‘Dune’ and Diversity and Dave Bautista

This new Dune is one that dances with diversity. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel is about survival on a desert planet and the rise of a messiah-like figure, who must first entering the indigenous Fremen culture as an outsider and then, once learning their ways, becomes their leader. Almost six decades later, a lot has changed in the American culture and this version of “Dune,” directed by French Canadian Denis Villeneuve, attempts to respond to those changes at least with its casting.

Herbert reportedly based his Fremen culture on the San People of South Africa and the Bedouin tribes of North Africa and West Asia. The casting does center on a White lead actor (Timothée Chalamet) as Paul Atreides as the messiah-like figure and Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson as his mother, Lady Jessica, but it also includes Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac as Paul’s father, the ill-fated Duke Leto Atreides.

Asian Americans are represented in major secondary roles by Dave Bautista as Glossu Rabban, the nephew of Baron Harkonnen (Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), and Chang Chen as Dr. Wellington Yueh, the doctor who betrays the House of Atreides and leads to its fall as well as Jason Momoa as Duncan Idaho, a warrior of the House of Atreides and one of Paul’s mentors. 

Of his character, Bautista said, “I think Rabban looks at his uncle almost as god-like in status. He wants nothing more than to please his uncle, I think, for his whole life. I think naturally, he is just a cruel, (laughs) merciless, sadistic being. But I think he’s willing to go even further than what he is naturally, in order to please his uncle.”

Skarsgård said of his character and his relationship with his nephew, “I think that Baron Harkonnen has no compassion at all for anybody, It’s all politics to him. When it comes to his nephew, Rabban, he knows this is a very useful tool. If the situation should occur where he thinks he has to get rid of Rabban, he would sacrifice him instantly.”

Bautista says about working on “Dune,” “For me, it was a dream. It’s one of those things as my career grows, I look for roles that will put me on stage with the best actors in the world and the best directors in the world. This is how I gauge my success, how I gauge where I’m at and where I’ve come in this industry. I really fell in love with acting 10-11 years ago and became obsessed with it. I left the world of professional wrestling where I was very successful, taking a risk on myself, just because of pure passion. It gives me a sense of validation, knowing I made the right choice. I sacrificed for years, but it’s now really starting tp pay off.  Because at the end of the day if you can live your life enjoying being successful at what you’re passionate about, to me that’s the secret to life.

That’s the secret to life, the key to life. I’ve really been validated by films like this. I’m a poor kid who came from nothing who can step on stage with Stellan and be accepted.”

When asked to compare his Guardians of the Galaxy character, Drax, with Rabban and who would win in a battle, Bautista said, “Drax would obviously win. Just (because of) the purity of Drax and he’s a superhero. I think they couldn’t be any more in contrast. Even though he’s called Drax the Destroyer, you can see the pureness, the almost child-like pureness of Drax.  He really has a good heart and good intentions and a love for people and humanity and his family. Where Rabban is none of those. He’s everything that’s horrible in humanity. Just the worse of his kind. Even his own people think he’s a son of a bitch.”

Bautistas also noted he felt lucky that he didn’t have to spend eight hours in the makeup chair like Stellan.

Unfortunately, Chang Chen and Mamoa were not available for interviews.  Chang, Mamoa and Bautista have not really caused diversity conversations, but Black British actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster is. She plays Dr. Liet-Kynes, a character who is male in the book and was previously played by Max von Sydow in the David Lynch 1984 “Dune” movie.

Duncan-Brewster said, “I feel great playing a part that was originally a male role. There are arguments for and against me playing this role and I’m not about to state what’s right or what’s wrong.” She acknowledges that “Dune” is “such a valued and respected piece of work” and she’s “honored to be part of it,” but “It’s a time where we’re talking about equality and diversity.”

Ferguson also noted there were slight tweaks to her character, making her more of a contemporary woman than a model courtesan and fierce mother. (Ferguson had interesting insights to interpersonal relationships informed by her dance background that you can read elsewhere.) However, Duncan-Brewster gave the most inspired answer about diversity, saying “If it wasn’t a woman playing the part, I think the arguments, the conversations online wouldn’t be as rich as they are.” 

It is not unusual to see a previously White role given to a Black person such as Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. A woman taking over a man’s role is something seen in “What If…?” where instead of Steve Rogers becoming Captain America, Brit Peggy Carter becomes Captain Carter and the first Avenger.

But that’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In “Dune,” where the base material used the San peoples of South Africa and the Bedouins of North Africa and West Asia as inspiration for the indigenous Fremen, the casting’s diversity reflects this, including Black and White peoples with a smattering of Asians.  The problem with “Dune” becomes the possibility that this is a White savior story, but with remains to be determined by Part 2. 

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