On Dune’s Best Picture Oscar Nomination

On Second Thought, Emperor of Everything Atreides, I Don’t Like How You Treat Black Women

My Sihaya…I have loved you for five thousand years.” -Closing lines of Sandworms of Dune, 2007

I think that I was a bit of a moderate among Counterpunch-ers last year when Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One was released, Eric Draitser was ecstatic about this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s space opera novel and Jeffrey St. Clair hated it. Coming as it did in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown of Hollywood and during a particularly busy moment in my professional life, I was slightly enchanted by the visuals and production values while being underwhelmed by the character development and the overall emotional sterility of the proceedings. As I said in a column at the time, the problem is that the source novel is utterly humorless, a severe impediment 45 years after George Lucas successfully fused space opera with campiness. The sheer absurdity of the genre’s rejection of astrophysical truisms like gravity in outer space makes it a fertile ground for the best kind of slapstick and failing to take advantage of this, something to be expected from the humorless Villenueve, hinders the project.

Now that the picture has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (why is simply beyond my comprehension), it felt appropriate to rewatch the film and reconsider some of my conclusions.

The plot is well-known but summary bears mention for those unfamiliar with its outline: Set some 8,000 years hence in a neo-feudal intergalactic empire, Dune: Part One follows the young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), son of the noble Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), as his family takes on as fiefdom the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially called Dune, that has been reassigned by the galactic Emperor from their longtime bitter rival-cum-cousin, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård). Arrakis is the sole source in the universe of the mystical geriatric spice melange, a kind of wonder drug that does everything from fueling space travel to enabling psychic and telekinetic abilities, rendering a rather clever analogy for fossil fuels crossed with the mystical Enlightenment sought by world religions throughout humanity’s existence. As palace intrigues and betrayals unfold, Paul and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are forced to seek refuge with the Indigenous peoples of Arrakis, the Fremen, and plot revenge against their antagonists. (Herbert originally serialized the story in 1963 and clearly was taking inspiration from David Lean’s recently-released Lawrence of Arabia and a narrative history of the 1834-59 Russo-Caucassian War by Lesley Blanch titled Sabres of Paradise, published in 1960, both of which deal with Muslim anti-imperialist guerrilla wars against the metropole.) Herbert injected a postmodern-ish critique of Golden Age of sci-fi into the narrative, subverting pre-existing genre conventions about eugenics, all-powerful alpha male protagonists, and misogynist future societies as the idealized utopia while simultaneously, for commercial reasons, opting to maintain reliance on other problematic Romantic narrative tropes and methods. At the time of the film’s release, I said the success or failure of any adaptation of the novel is its verisimilitude to the postmodern element and the ability to slough away the Romantic stereotypes.

The operative issue is that the Dune franchise is almost sixty years old and it has been a cultural commodity with a strong reputation since the beginning. Anyone who sojourns into a Barnes and Noble will recognize the permanent three feet of shelf space occupied by the franchise, itself a minor cultural travesty given how superior genre prose by much more imaginative authors is cycled out of circulation for pulping at breakneck speed. (What kind of sci-fi/fantasy fan subculture might otherwise exist if such glorification had instead been granted the novels of Samuel R. Delany, the queer Black author whose space adventures have much healthier and inclusive understandings of gender and sexuality? Would we have witnessed the upsurge of white nationalist politics in fan subculture over the past decade that rapidly became a constituency of the alt-right?) Very few come to the film with a blank slate, instead they have some familiarity with the novel or its three previous screen adaptations. As a result, many viewers, both intentionally and unintentionally, project into their viewing experience their understanding of what comes next in the story. Such viewers at least know the ending of the original novel and at most know that the 2007 sequel novel Sandworms of Dune concluded the original eight book cycle with a vignette of the protagonist being reunited with his beloved, completing a half-millennia love story.

