The following article contains spoilers for Dune. Read at your own risk.
Before Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune, the extent of my knowledge of the iconic sci-fi franchise was David Lynch’s 1984 feature adaptation with ting and Trey from Sex and the City as well as the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (which everyone should see by the way).
Anyone who’s plugged into pop culture knows that Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune is a benchmark in sci-fi storytelling and many have said it’s nearly impossible to adapt. Of course, being the visionary filmmaker he is, Villeneuve said “challenge accepted”.
A fan of Villeneuve’s work in the sci-fi space, I thought this film would be an opportunity to connect with this IP that has been a touchstone for many when it came to the genre. I knew that there were sandworms and lots of desert and…spices? That said, upon watching it, I was thoroughly impressed with what Villeneuve did with this story that many deem as unadaptable.
Adapted by Villeneuve, Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth, Dune, without question, is a feat in filmmaking. For one, it’s gorgeous — and I wouldn’t expect anything less from the V-man and his trusty DP Greig Fraser. I can understand why people are having a hissy fit about seeing it in a theater. It is worth it, but if this pandemic is still preventing you from going to a theater to watch it, I ain’t mad at you. Stay in and cuddle up with your own sandworm at home and watch it on HBO Max. No matter how you decide to watch, this nuanced and visionary work of cinema needs your eyes.
Dune follows Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) as he goes on a hero’s journey. He’s brilliant, gifted and is born into a great destiny beyond his understanding. He’s like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. There’s something special about him and he spends this first chapter of a two-part franchise navigating all of that. He must travel to the most dangerous planet in the universe to ensure the future of his family and his people. However, there are some nasty bitches out there who are in conflict over the planet’s exclusive supply of the most precious resource in existence — a commodity capable of unlocking humanity’s greatest potential. After all is said and done, only those who can conquer their fear will survive.
Going into the film as a Dune novice, I leaned into the film’s underlying themes of colonizing marginalized communities and how horrible people abuse power. The traditional good vs. evil narrative is very poignant and Villeneuve makes it complex, layered and intriguing. Dune definitely delivers the goods in a cinematic experience that pushes the boundaries when it comes to traditional sci-fi storytelling and moviegoing altogether.
Now that I have buried the lede, let’s talk about all these incredible characters of color.
The casting for this masterpiece of a movie was super inclusive casting actors such as Oscar Isaac in the role of zaddy patriarch Duke Leto Atreides and Aqua-swole hottie Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho (what a name). There’s also the gorgeous Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet Kynes, a character that was originally a man in the novel so kudos to Villeneuve for encouraging progress with the gender flipping of the role.
There’s also the character of the shady Dr. Wellington Yueh played by Chang Chen as well as Babs Olusanmokun as Jamis. And finally we have Dave Bautista stepping in the role of the baddie Beast Rabban Harkonnen and the siren of the red carpet and greatness Zendaya as Chani.
It’s wonderful to see all of these actors of color in a film that would normally be filled with white actors — especially in a genre film of this stature. Hollywood is just now realizing that genre movies can also include people of color — and diverse audiences will come out and watch. I mean, haven’t we learned anything from Star Trek?
Seeing as though I was unfamiliar with the books, I consulted with my Dune-head friends about how the characters were described in the novels. The consensus was that although the features of the characters are pulled from Middle Eastern/North African cultures, race wasn’t blatantly mentioned. The 1984 film was majority white while this new iteration makes a leap into the 21st century with an inclusive cast. It’s beautiful. It’s progressive. It makes a statement. It’s giving strong United Colors of Benetton energy… but why do we have to see them all get killed off? I mean, the “we-almost-get-to-see-Oscar-Isaac-peen” moment in the movie doesn’t even make up for it — and even in that moment he is about to die so it’s not exactly sexy.
It’s like we are baited into watching these films that say, “Look! We are progressive and we hire diverse people!” and then we get excited. We go to the movie. We get all worked up and raise our fists in our mission to find equity and diversity in film and TV…but then as soon as we get invested you snatch them away from us. It’s like giving us a puppy and as soon as we form a bond, you just take them away like Cruella De Vil. It all seems so cruel and I feel so deceived. Consider my thunder stolen.
Listen, I get that this is a pre-existing story and we know that characters will die, but damn, do all of them have to be people of color? Out of all the characters of color that were introduced in this first chapter, only Zendaya and Dave Bautista’s characters survive…and Zendaya’s Chani is barely in this one! It makes me fear for her life in the second part. To add to that, Bautista’s character is painted white.
This seems to be a problem — or a trope even — in genre film, with the most prominent being horror. In pre-Jordan Peele horrors, the “Black guy always dies” trope was a thing longer than it needed to be.
In terms of overall representation of people of color in genre films, it’s been… alright. There are moments like Star Trek that remind us of the strides made but then there are Star Wars characters like Jar Jar Binks, which some people argued was a racial caricature of a Black person as well as the Neimoidians which gives me major racist Fu Manchu energy. At the same time, we have Lando Calrissian, who is probably the person with the most swag in all of the galaxies. Then there is Rogue One which was led by a woman played by Felicity Jones and had an all-inclusive cast that included Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen and Forest Whitaker — but guess what? They all died.
