Just because your faves are starring in it, doesn’t mean you can ignore the sheer lack of representation.
(@nerdist / giphy)
When the new sci-fi adventure film Dune was announced earlier this year, I was initially over the moon with excitement. Seeing stars like Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, and Oscar Isaac on the big screen together seemed like a fan cast come true. Not to mention it’s directed by Denis Villeneuve —– one of my favorite directors —– who is now known for his acclaimed sci-fi classics like Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival.
However, when I, like many other fans, began to take a closer look at the cast, disappointment took over instead. Though Arab and Islamic influences are a major part of Frank Herbert’s original novel, the cast severely lacked in representation of actors of those cultures.
I can’t say I’m surprised, though. Hollywood has a notorious history of misrepresenting and erasing Islamic people, and this new movie seems like it could potentially be just another instance of that.
The story revolves around the plights of a hero named Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the heir to a noble family, who fights for his family’s stewardship of the harsh, desert planet Arrakis.
The main struggle between noble houses is control over melange, or spice, the most valuable substance in the galaxy which happens to be on Arrakis.
This sci-fi epic follows Atreides’ journey as he interacts with the Arrakis’ native Fremen people, specifically his love interest Chani (Zendaya). The Fremen people see Paul as the Prophet, or “Messiah,” who will save them from the overbearing control on their land.
The Arab and Islamic influences in the movie are blatant to say the least, and Frank Herbert’s original story would never have been possible without these influences.
Through the nomadic Fremen people, the inspiration is most clearly seen. Not only do the Fremen physically have Arab features, with tanned skin and dark hair, their language is also modeled after the Arabic language.
In an article from SyFy Wire, all the examples of Arabic words being manipulated into the fictional Fremen language are detailed in full. Just to provide a few examples of many, Paul’s messianic name is Muad’Dib (“mu’adibs” means “teacher” in Arabic) and the sand worms are called Shai-Hulud (“Shai” means “thing,” and “Hulud” means “immortality”).
In terms of religion, Herbert borrowed from Islamic Mysticism (Sufism) and included nods to the Berbers of North Africa and Sunni Muslims by writing the Fremen as descendants of the Zensunni Warriors.
Ideologically, the Fremen’s sense of group responsibility and strength through unity and cohesiveness is based on 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s writings on the concept of Asabiyyah.
When Hollywood takes Arab and Islamic culture, uses it for their own benefit, and tries to erase the people behind it, it’s flat-out appropriation.
Especially since in the past Hollywood has done an extremely poor job of accurately representing Arab people in the past – portraying them in a terrible light by constantly associating them with terrorism and oppression – it makes the casting directors’ erasure of Arab people in this film even more egregious.
Despite the opportunity this film presented to right wrongs and finally give Arab and Islamic people the accurate representation they deserve, it seems this film will likely be just another Hollywood whitewash. There are countless MENA actors and actresses who have been left on the sidelines that could’ve been cast in this film instead.
As moviegoers, we need to incite change using our most powerful tool: our wallets. Hollywood casts our favorite actors because they know it’s what will sell in theaters, thinking it’ll distract from the obvious lack of representation.
Even if you consider yourself Timothée Chalamet or Zendaya’s biggest fan, that doesn't give you an excuse to be ignorant of the situation and blindly support Dune. We need to call Hollywood out on its bullshit, because if they get away with this mess, nothing will change.
If you call yourself an activist, it’s time you put your money where your mouth is.
Maya Lang is an Online Writer at Rowdy Magazine. She enjoys playing guitar, staying up far too late, and daydreaming about living in the '80s. You can reach her on Instagram at @mayaxlang for more info and movie recommendations.