My relationship to the politics of representation radically and irrevocably changed in the summer of 2017. Disney was undergoing a highly publicized casting process for the 2019 Aladdin remake. At the time, I was part of a Facebook group, that shall remain unnamed, which routinely discussed such media matters through the lens of identity and representation. Fresh out of a dysfunctionally liberal college environment, I’d yet to develop the tools to step back and critically examine such conversations. For years, I’d taken it at face value that “representation” was good and authentic, in itself a stamp of some vague sense of political “progressiveness.”
It was in that comically misguided spirit that I engaged in an online argument (never again) regarding the casting of the 2019 Aladdin remake. Someone in the group had asked, rather genuinely, about other members’ dream casts. Rather quickly, it became clear that the responses were divided into two general clusters, with South Asian actors in one, and Arab and Iranian ones in the other. The thread became tense. Each side accused the other of being “problematic” for their hypothetical choices. The latter argued, rather fiercely, that the cast should be predominantly Arab and/or Iranian given the origins of the One Thousand and One Nights as a collection of Southwest Asian folktales. It was not until the virtual screaming match dragged on for hours that a simple thought occurred to me. This is Disney’s Aladdin. This is a $200 million dollar blockbuster produced by the world’s largest media behemoth, directed by a white man, based off of a story that was not even in the original Nights, but that was added later by a French orientalist. What on earth were we fighting about, exactly?
The discourse around race and representation in Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 Dune has been alive and well for years preceding the film’s release. Now that it is finally available, after being further delayed a year due to the pandemic, the film has caused a stir across the internet due to the absence of Arab, or otherwise Southwest Asian and North African, actors from the main cast. In the days following the film’s release, many a tweet and think piece have decried: “where are the Arabs in Dune?” I am actively choosing to not link these protestations for several reasons. First and foremost, many of them have been written by friends and colleagues whom I generally respect and would not want to single out. Moreover, I understand, of course, where this frustration comes from, especially for those of us who came of age anytime in the last two decades. If a Hollywood film seems remotely “appropriative” or “fetishistic,” it probably is––right?
I’m not interested in defending Dune (2021) so much as I am invested in pushing back against the plague that is “representation” for representation’s sake which, like in many a diasporic community in the United States, has ravaged popular discourse within Arab-American spaces, especially online. The argument generally goes: the Fremen of Dune are inspired by various peoples and groups of Southwest Asia and North Africa. Ergo, the Fremen should be played by actors who are Southwest Asian and/or North African. That logic, though not without qualification, tends to usually work for stories in our own world. If a character is, say, written as Egyptian, it generally makes sense to be invested in the casting of an Egyptian to play the role. But what about fantasy? How do you cast a fictional people?
This question is further complicated by the tendency of people who bemoan the lack of Arabs in Dune to also accuse the film of “orientalism.” As is the case with many a popular term from critical theory, the word has long been misapplied to texts in which a critical examination of the way non-western peoples are depicted is by all means necessary, but in which there is otherwise barely anything relevant to the specific relationship between knowledge production and material power that Edward Said outlined in his 1978 book. Such is the nature of “Dune (2021) is orientalist” comments. They seem illusively correct, the rhetorical manifestation of the now overused “Calling Edward Said” meme. But scratch the surface of the movie, and the argument becomes baffling.
At the time of this writing, I have yet to read the original Frank Herbert novel, nor have I watched any of its other adaptations before this year’s. While I plan to change that in due time, I am glad that that is the case for now. The text under fire is Dune (2021). While obviously not irrelevant, the source material is besides the point. The fundamental question, after all, is: should the Fremen have been predominantly played by Arab and/or SWANA actors?
The Fremen’s language, culture, and lifestyle unquestionably borrows much from Arabic, various Muslim traditions, and a generalized impression of desert life in Southwest Asia and North Africa. But their relationship to the Imperium is not (and rightly so) posited as a 1:1 equivalent to any real-world historical relationship between a European power and a colonized people in either Southwest Asia or North Africa. They are not the “Arabs” to House Atreides’ “English,” let’s say. In the social fabric of this universe, they are not even that othered, not presented as inherently more mystical, religious, or violent than any other major group. Jason Mamoa's (hilariously named) Duncan Idaho does comment on their exceptional fighting skills. But so does everyone else comment on those of House Atreides. The same goes for the Empire’s elite Sardaukar units. The same goes for their own social and cultural norms. The Fremen are religious, but so is House Atreides. They believe in prophecy and destiny, but so does the hero’s mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who belongs to the shadowy Bene Gesserit order.
