Dune and the inescapable insanity of woke art criticism

Dune is a good film and an even better book, but that’s not enough in the year 2021.  It isn’t a “white savior” narrative either, though someone, somewhere said it might be.  Therefore, the woke have no choice but to act as if it is, even as most of them know it’s not.  And don’t even get them started on the cast, which is diverse, but not the right kind of diverse.  Got it?

Published in 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune is a seminal work in the science fiction and fantasy genre, setting the stage for everything from Star Wars to Game of ThronesDune is set some 10,000 years in the future, after humanity has conquered the stars, but descended into a quasi-feudal system ruled by an all powerful Emperor.  The known universe is divided into different fiefdoms that are presided over by powerful and ruthless noble families.  The galactic economy is driven by a drug called spice that enables interstellar travel and unlocks other secrets of the mind.  Spice is only found on Arrakis, however, a forbidding planet of deserts and giant worms that is also home to an indigenous people, the Fremen.  The story begins with the Emperor placing the powerful Atreides family in charge of Arrakis, displacing another powerful family, the Harkonnens.  The Harkonnens had already spent years on Arrakis, mining spice and slaughtering the Fremen.  The Atreides plan a better way, including an alliance with the Fremen, but are ultimately trapped in the endless political warfare that plagues the Imperium.  Lurking in the background is the idea that a universal savior will arise, who can manipulate both time and space.

Last month, Warner Brothers Pictures finally released a lavish, big budget movie adaptation of the first half of the original novel after over a year of coronavirus induced delays.  Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the movie features an all star cast headed by Timothy Chalamet, intricate production design, and cutting edge special effects while hewing very close to the original novel, following it scene for scene at times with some changes to the gender and ethnicity of certain characters.  Mr. Villenueve has claimed it was a lifelong dream to bring the novel to the big screen, and overall his devotion to the source material shows.  The attention to detail throughout is an achievement all its own, and the filmmakers generally succeed in capturing a complex, multifaceted world with a rich history and underlying political dynamics without relying on endless exposition or narration, actually letting the viewer think a bit for themselves, while offering a few striking set pieces.  The characters themselves aren’t exactly complicated or multilayered, nor is there much in the way of character development, but they are equally well captured, anchored by fine performances all around.

Unfortunately for Mr. Villenueve, Dune simply makes a better novel than it does a film, especially when it was published almost 60 years ago and almost nothing like it was around at the time.  There’s a density and immersiveness to the text that is impossible to recreate on screen, where compelling characters, twists, turns, and action tend to make for a great movie.  In my opinion, it’s a respectable effort, good, but not great, worth watching, yet not something anyone is likely to return to over and over again.  

Unfortunately for us all, Dune has become a battleground in the woke war against “white savior” tropes.  Practically since the original publication, Mr. Herbert has been accused of the crime of featuring an ostensibly white character finding a home among indigenous people in the desert, as well as the sin of cultural appropriation, and things have only gotten worse since then.  This remains true whether or not Dune is actually a white savior narrative, that is a story where indigenous people are generally depicted as helpless or inferior until a white man comes along to redeem them.  Both Mr. Herbert and Mr. Villenueve say, emphatically, that is not the case.  In 1969, Mr. Herbert noted, “We’ve [“western man”] set out our missionaries to do our dirty work for us, and then come along behind them with the certain belief that we are right in anything that we do, because God has told us so — God and the person of the avatar.”  Mr. Villeneuve was asked about the white savior trope at a roundtable for the film, and had this to say, “It’s a very important question, and it’s why I thought that Dune is when, the way I’m reading it, relevant. It’s a critique of that. It’s not a celebration of a savior. It’s a criticism of the idea of a savior, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe. It’s not a condemnation, but a criticism. So that’s the way I feel it’s relevant, and that can be seen as contemporary. And that’s what I would say about that. Frankly, it’s the opposite.”