Extra-textual augmentation of a film is by no means verboten or even discouraged by any serious critical framework, entire careers have been built upon book-length annotations (the popular anthropologist Joseph Campbell began his by coauthoring A Skeleton’s Key to Finnegan’s Wake).

However, serious analysis also requires a certain willingness to engage with the text in and of itself, by itself. At a certain point, one should put to one side all of the fan investment in the larger franchise and engage in the film without any reference to the source material.

It is in this sense that it is impossible to ignore the dubious racial politics of the 2021 picture. This is reflective of a problem rent throughout the entirety of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, or at least its biggest budget productions. Despite all the superficial nods to multiculturalism and diversity in casting calls, the power relations between whiteness and Blackness remain fundamentally unchallenged and unmodified. Even in the much-glorified Marvel Black Panther picture, the Afrofuturist utopia of Wakanda ultimately genuflects before American imperialism and the “enlightened” political wisdom of a CIA officer played by Martin Freeman whilst executing the Pan-African internationalist revolutionary played by Michael B. Jordan. Critiquing these power relations is still taboo in Hollywood, hence why lower budget Black-produced genre pictures like 2017’s Get Out are such huge hits.

What can be said about how Black and Brown characters are presented in 2021’s Dune?

This is complicated by the fact characters coded as white in the source novel are played by Black/Brown/Indigenous actors. Oscar Isaac, Dave Baustista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Roger Yuan, and Jason Momoa are all of Global Southern descent but play roles that David Lynch cast for the most part with white actors for his 1984 adaptation. With the exception of Chen’s Dr. Yueh, who speaks Mandarin Chinese at one point (in all likelihood so to curry favor with the rapidly-expanding Chinese mainland’s international box office market potential), none of these characters integrate the nationality of their actor into the characterization. If Duncan-Brewster and Josh Brolin had opted to switch roles, the audience would not construe anything being amiss, let alone be able to accuse Brolin of engaging in any kind of Blackface or cultural appropriation.

Simultaneously, it is impossible to ignore that characters that are coded as white address and comport themselves towards Black character actors in ways that repeat existing habits and tropes of our contemporary society. When the borderline-albino Timothée Chalamet talks down to Duncan-Brewster’s character, the power dynamics of white supremacy are further reified and valorized, regardless of whether or not the director is trying to inject a subversion of the author’s proto-Libertarian politics and ethos into the proceedings. When Rebecca Ferguson appears midway through the film in a prophetic vision, cradling a baby Madonna-like with Arabic-styled letters written on her face and wearing a vaguely Islamic head scarf, I was quickly reminded of some of the Orientalist portraiture discussed by Edward Said. When Chen betrays his noble Duke, we are seeing a reenactment of the perfidious Chinaman tropes peppered throughout a hundred Fu Manchu stories and associated knock-offs. And when Zendaya repeatedly appears in a vague, dreamlike vision before making a short entrance into the diegetic physical realm that is lacking any serious character development or individualization, it is impossible to ignore how this cinematic motif replicates some of the most noxious storytelling tropes used in the representation of Black, Asian, and Indigenous female characters over the past century. Villeneuve, in the name of brevity and setup for the sequel, combines the Arabic temptress, the Indigenous Noble Savage, and the sexualized Black girl into a cipher that viewers project their own ideas onto a la a Rorschach test.

This is a noteworthy hierarchy itself. The characters that are able to be interchangeable with any performer and which were coded as white in the original novel are granted the most significant amount of character development. By contrast, the characters that were intentionally written as non-white are given the least development possible. Apologists for the picture will be apt to point out that this should be attributed at least in part to the subdivision of the adaptation. The script ends at exactly the moment in the novel when these non-white characters are introduced into the narrative. This is undeniable; however, does this make these tropes and stereotypical cinematic devices acceptable?