The Fremen do not conform to Hollywood tropes of “noble savages” or “magical natives.” They are truly just out here trying to get colonizers off their land. Effortlessly delivered by Zendaya, Chani’s opening monologue even emphasizes the unambiguously colonial nature of the off-worlders’ relationship to the Fremen. We are prompted from the beginning to mistrust what they have to say about an occupied people. In fact, if any group is truly and distinctly othered by the film it is House Harkonnen. Led by Stellan Skarsgård’s grotesque Baron, every member we meet is deathly pale, uniformly bald, and, if they speak long enough, far more bloodthirsty than anyone else by a longshot. We are actively meant to be alienated and repulsed by the Harkonnen.
In contrast, we are meant to empathize with, and even root for, the Fremen, however not for the condescending reasons common in genre stories about fictional indigenous people. As previously mentioned, they are not presented as “noble savages” who possess an unfathomably mystical relationship with their land, but as a colonized people engaged in a liberation struggle against their cruel occupying power. This is also where the idea that Dune (2021) is a “white savior” narrative becomes perplexing. Timothée Chalamet’s Paul is, at least in this installment, not even trying to “save” the Fremen so much as he is seeking a mutually beneficial tactical alliance with them. The paths of Atreides and the Fremen do not cross due to a paternalistic desire by the former to free the latter. Rather, both are brought together though the greater machinations and conspiracies of the Emperor, their common enemy by the end of the movie. This isn’t to say that the optics of the film’s casting do not evoke a long Hollywood, and by extension western, tradition of fascination with white men who arrive at exotic, troubled locations only to end up leading the “locals” through their turmoil. Dune (2021) is by no means free of that legacy. At the same time, simply dismissing Paul’s relationship with the Fremen as a “white savior” narrative fails to engage with the actual plot and power dynamics presented in the film, rejecting robust textual analysis in favor of a simplistic projection that is not actually supported by this fictional setting’s world or events.
But let’s assume for a moment that Dune (2021) is actually an “orientalist” and “white savior” text––what good would the casting of Arab and/or SWANA actors do then, exactly? Would that not transform the Fremen from a coded, but ultimately fictional people to a direct allegory that collapses all the various national and ethnic groups of the region? Would that not confirm that Arrakis is not simply a made-up desert planet, but a hodgepodge “Middle East”? What good is “authenticity” for a supposedly violent and colonial text? What good did the casting of Amr Waked in Wonder Woman: 1984 (2020) do? On the other hand, if the Fremen are not an “orientalist” mishmash (which I don’t think they are), and the real-world elements that define them fall within the healthy range of coding that inevitably happens in all works of fantasy, then what would a predominantly Arab and/or SWANA cast achieve?
All that said, this focus on casting is by far most frustrating in its failure to address the truly colonial elements of Dune (2021). Approaching the film from a “representation” angle completely misses the fact that the precise coding and/or casting of the Fremen is ultimately irrelevant to the fact that the fundamentally violent nature of the Imperium is never really questioned. Oscar Isaac’s Leto is even presented as an almost benevolent feudal lord, willing to be less cruel than his predecessors, sure, but nevertheless the leader of a militaristic occupying power seeking the natural resources of the Fremen’s lands. In that sense, it wouldn’t have mattered whether the Fremen had been coded as Irish, South Asian, or Aztec, nor would it have mattered if Arrakis was a jungle or ocean planet instead of a desert one. The Imperium, while depicted as flawed, remains the valid political entity which all relevant players respect. The specific Emperor in power is challenged. So is the rule of the Harkonnens on Arrakis. But the Imperium itself? Never.
Read more posts like this in your inbox
Subscribe to the newsletter