This is borne out in even a cursory review of the story and characters.  Of the four groups that can be considered white or Western, the Atreides and Harkonnen families, the Emperor’s Court, and a society of all-female witches known as the Bene Gesserit, two are presented as completely and totally beyond redemption.  The Harkonnens are disfigured, brutal psychotics willing to kill anyone in their path to power, disgusting to behold and even more disgusting in their actions.  The Emperor, who does not actually appear on screen, is a schemer who intentionally sends the Atreides to their deaths to preserve his power.  The Bene Gesserit are more insucratable in their aims and morality, but the text is clear that they have schemed for centuries to inculcate the idea of a savior on Arrakis and across the universe, and also to bring that same savior into existence.  Only the Atreides are depicted with anything resembling morality or nobility, and they are almost entirely wiped out barely halfway through the novel, two thirds of the way through the film.  In fact, Paul doesn’t enter the desert to save anyone, but rather to save himself and his mother along with the future of the family, meaning the Fremen are the ones doing the actual saving. 

Thus, the idea of a white savior is only possible if you ignore the actual characters and story, focusing entirely on the idea that the Imperium is the West and the Fremen are the natives.  Of course, good storytelling doesn’t remotely work that way and using this logic, one might conclude that King Lear is a handbook for good familial relations or Macbeth is a self-help guide for the ambitious.  Regardless, reactions to the new film have ranged from claiming it’s outright racist, to it’s complicated, to, even if it’s not racist, the casting and other details remain highly problematic.  Zaina Ujayli, a Master’s student at the University of Virginia, is at the extreme racist end of the spectrum.  She summed up her thoughts in a tweet long before the film version even came out.  “Dune is a racist, white savior narrative that relies on people’s ignorance of Arab Islamic history to make itself creative.  Here’s why you shouldn’t applaud Dune’s casting diversity.”  Others said the film shouldn’t be made at all, or this is not the film we need right now.

Likewise, Serena Rasoul is a casting director and the founder of Muslim American Casting.  She doesn’t take as hard a line as Ms. Ujayli, saying that Dune is a complex work that defies simple “orientalist” tropes, and has some diversity in the cast, but ultimately she concludes “It’s like we’re stuck in this creative colonialism.  Where our homes and foods and songs and languages are just right for Western stories, but we humans are never enough to be in them,” adding that “It’s just this pervading rejection of our existence.”  Ultimately, Ms. Rasoul concludes, “To some audiences, that implies that it is a white man who has these messianic impulses to control other societies and inflict himself upon the environment,” claiming that “We want to be included, but we also want to be centered.”

Ali Karjoo Ravary, writing for Slate.com, is a bit more circumspect, but still ultimately argues that these shortcomings remain Herbert’s fault whether actually accurate or not.  “Part of this is also Herbert’s fault. By writing a story in which he intended to critique ‘Western man,’ Herbert also centered Western man.”  This logical contortion, the story itself actually critiques Western man, but since it’s about Western man, it can’t really critique Western man is another common theme in “woke” reviews.  Haris Durrani on Medium actually felt the need to apologize for defending his interpretation of the work, of course by claiming he’s not writing an “apologetic.”  First, he argues pretty clearly in favor of Herbert’s own interpretation, that Dune is clearly a critique of the very idea of a white savior, but then prostrates himself before the woke.  “I think what’s disturbing here is Herbert’s pulling from these histories with little to no acknowledgement of the historians he drew on or the societies he was inspired by. It’s basically knowledge appropriation. No credit given where it’s due.”  When was the last time anyone published a science fiction novel with appendixes giving credit to historians and referencing actual societies?  Ironically, had Herbert actually did that, you can be certain the reaction would have been worse as woke critics tore apart who he kept in and who he left out.

