Dune, dune, dune! For a time last fall, it seemed as if all anyone could talk about was “Dune.” Met with approval from both critics and fans alike, it made over $400 million at the global box office. Beyond commercial success, it went on to win six of its 10 Academy Award nominations, sweeping in nearly every technical category. Within four days of its official release, “Dune: Part Two” was greenlit. To get ahead of the madness that will inevitably occur once people figure out that Florence Pugh (“Don’t Worry Darling,”) and Austin Butler (“Elvis”) are in the sequel, I beseech you to think critically next time you see Timotheé Chalamet (“Bones and All”) crusading across the desert. Because although we may praise “Dune” as being a critique of the white savior narrative, its adaptation is nothing more than a white story in culturally ambiguous clothing.
The first and only time I watched “Dune,” I went in with a clean slate. I’d taken peripheral notice of the trailers, Timotheé Chalamet’s tweets and the fact that Zendaya (“Euphoria”) was in it, but that was about it. I dragged an equally uninterested friend with me for a 10:30 opening night showing, looking for entertainment and little else. Two and a half hours later, it was past one in the morning, we were struggling to stay awake in our seats and I was in for one hell of a rude awakening.
Once the credits rolled, my friend and I exchanged a glance of mutual contempt for what we had just witnessed and sat in bewilderment as the rest of the theater erupted into applause and unanimous exclamations of praise. On the sleepy walk back home and during brunch the next day, we discussed the film’s superficial merits (easy on the eyes, or “good cinematography” if you’re a film snob), as well as its faults (too much sand, not enough Zendaya). But in all seriousness, I found myself returning to a persistent state of uneasiness as I reflected on the film, a disquietude that crept into my mind, a consternation that seemed to rapidly pool within the pit of my stomach at the mere thought of it. What bothered me most, perhaps, was that as uncomfortable as I was watching that film, no one else seemed to be as affected. In fact, the only reason that what I’m about to say could even be remotely considered a “hot take” is that whether you loved “Dune,” or dozed off midway, you probably didn’t see the cultural appropriation staring you in the face.
I’ll put it bluntly, so as not to skirt around the issue my fellow movie-goers seemed to have so blatantly missed: “Dune” is a story about Arabs, but is in no way written for the Arab viewer. It’s no secret that the fictitious religion that forms the foundation of much of the “Dune” universe is based in Islamic doctrines, but the film engages with it in a way that both generalizes such cultural influences and relegates them to the role of ornamental sci-fi backdrop. The film’s vague resemblance to the Arab world is utilized solely as an “exotic” otherworldly aesthetic, mere tokenizations of a deeply nuanced, complex culture with no substantive effort made to engage with it in an accurate and/or respectful manner. In fact, the best, most succinct way I can describe the concept of “Dune” is Islam from the perspective of a white guy that just learned about it yesterday. And to a Muslim viewer, I promise you, it shows.
“Dune,” first and foremost, is a commentary on religion, environmentalism and Western imperialism in relation to the Arab world, rebranded as a sci-fi story. Full disclosure, I have not read the book “Dune.” I cannot speak to the original intentions of the author, Frank Herbert, and frankly, I don’t really care if he wrote it out of a fascination with Islam or as a critique of white saviorism or as an attempt to dismantle biased perspectives of the Middle East, because nearly 60 years later, this adaptation only serves to reinforce the same tired, offensively inaccurate notions that have plagued Hollywood for decades. Looks like it was all for naught, Frank.
For better or worse, the source material is heavily steeped within Islam and the greater Arab culture — the latter of which is a truly illusory term that doesn’t refer to anything aside from a westernized view of the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA. Conceptually, it’s about as vague as referring to the general idea of “European culture,” but seeing as Hollywood can scarcely distinguish between distinct Arab countries, it’s befitting to my point all the same. “Dune” utilizes Islam as an opposing ideology to the traditional religious framework of the West to enrich the story’s environmental allegory on Western imperialism – the blatant hypocrisy of nations invading the “desert” land, pillaging for a magical spice resource (yes, that is oil, and yes, calling the magical resource “spice” does come off as mildly racist) with zero regard for the land they’re destroying or the wellbeing of its native inhabitants.
Now that’s all fine and dandy, but the real issue here is that although “Dune” is telling an Arab story, its actual Arab representation is zilch, on and off the screen. Evidently, Hollywood has stooped to not only pilfering pieces of our culture, but erasing us from the narrative entirely. Take the invented languages used by the Fremen, for instance. With absolutely zero context going into this movie, I could tell right away that I was hearing some strange diluted amalgamation of mispronounced Arabic in all of their dialogue. Or the “primitive” tribal score from Hans Zimmer that plays every time Timotheé Chalamet starts having a divine hallucination in the middle of the desert. Or the headdresses worn, or the “holy war” Chalamet’s character has premonitions of, or the messianic figure in Islam he is directly referred to as. How about the fact that the vast majority of those stunning, amazing, gorgeous, show-stopping cinematic desert landscape shots that won “Dune” an Academy Award for Best Cinematography were filmed in Jordan, which is, you guessed it … smack dab in the Middle East. I could go on. And on. And on.