Perhaps the most disturbing instance, however, is in the climactic knife fight between Chalamet and Babs Olusanmokun. In the original novel, it was a racist narrative device wherein the protagonist can only pass through a gateway on his Hero’s Journey by killing an Indigenous character. By casting the Indigenous character with a Nigerian-American actor, the racism is compounded; the powder-white Chalamet reaches his narrative and character arc climax through the blood sacrifice of a Black man. The Ku Klux Kid comes into his own in the only truly American way possible, complete with mysterious nondiegetic crones intoning truisms disguised as profundity. After this theater of carnage is enacted, the Emperor of Everything immediately is subject of the sexiest looks possible from Zendaya, probably the most grotesque way to end the picture (at least David Lynch had the decency to make the Freudian nuttiness so overt that the 1984 film will be a perennial college drug party flick). The message could not be more blatant: murder a Black man to get the Black-Indigenous girl. Gross!

In the January 1988 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction, author and critic Norman Spinrad authored “Emperor of Everything,” a witty biopsy of malignant heroic saga genre conventions within “about half the science fiction and about two-thirds of the fantasy [tomes] on the racks.”

The SF racks are groaning under the leaden weight of these cloned “epic sagas of the struggle between Good and Evil,” these “mighty heroes” in skin-tight space suits and brass-bound jockstraps, these “stirring action-adventure tales.” With a decent Find and Replace program in your computer, the above can serve as a marketing outline for the majority of SF published, and probably has. If there could be such a thing as a foolproof formula for crud, this would be it. This is the time-honored equation for the commercial SF plot skeleton with all the variables cranked up to their theoretical limits… Ah, but there is no such thing as a foolproof formula for crud, not even the outline of The Emperor of Everything. For while it is certainly true that the diligent application of this formula has allowed armies of hacks to pile up mile-high mountains of adolescent power-fantasies for the masturbatory delectation of wimpish nerds, wonder of wonders, it is also true that many of the genre’s genuine masterpieces fit comfortably within its formal parameters… [Joseph Campbell’s] The Hero With A Thousand Faces, unlike the hero of The Emperor of Everything, is an Everyman on a mystical quest… The Hero With A Thousand Faces is, after all, the story of ourselves, or anyway the story of our lives that we all would write if we had our fingers on the Keyboard in the Sky, which is why our professional storytellers keep telling it to us again and again throughout the world and across the millennia, and why we’re always willing to live it vicariously one more time… Just as republics tend to degenerate into empires, paths of enlightenment into hierarchical religions, and inspirational leaders into tyrants, so does the tale of The Hero With A Thousand Faces tend to degenerate into The Emperor of Everything, and for much the same reasons.

Spinrad further explicates his thesis using the Dune franchise, which at that moment had been concluded at Book 6, Chapterhouse: Dune, following Frank Herbert’s unexpected death in 1986. (The franchise was revived in 1999 by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, who have strip-mined every scrap of paper and byte of computer floppy disc data bequeathed by the paterfamilias to co-author an ungodly sixteen Dune prequels, sequels, and mid-quels, with more apparently on the way.)

Spinrad has words of high praise for the first three Dune novels, which are “a mordant commentary on the story of The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Paul may become god-king of the universe, but he cannot escape the destiny that has raised him to this pinnacle, he cannot abdicate to the republic of the spirit, nor can he escape the dire consequences of his own godhood.” However, after Book 3, Children of Dune, the franchise rapidly degenerates from postmodern commentary upon Campbell into The Emperor of Everything motif. Most fans with decent critical faculties acknowledge this as well.

Taken as a whole the Dune series is almost a perfect textbook example of how and why the tale of The Hero With A Thousand Faces so easily devolves into its unfortunate mirror-image, The Emperor of Everything. In superficial terms, one is as much a power fantasy as the other, but the true tale also has a moral and spiritual dimension. Shorn of its derring-do, The Hero With A Thousand Faces is a myth of enlightenment…in which the payoff for the reader is vicarious mystic transcendence and elevated moral consciousness… But shorn of its inner spiritual heart, shorn of…Paul Atreides’ tormented ironic prescience, the tale can only become what Hitler made of Nietzsche. For alas, the Fuhrerprincip is the dark flip side of the tale of The Hero With A Thousand Faces. For without…the tragic irony of a Herbert [present in the first three books but absent in the latter volumes], the inner light of the story is lost, and in place of a paradigm of spiritual maturation, we are left with only the pornography of power, with the egoistic Faustian masturbation fantasy of the fascist mystique, with the reader’s hands in his tight black leather pants as he envisions himself as the all-powerful ubermensch in the ultimate catbird seat.