Then, Mr. Durrani continues, undermining his own position on the text, “Let’s be clear: This essay is not an apologetic. I fear that the essay and the Twitter thread from which it spawned, due to the latter’s unexpected popularity, will be appropriated by white boys to man/whitesplain their apologetics…. The structure overtakes. Is it inevitable? DISENGAGE… DISENGAGE!!  Rather, this essay is an attempt to open up more profound and intriguing conversations about the nature of orientalism/othering and literature. The essay explores my reading of the text ( in conjunction with interviews) —there can be other, differing ones. The point is to open the discourse (dunescourse!) beyond the white savior talk.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what the text actually says, but on the off chance someone, somewhere might do some whitesplaining about something, we need to be sure to protect ourselves.  Jeva Lange, writing for The Week, picks up on exactly this theme, claiming “Dune should’ve been less Dune-y.”  “However you feel about it, though, Dune is a complicated book. It’s this thorniness that’s allowed it to be co-opted by white supremacists and neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer.”  She quotes Jordan S. Carroll from the Los Angeles Review of Books, who claims that “Villeneuve’s film adaptation [is] highly anticipated on white nationalist sites such as Counter-Currents and the Daily Stormer.”  Ms. Lange concedes this is not “the only or even the most natural interpretation,” but, of course, that can’t be enough.  “Villeneuve’s film, as an uncritical adaptation, leaves the door open to exactly this understanding. And because his Dune is intended to be one installment of a trilogy, this first movie never gets to the parts of the series that firmly upend the portrait of Paul as the übermensch hero of the Fremen. Dune: Part Two (let alone Part Three) has yet to be greenlit, which means right now we’re left with a standalone picture that serves as a testament to the murky, and easily warped, politics of Herbert’s work.”

Instead, Ms. Lange believes that “Villeneuve could have used his adaptation to interrogate the text and frustrate fascist readings”  and, to achieve that goal, she recommends basically changing everything.  First, Mr. Villeneuve shouldn’t have cast a white guy as Paul, as “there’s no reason Paul had to be a white character, a casting decision that emphasizes the never-fully-subverted colonialist undertones of the story.”  Second, he shouldn’t have veered so close to “Orientalism with its superficial borrowing of Islamic dress, language, prayer, and musical influences.”  Then there is the costume design and music by Hans Zimmer with “vocals bordering ululating”” as The Observer helpfully pointed out.  You see, “All of this is an effort in exotification,” but it’s “only exotic in the West.”

Perhaps needless to say, Ms. Lange also takes issue with the casting, which she describes as “impressively diverse,” but alas doesn’t feature the right kind of diversity.  This is yet another theme repeated by woke critics far and wide.  Yes, Mr. Villeneuve may have changed the gender and ethnicity of characters for diversity, he may have cast a mix of races in key roles, and he may have given Paul’s mother a stronger female presence, but that “doesn’t absolve the film from the fact that it borrows from Arab Islamic culture without following through in its casting choices.”  Apparently, he should’ve featured more North African cast members, but does anyone really believe that would have satisfied the woke?  Undoubtedly, they would be complaining that the casting of search characters only makes the white savior part more apparent.

Ultimately, all of this only reveals the utter insanity of even attempting woke criticism.  If the actual content of the text itself is irrelevant, the only thing relevant is their own desire to make everything about race and to use everything as an opportunity to point out their perceived failures of the West.  Hence, they can somehow acknowledge the work doesn’t actually mean what they are claiming it means, and then criticize it anyway, hiding behind claims that “it’s complicated” when it’s not.  The only thing complicated is their obsession with making everything, even a science fiction story set 10,000 years in the future with characters of no connection to our current ethnicities and one which intentionally critiques the very idea of a white savior, about race.  This is no way to critique a work of art, or run a country for that matter.

P.S. Dune is far from the first piece of entertainment to be targeted. Netflix’s hit Cobra Kai didn’t measure up and the popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is also racist.

P.P.S. Denis Villeneuve isn’t the first director to tackle Dune. David Lynch did a much maligned version in 1984, but then went on to change television forever.

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