When I first saw a commercial for the Netflix Original Marco Polo I rolled my eyes hard. White man enters stage left and the foreign communities of Others into which he has entered take a back seat to this one man’s incredible adventure. That’s the plot I assumed Marco Polo would have; I happily announce my assumption was almost entirely incorrect.
HBO, the CW and PBS have thrown show after show about Tudor and Elizabethan England down the tunnel of entertainment and we eat it up. It’s sexy, it’s history, it’s incredible costumes, it’s intrigue, it’s war. Even the most dedicated of English history fans will concede, however, that the story fountain is dried up. No one is going to believe the 30 year old handsome and athletic Henry VIII when everyone now knows he was fat with gout by the time Anne Boleyn’s head hit the grass. Tudor magic is gone, just look at Wolfhall. It’s too bad only England’s history is filled with intrigue and scandal and sex and war.
Oh wait! There’s an everlasting bastion of thick, meaty, scandalous and fulfilling histories drenched in the blood of thousands if one just looks outside England. This is exactly what Marco Polo creators have done with their imagining of the Mongolian Khan’s court and his attempts to conquer and unite all of China under his rule. Thirteenth century Mongolia and China vividly erupt from the screen through clever cinematography, beautifully designed sets, carefully researched costumes, and especially the colorful cast of actors.
A great wall has been built to keep white Europeans safely in control of entertainment: their stories, their histories, their faces. Even when plopped into a new world – like Asia, the Middle East, or Africa – white faces take center stage. I was instantly impressed and excited to see that the entire cast of Marco Polo, the titular character excluded, is made up of People of Color. Though the show is named for the infamous Italian, the plot revolves around the lives of the Mongols, Chinese, Arabs and Indians who comprise the Khan’s court. Likewise, women are given a loud and diverse voice in this Netflix Original. Zhu Zhu, Olivia Cheng and Joan Chen are riveting as women in various court positions: prisoner princess, imperial consort, and empress. Claudia Kim, meanwhile, showcases the warrior capabilities of Mongolian women.
Don’t fret, lovers of the steamy Tudor bedchamber romp! Marco Polo is still a show for English speakers who expect a fair amount of sexual intrigue whenever we sit down to watch Netflix – save possibly for Kimmy Schmidt. There are just enough scenes bowing to the erotic fantasy of Eastern harems and drug-induced-orgies (fine, there’s only one so far) to give Marco Polo a fighting chance against the likes of Game of Thrones or The Tudors. Even the scenes casually set in the Hall of Five Desires, however, are so smart it’s hard to be offended. Put simply, the creators rely more on implication and mystery than double-Ds heaving uncontrollably for minutes on end (looking at you, GoT). Oh, and every single actor is such a stud-muffin it’s almost unbearable, while all the actresses are so powerful in their beauty and presence it’s almost unbelievable.
My opinion is apparently one of the few positive reactions about the show. I’m not denying the rampant male gaze nor that there is a fair share of exoticism. The story is fresh, however, and introduces any viewer to a vast and rich history of real people who existed and whose cultures influence every fiber of our being, even today. With Marco Polo, Netflix was brave enough to look outside England (or Fake England) and cast People of Color in a story about People of Color, and I’m thankful for that.
Through costumes and sets exquisitely highlighting the delicate differences between Mongolian and Chinese culture for a Western audience, the creators of Marco Polo truly create a living world unlike any other in historical fiction drama. The plots are steeped in questions of identity, legacy, and the constant worry of war. Characters don the mantles of betrayal and loyalty in equal part. Jackie Chan is probably applauding loudly for all the martial arts scenes are more finely choreographed than any New York ballet. The turmoil of a world coming to terms with outsiders and their cultures is captured on screen in a way that makes me want to travel the Silk Road into the heart of the Gobi desert to ride with the Mongol tribes, listening to the falcons screech against the Great Blue Sky.