Let’s talk about the most painstakingly obvious example: The Fremen, a savage tribe that lives in the wilderness of the desert planet Arrakis, raided by imperialist powers time and time again. The oppressed class of this world’s analogy, they’re the more generalized representation of the story’s “people of Color.” Surprise, surprise, despite parading an ethnically and racially diverse ensemble of characters, not a single person of MENA descent makes up the cast, which feels … ridiculous. In 1984, David Lynch’s solution to including Arabs in the story was simple: whitewashing. In 2021, it’s a little more complicated. In touting an ethnically diverse cast, “Dune” is able to err on the “politically correct” visual standpoint of maintaining inclusivity, yet this sort of diverse casting begins to mean very little when it’s done to the sole effect of ensuring that the characters simply “appear” as ethnically ambiguous, rather than being actually representative of the real-world Arabs they’re so unquestionably based on.
By hiding behind its fictitious nature to justify its efforts to expunge traces of real-world Arab culture, “Dune” avoids reckoning with the very real-world implications of the story being told. Rather, “Dune” views its genre as a hall pass to wholly disregard the Fremen’s ties to any specific ethnicity or peoples; hence the culturally blurry smorgasbord of Arab influences it resides in. This watered-down imitation of its source material indicates that while “Dune” certainly attempted to remove any direct ties to its Muslim influences, it just ended up with a nonspecific vague resemblance of MENA culture with no real tangible purpose or explicit intention to its use or real-world relevance. It’s a sneaky 21st-century way to go about it, but it’s erasure all the same.
What infuriated me most is that the simplest solution to the cultural incompetencies and misappropriations at hand was to simply hire Arab and Muslim creatives. It sounds almost idiotically obvious to say, yet it seems to not have crossed the mind of anyone involved in the production of this film. If they genuinely cared about integrating the Muslim influences of the story in a way that both honored Herbert’s original work and felt appropriate to a Muslim audience, they could’ve very easily done so. But that’s the thing, the message that this instance of “Dune” makes loud and clear: this film is not meant for you. It’s for white Western audiences to be wowed by the exotic aesthetics of a culture and ideology that is as foreign and mystical to them as anything else in the realm of science fiction.
Watching “Dune” that fateful night, I recall looking around the theater, preening for glimpses of other people’s reactions. Were they seeing what I was seeing? Were we watching the same film? Sitting there, dazed and half-shrunk into the fabric of my seat, I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a film feeling quite so irrevocably ill at ease and painfully aware of my own invisibility.
Clearly “Dune,” and the rest of Hollywood for that matter, still have leagues to go. It truly vexes me to no end that this film is able to have its culturally appropriated baklava and eat it too. Under the label of sci-fi, the elements it steals from the real world are rendered fictitious, but in doing so, it effectively undermines the very statement it’s supposedly trying to make about a biased Western view of the Middle East. Instead of complicating any such perspective, it just manages to overtly perpetuate it, as nothing in this film’s creation indicates that they had any substantial motive to challenge the Western audiences viewing it. Misrepresenting Arabs under the guise of “calling out” problematic misconceptions is about as helpful as not including us at all.
While it may be tiresome to witness “Dune” fumble the bag and whitewash an Arab story right down the drain, it’s hardly a novelty. When you spend decades getting cast as nothing but two-dimensional terrorists and bad guys, and at the very best, victims for white heroes to save, it’s all you ever really come to expect. Herbert’s “Dune” is outdated, as is Lynch’s ’80s adaptation, but this film had no such excuse. The system entitled Denis Villeneuve into telling this story the same way that every white man before him has, with stiflingly little room to grow.
Growing up, I can only really remember one Arab actor playing an actual Arab role in a mainstream movie – Rami Malek (“Amsterdam”) in “Night at the Museum.” He had a small part, and our laughs were always reserved for Ben Stiller (“In the Dark”), but Malek was, in totality, my entire registered awareness of Arabs playing Arabs on screen. With this depressing little tidbit in mind, when my mom told me that Aladdin was actually just Steve from “Full House,” I was emotionally distraught, utterly blindsided by the preposterousness of such a notion. But that’s the standard, the flagrantly inaccurate crumb of “representation” we’re forced to contend with. Steve from “Full House.” The bar, in case you can’t tell, is in hell. And that’s where “Dune” belongs as well.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.