It is within this matrix I detect the major shortcoming of the 2021 film. The picture included Brian Herbert as an Executive Producer and his cowriter Kevin J. Anderson as a “Creative Consultant” (whatever that means). Brian Herbert has militantly patrolled the boundaries of his father’s estate like a starved hound tracking game, smothering any fan initiatives and creativity that might threaten his profit margins (in all likelihood because of his utterly bereft writing skills, lack of imagination, and deep fear of surmounting his overlong “go to work with Papa” fantasy in order to *GASP* get a real job). Herbert the Younger’s posthumous beatification of Dear Old Dad has lacked any critical interrogative, thereby arguing that a flawed yet impressive pulp fiction is worthy of canonization by Harold Bloom. In practical terms, this means frequent reissuing of the entire series with hip, glossy new book covers featuring adulatory praise in order to bilk a few more dollars from gullible fans. When your primary concern is the budgetary bottom line being kept in the black, discourse acknowledging the flaws riddled throughout the text are heretical. This heavy-handed management of his father’s legacy retroactively re-rendered the first three Dune novels as an ‘Emperor of Everything’ story rather than “a mordant commentary on the story of The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” I imagine Brian Herbert exerted a certain amount of pressure over the screenwriting process, excising any attempted subversion or even reference to the novel’s flaws. In other words, verisimilitude to the postmodern element was limited in this film while the ability to slough away Romantic stereotypes was almost undetectable. How then could Villeneuve have possibly avoided the problematic tropes I mention?

One further matter which has thus far been absent from the press coverage and critical evaluations of the picture, at least to my knowledge, is discussion of the director’s nationality. Denis Villeneuve is of course French Canadian, a demographic with its own very complex history as both an oppressed and an oppressor nationality within a settler-colonial society that was built off both the hard power of the colonizing militias and the soft power of Christian missionaries. In June 2019, the Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls issued a report that declared the continuous and persistent violence against Indigenous women was genocidal. In 1980 and then 1995, Quebec, the largest population center for the majority-Catholic French Canadians, held a plebiscite to determine whether it should secede. In the past several years, grisly mass-graves holding the remains of Indigenous children have been located on the grounds of old Catholic-run “residential schools,” which were little more than concentration camps that brutalized youths in order to ‘kill the Indian, save the child.’ “For decades, the Indigenous children were taken from their families, sometimes by force, and housed in crowded, church-run boarding schools, where they were abused and prohibited from speaking their languages. Thousands vanished altogether,” wrote Ian Austen and Dan Bilefsky for June 24, 2021 New York Times column.

This 2021 adaptation of Dune boasted about utilizing the most up-to-date filmmaking technologies in order to simulate Frank Herbert’s vision. Yet it seems damnable that Villeneuve would fail to update our understandings of colonial technologies, precisely and especially because he hails from a country that has been engaged, imperfectly, with a distinct social and political discourse about the matters that Herbert sought to critique in his original novel, one which Americans desperately need to likewise engage with. His previous picture, Blade Runner 2049, featured repeated, disturbing sequences of women being brutalized. In response to these criticisms, he told Vanity Fair “I am very sensitive to how I portray women in movies. This is my ninth feature film and six of them have women in the lead role. The first Blade Runner was quite rough on the women; something about the film noir aesthetic. But I tried to bring depth to all the characters… Blade Runner is not about tomorrow; it’s about today. And I’m sorry, but the world is not kind on women… If you look at my movies, they are exploring today’s shadows. The first Blade Runner is the biggest dystopian statement of the last half century. I did the follow-up to that, so yes, it’s a dystopian vision of today. Which magnifies all the faults. That’s what I’ll say about that.” So why not bring this logic into Dune?

