TIFF 2016: Diversity buzz for TIFF's opening film is accidental, cast says

Whether it was intentional or not, the remake of The Magnificent Seven, starring Denzel Washington, is sparking a discussion about diversity in film.

'I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse,' director claims

Actor Denzel Washington attends a photo call before a press conference to promote the film "The Magnificent Seven" during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Lead actor Denzel Washington was blunt at the news conference for the Toronto International Film Festival's opening film, The Magnificent Seven.

"I've never seen the original."

Washington, who won an Academy Award for Training Day, one of three films he made with The Magnificent Seven director Antoine Fuqua, said he didn't watch the 1960s classic because he wasn't sure how it would help him play the main character of Chisolm.

I didn't think about colour. I didn't think about it as an event. It wasn't to make a statement.Antoine Fuqua

The A-list actor was flanked by co-stars Byung-hun Lee, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ethan Hawke and the only woman in the film, Haley Bennett. They were asked about some of the issues plaguing Hollywood right now, in particular about releasing a film with a diverse cast in a time of racial tension in the U.S..

Side-stepping the question, the stars agreed they were just interested in making a good movie. 

Fuqua credited big Hollywood studios MGM and Sony for saying 'yes' to the cast he wanted.

"Is Hollywood changing? You gotta give the studio credit when they do something like this. This becomes the new definition of what a western is," Fuqua said.

The director of The Magnificent Seven, Antoine Fuqua, says he wasn't trying to make a statement about racial diversity with his remake of the 1960 classic. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

He added that another version could cast women exclusively, though the director says he never intended for the film to become a touchstone on diversity.

"I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse. I didn't think about colour. I didn't think about it as an event. It wasn't to make a statement," Fuqua said.

For its day, the 1960 version — itself a remake of Akira Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai — had a star studded cast, including Russian-born Yul Brynner, German Horst Buchholz and American Steve McQueen.

But non-white stars were conspicuous by their absence and like many westerns of its day it didn't reflect the American west it supposedly depicted.

"The villain was a white guy dressed up as a Mexican," quipped actor Ethan Hawke, who plays Goodnight Robicheaux in the film.

Fuqua says it's the actors who bring relevance to his remake. "It's a very diverse cast, a very strong cast and the story makes it relevant."

'It's a reinvention'

For the 41st annual festival, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey thought opening with a western would be popular but the reboot of The Magnificent Seven was of particular interest.

"It's a reinvention. The cast of characters is much more diverse. It reflects what is happening now. There's a much more diverse range of ethnicity reflecting what the old west was actually like," Bailey said.

Aspiring fimmaker Qais Pasha was recently selected to take part in a CBC workshop for diverse creators. He says the racial diversity of The Magnificent Seven helped him enjoy the film "on a much deeper level." (Stephanie Matteis/CBC)

Aspiring fimmaker Qais Pasha was recently selected to take part in a CBC workshop for diverse creators.

He's a fan of Denzel Washington, who reminds him of Steve McQueen.

Pasha loves westerns having seen both films that preceded the new one, so the opening night film resonated with him.

"They do this kind of revisionist story telling. There's women in there now, there's Aboriginal and black characters and there's also diversity in terms of Antoine Fuqua. It makes me enjoy the movie much more on a much deeper level," Pasha said.

It's all very topical after a year that saw #OscarsSoWhite trending internationally when there was not one black actor nominated for an Academy Award.

The issue of diversity in film has struck such a significant chord internationally that Bailey will host a discussion with the Academy's president Cheryl Boone Isaacs on efforts toward diversity and inclusion for her organization.

That talk is scheduled for Sat. Sept. 9 at 9:30 a.m. in the Glenn Gould Studio, at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre.