might solve a mystery, or rewrite history. Find him on Twitter @jordanmcalhoun

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