These are merely a few observations and I readily admit that a deeper, systemic reading is required.

But it also introduces a fascinating quandary to the discussion. Frank Herbert was an isolationist conservative, someone who would have relished in the late Justin Raimondo’s AntiWar.com columns and the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul and (perhaps) Donald Trump. Conservative isolationism has always been the anti-imperialism of fools, inclined to conspiracy theories and racism as opposed to a more systemic analysis of the warfare state’s political economy. This is reflected brilliantly in the Dune novels, loaded with a critique of America’s midcentury Middle Eastern policy and some of the most noxious narrative habits for representing characters coded as non-white, all of which Herbert happily borrowed from 19th and early 20th century Romantic literature.

If we are opposed to Trump but simultaneously are so easily seduced by Dune, what exactly does this mean? If we don’t cast the ballot but simultaneously uncritically endorse the ideological coordinates that underwrite a component of the Trump platform, who exactly are we?

I for one do not advocate for either the hard state censor or the soft boycott. Instead, an absolute freedom of speech should integrate these sort of critical engagements into mainstream press discourse about cinema. This is much healthier and fruitful engagement with the arts that strengthens the pedagogical methods and enables a deeper understanding of both ourselves and our communities. The success of the right over the past half century has been predicated precisely upon a media illiteracy and disengagement that enables the success of Fox News and talk radio, both replete with outright fabrication and fantasies.

In this sense, I would reiterate the point that I earlier implied: The Academy and Hollywood will never give an Oscar to a cinematic manifesto for anti-imperial national liberation and abolition of white supremacy. It is fundamentally in their best interests to smother even milquetoast hints towards such notions, which was the actual motivation and outcome for the McCarthyite witch hunts of the Hollywood Ten seventy-five years ago. (Herbert incidentally was a cousin of Tailgunner Joe who attended some of the Army-McCarthy hearings while a staffer working for Oregon Sen. Guy Cordon.)

The genuine metric that merits observation in this instance is the following: Why is it that a very literalist adaptation of a novel written by a right wing isolationist which trafficks in some of the most obscene instances of racism, sexism, body shaming, homophobia, and imperial condescension towards the colonized peoples seems so radical simply because of having a diverse casting call and Affirmative Action ethos? What truly differentiates such measures from George H. W. Bush’s selection of Judge Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court or his son’s appointment of Condoleeza Rice? Can we detect certain affinities and continuities between these casting choices and the 2003 invasion of Iraq under the leadership and endorsement of Gen. Colin Powell?

If it is not obvious, my point with such provocations is to stimulate a much deeper understanding of the subtle ways that American liberalism has slid so substantially to the right in the past twenty years precisely because of how utterly negligible the Republican Party is within the liberal citadel of Tinsel Town. Whilst outliers like Clint Eastwood, Jim Caviezel, and Mel Gibson have enough sway to finance marginal pictures with the production values of a Roger Corman offering, these are the most expensive and most prominent efforts from the heavyweights of the Democratic Party.

This should be much more instructive than it is. Thirty years ago, in the afterglow of Communism’s implosion and the high watermark of postmodernist/poststructuralist hegemony within the Ivory Tower, Noam Chomsky authored a witty denunciation of this academic gibberish that closed with a prescient warning:

There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like “Mathematics for the Millions” (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That’s not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That’s an organizer’s dream… It’s also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There’s a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

I echo this sentiment. While I personally have a slightly different view on postmodernism, a framework that is actually helpful in application to the cinema (the famous quote “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps one of the greatest postmodern critiques ever espoused about American mythos), the current state of our politics and the impending midterm elections warrant serious and powerful action. Squandering this moment might end up being a historical failure that our society can ill afford.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.