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.