Here's how the Dune sequel can fix the first movie's white saviour problem
Part One erases much of the novel's nuance and cultural influences — but it's not too late to redeem that
Adapting Dune for the big screen was always going to be a challenge. After all, the story of Frank Herbert's novel is a complicated one that builds up a messiah figure in Paul Atreides, only to warn against the dangers that come with blindly following charismatic leaders. It challenges the traditional notion of the Western saviour within the vividly constructed desert world of Arrakis, which was inspired by Islamic and SWANA (South West Asian and North African) cultures.
If done right, the story presented Hollywood with an opportunity to tell a rich, nuanced tale that would dismantle the notion of the saviour. That's what Denis Villeneuve promised when he said his film adaptation of Dune wouldn't follow a white saviour narrative. "It's not a celebration of a saviour," he told journalists in September. "It's a criticism of the idea of a saviour, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe."
Villeneuve's Dune seemed like it would be a counter to Hollywood's white saviour obsession (see movies like Avatar, The Last Samurai, and Lawrence of Arabia, just for starters) — but Part One fell back into the same age-old trope and sacrificed much of the nuance from the novel while simultaneously erasing the cultural influences Herbert was inspired by. Now, with a sequel having just been confirmed for 2023, Villeneuve will have to course-correct and make sure the second film rectifies the shortcomings of the first if he wants to make Dune more than just the same type of story Hollywood has told time and time again.
Though the visuals and performances are undeniably impressive, the film itself distills Herbert's complex world into a simplified narrative that ignores its Islamic and Middle Eastern roots and instead glorifies Paul (played by Timothée Chalamet) as the saviour — exactly what Villeneuve promised not to do. And while the source material proudly boasts its Islamic/SWANA-regional influences, Villeneuve's film erases much of what made the novel extraordinary, opting to decorate the film with an Orientalist lens through its landscapes, costume design and sound, but never acknowledging the source of the inspiration.
Herbert's novel tackles themes of environmentalism, religion, imperialism, political conflict and power imbalances with nuance against a backdrop of a world inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures. The Fremen speak Arabic terms like "jihad" and "Mahdi" and their faith is a form of Zensunnism, an amalgamation of Sunni Islam and Zen Buddhism. Herbert was able to envision a future where this form of Islam thrived with cultural influences from West Asia and North Africa — but Villeneuve's film relegates culture to surface-level symbols and stereotypes such as inconsistent foreign-sounding accents among the Fremen, women in veiled garb, ululation in Hans Zimmer's soundtrack, and a brief shot of Fremen men seated on the ground using tasbihs (like rosaries) to pray. It doesn't push the envelope like Herbert's novel did; instead, the film merely strips cultures of their essence and puts the remaining exoticized aesthetic on show.
While the source material proudly boasts its Islamic/SWANA-regional influences, Villeneuve's film erases much of what made the novel extraordinary...The film merely strips cultures of their essence and puts the remaining exoticized aesthetic on show.- Rukhsar Ali
With the film's casting, particularly the Fremen, Villeneuve had the opportunity to elevate Muslim and SWANA representation in Hollywood from its extremely low numbers and give meaningful roles to communities that are often misrepresented. (A 2021 study that analyzed 200 popular films across the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand showed that only 1.6 per cent of those films' characters were Muslim.) Instead, the casting choices highlight Hollywood's propensity for treating minorities as interchangeable, as no SWANA or Muslim actors were hired in major roles. Although Zendaya, Javier Bardem, and Babs Olusanmokun deliver solid performances as the main Fremen characters, not hiring SWANA or Muslim actors was a huge missed opportunity for representation.
Villeneuve's task for Dune: Part Two will be to not only acknowledge where Part One fell short but to work twice as hard to make up for those shortcomings. The director can start by hiring SWANA and Muslim actors to play important Fremen characters, as Part Two should give significant screen time to developing Fremen culture and lore (which seems promising, with Zendaya set to be the protagonist in the sequel).
The sequel also can't be afraid to delve into the Fremen's deep Islamic roots. Although Hollywood prefers to portray Muslims as terrorists or in other harmful ways that perpetuate stereotypes, Herbert's Fremen are the product of immense research on religious and ethnic influences, and the film shouldn't be afraid to showcase this on the big screen. Yes, there are negative connotations with the phrase "jihad" or seeing Muslim-like fighters, but that's primarily because of the harmful misrepresentation of Islam perpetuated by the media. The media's imagination is so limited when it comes to brown-skinned characters that it leaves no room for nuance within those portrayals. What Muslim and SWANA audiences are left with, then, are mostly one-dimensional human props for "representation" — but Dune offers an opportunity to show these cultures in new, fleshed-out and nuanced ways.
From a purely science fiction-based perspective, there's validity in any non-white actors playing the role of the Fremen; after all, the story is set roughly 20,000 years from now. But Villeneuve's Dune exists today, in a time where it matters who audiences see onscreen. It's irresponsible to not cast any SWANA or Muslim actors in major roles when the story of Dune would not exist without the influences of people and cultures from those regions. Although one could argue that Villeneuve has only started telling the story with the first instalment and is building up Paul as the messiah figure in order to take him down in the sequel, it doesn't change the reality that Part One will always be the story of the saviour.
Like Herbert's novel, Villeneuve's film does succeed in seducing audiences with the idea of Paul as the leader they've been waiting for. But films don't have the same luxury as books do when it comes to telling a story in its entirety. Ending Part One with Paul being accepted by the Fremen and declaring that his "road leads into the desert," hero hair billowing in the wind as Zendaya's Chani looks on with piercing blue eyes, does a disservice to the story that Herbert tried to tell. Villeneuve's take leaves viewers hanging just as the arguable heart of the narrative began. Add in the lack of SWANA and Muslim representation and erasure of cultural influences in the film, and Dune: Part One is the quintessential white saviour story from start to finish.
With the sequel on its way (and even the possibility of a third film), the story of Dune isn't over and Part Two can certainly redeem itself. But to do that, the film has to remember that while Paul is the protagonist of Dune, he isn't the hero — and that Hollywood white saviour version is a story we don't need to hear right now, or ever again.