Growing up as an Arab woman, I’ve come to accept the absence of Middle Eastern and North African representation in American films. So, when Twitter exploded over the release of the “Dune” remake trailer last week, I wasn’t shocked to see the film’s Islamic and Middle Eastern influences excluded from the dialogue.
“Dune,” the latest film by Denis Villeneuve, is based on Frank Herbert’s 1965 book series. At the center of the series is a highly sought after substance called melange, and it can only be found on one planet — Arrakis.
Throughout the movie, melange is commonly referred to as spice. Spice is the cornerstone of the Dune economy and is necessary for space travel. As Herbert famously wrote, “he who controls the spice controls the universe.”
So, Arrakis is kind of a big deal.
It’s believed that Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, is the prophetic figure who is destined to lead his people and the natives of Arrakis to protect the spice from exploitative outside forces.
It’s nearly impossible to summarize the entirety of “Dune” without droning on about the multiple subplots and extensive universe, so I’ll spare you the exciting details.
However, “Dune” can’t be a topic of conversation unless that talk includes Islam and the Middle East. Without it, there wouldn’t be such a film. Of course, Islam and the Arab world are not the only influences in the novel, as the “Iliad” inspired Paul Atreides’ character.
But, entrenched deep in its roots is the geopolitical struggle with Western dependency on Middle Eastern oil, which clearly parallels the struggle to obtain spice. Going further back, one can find its inspiration in the Islamic crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries and compare it to the battle for Arrakis.
Given the film's rich cultural ties, the absence of Middle Eastern actors in the newest trailer is disappointing to say the least. The exclusion of Middle Eastern and North African voices, stories, traditions and lived experiences does “Dune” a disservice.
Some Twitter users of the Middle Eastern and North African community also added to the discussion, like Lexi Alexander, a Palestinian-German filmmaker, who said, “Ah yes, a film about Middle Eastern culture, shot in the Middle East, without a single Middle Eastern actor in sight. Can’t wait.”
Casting a bunch of new faces in a large Hollywood blockbuster is a high-risk investment that most studios aren’t willing to take. Therefore, Villeneuve chose to cast Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya — rather than Arab actors and newcomers — due to their name recognition among younger audiences.
Between Zendaya’s Emmy win for her performance in “Euphoria” this weekend, and the #timotheechalamet hashtag garnering 3.3 billion views on TikTok, their presence seemed intentional for generating hype.
Yet this mentality is illogical when audiences continue to demand more diversity on screen, especially with the Academy Awards’ release of their latest diversity initiative. Released last week, the initiative hopes to facilitate a more diverse selection of best picture films when Oscars season comes around.
This initiative breaks diversity efforts into groups A and B, with group A focusing on diversity on screen. The requirements of group A include meeting at least one of the following guidelines: A lead actor from an underrepresented group, at least 30% of minor roles played by two underrepresented groups and a storyline that centers on an underrepresented identity group.
In consideration of those guidelines, the film doesn’t fulfill any of these requirements.
It’s upsetting that this new initiative had no effect on the film’s lack of Middle Eastern and North African representation. What could have been used as an opportunity to hire young Arab actors and put the Academy Awards’ initiative into action, has instead developed into a story stripped of its Middle Eastern influences.
Following a similar model to the most recent “Star Wars” films, Warner Bros. is in talks to split “Dune” into two films and create a spinoff television series. With the potential of a large franchise, excluding the Middle Eastern and North African community from this venture is inattentive.
Until Middle Eastern and North African voices have a seat at the table with movies that profit off of their culture, the Academy’s diversity initiatives will only be another Hollywood tactic to deflect real progress.
Because just like Herbert wrote, “Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”