Representation in genre films like mainstream sci-fi is interesting because it’s an opportunity for us to create the most diverse world ever but it still ends up being hella white. It’s an opportunity to build utopias where no one sees race… but it still ends up being white. That’s why when we get the opportunity to see representation in a film like Dune it’s exciting and exhilarating in the name of diversity! Then they just are eliminated from the picture — and might I add these people die helping the main character who is, you guessed it — white. And while all the people of color are getting killed off, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, a nasty, slovenly Weinstein blob of a villain played by Stellan Skarsgård gets killed but is brought back to life.
You see how this is just a bummer to people of color? And before you jump down my DM hole, I’m not saying Dune was horrible. In fact, I am very much in love with it as a cinematic masterpiece. I’m just saying instead of making marginalized characters in sci-fi seem disposable, let them live, thrive and feel a sense of Lovecraft Country-style power.
We sincerely need to understand the difference between racism and telling a story. The characters die because they are supposed to die in the plot, most characters from the poster die but it has nothing to do with the color of their skin. By the way, Oscar Isaac is a white Latino, so you have to be really digging to find something problematic about his (almost?) death. As we see, Paul will continue the story with people of color, they’re the ones who saved him at the end (sort of?). These characters didn’t die because of the color of their skin. They died because they’re the good guys and most of the good guys were of color. Also, the empire military that attacks the desert people are all very bright bald white a people. The white people are the bad guys here (as they are historically in imperialism), so what’s the fuss? Also if Villeuneve had casted only black people as the bad guys (that is who actually mostly survives in majority in this movie) you’d accuse him of being racist again because there are definitely this predominant racist decision making in Hollywood of casting black people as the bad guys only. There’s a ton of racial problems in Hollywood but this Villeneuve’s Dune is definitely not one of them. This is just an example of people trying to make a political fuss out of something that doesn’t quite make sense but because it condemns someone of racism, “it ought to be correct” when all you’re doing is diminishing the movement, but if someone disagrees they’re also condemned as racist. We can clearly see where the black people are located in this story and I’m sure it ought to be explored in the second part because that’s when we’ll meet the Arrakis, in the second part of the movie, because that’s how Frank Herbert wrote it back in all the way to 1965.
If there’s one racial thing worth yelling for is at Warner Brothers for removing Sharon Duncan (the only black person in the official poster) from the Chinese official poster (same thing Disney did with Star Wars a while ago). A marketing decision made by big heads in the STUDIO who are all white, but it has nothing to do with the actual crew of filmmakers (FILM producers and directors included).
Not once did I say the movie was racist. Thanks for commenting and have a good day.
Yes, it’s a shame about the deaths but everybody dies in Dune, regardless of their colour. It’s a brutal story. Worse is to follow 🙂
I have just written a comment about Dune regarding race and then searched in Google first to see if anybody else was saying the same thing. The reason is because I don’t want to get slaughtered for being racist myself!
Why on Earth is a beautiful, young, black woman playing the role of Lt Keynes? It’s nonsense. He’s a man. It instantly stinks of box-ticking. It feels like they needed a black woman in the film so picked Keynes. And then of all the fremen they chose Jamis, who goes against the leader of his tribe and gets killed as a result.
It is really difficult to know why there are not more black or asian actors in top films. I don’t know the answer. Is it really that the best people for the roles are chosen or is there real discrimination? If you pick a black actor to fulfill a major role just because of their skin colour, so you can appear to be inclusive, isn’t that more racist than picking a white person who is more suited to the role? I don’t know the answer, it’s well beyond my understanding, but I do totally agree with the point you made about science-fiction being the perfect opportunity to have mixed races playing all the parts, especially in Dune where the film is set 11,000 years into the future so our current human races of today simply won’t exist!
I even wondered if the fremen should be exclusively dark-skinned because of the planet they live on then wondered if that thought is in itself racist!
With the casting of an asian as a doctor, and the casting of Jamis, Lt Keynes and the gardener who waters the palm trees at the beginning, it does make you wonder why Duke Leto or Paul Atreides or Gurney, Duncan, etc, aren’t black.
I said all of this to myself. ALL OF IT. They added diversity and then type casted everyone. They had no one in hair and makeup who could do black hair because it was very unoriginal. I enjoyed the movie and am happy for the diversity but they also need diversity in their crew… badly
To the people in the Comments: Racism is not about a single movie, a single person, etc. RACISM IS ABOUT A SYSTEM (OF OPPRESSION) – dear Goddess, when are we going to understand this as a society? It’s not about a movie; it’s about the movie industry. It’s not about a person; it’s about a network of people. If you are only talking about this movie, you are missing the whole point. As the author of this article clearly states, it’s about the representation of POC in many many movies across many many decades, of which Dune is just the shiniest, newest, blockbusterish example of this systemic issue.
This is just what I was thinking! Thank you for writing it. And I am saying that the movie is racist.
I feel like you missed the forest for the trees – this is a white savior story through and through.
It’s actually not. Paul is an anti-hero who causes a lot of death. It’s like a Greek tragedy with a deeply flawed “hero”. please read the 6 books. It’s a commentary on colonialism, and the fight over oil in the Middle East.
I highly encourage you to read all 6 books. Spoiler: Paul is an anti-hero like an old fashioned Greek tragedy. The story spans thousands of years, and finally, it was a commentary on colonialism in the Middle East, and the oil wars going on between the Russians and Western Europe/USA.
Hope this helps put the whole thing in perspective.