When Paul’s character Timothée Chalamet first lands on the desert planet “Dunes” Arrakis, the Duke’s son Leto Atreides is naturally greeted by a crowd. The spectators, called Freemen, shouted in their dark head-and-face hoods with a tongue almost identical to Arabic. The women purr in the background as they set their eyes on the white “chosen one,” their future leader.
Experts say the “dunes” use explicit Islamic imagery and cultural elements. But the main cast is not a representative from the Middle East or North Africa, aka MENA, and it plays a prominent role.
It’s an erasure,” said Serena Rasoul, casting director and founder of Muslim American Casting.
Viewers were quick to point this out on social media in the days after the movie was released in theaters and on HBO Max.
One user tweeted, “If you like Dune so much, please consider supporting the Muslim Book & Stories / SWANA SFF instead.”
For Rasul, the setting, the outfit, and the use of Arabic and Muslim religious structures throughout the film were more than enough to feel a distinct cultural influence.
“You cannot choose representatives from the MENA region or Muslims, but you benefit from their culture,” she said. “This is where it hurts us as creators. … It means we are not good enough to be a part of the movie.”
This enigmatic Middle Eastern aesthetic in a sandy land is nothing new to American media, said Ali Kargo Raffari, associate professor of Islamic studies at Bucknell University. In a slate column, “Is ‘Dune’ a white savior story?”
“The image of an Arab crowd or veiled women weeping, not to mention being injected with violence, has a mired history of dehumanizing entire peoples,” he wrote.
Despite its shortcomings, Rasoul acknowledged that “dunes” is a complex business that does not fall entirely within the metaphors of Orientalists. It also noted some diversity in the cast, which includes black and Asian characters in some notable roles.
But she said the lack of representatives from the Middle East and North Africa or the Islamic faith is a gap that is hard to ignore, and the extracted elements look like a fetish.
“It is as if we are stuck in this creative colonization,” she said. “Where our homes, our food, our songs, and our languages are well suited to Western stories, but we humans are never enough to be in them.”
Rasool said that this highlights the narrow range of roles that Muslim actors in Hollywood seem to fit in and the underlying cause of Islamophobia in Hollywood. Muslim characters in American films and TV shows tend to be relegated to certain tropes, if at all included.
As a selection director working with a predominantly Muslim slate, she became acutely aware of the limited opportunities available to them. She said the “terrorist” role, which has now faded into Hollywood, has dominated for a long time. It gives way to new domains—the roles of the “good Muslim and the bad Muslim,” for example, or the “rebellious and liberated Muslim woman” who takes off her veil. Then there are the roles of trauma that are usually identified during wars or post-colonial times.
She adds that it is rare for any media to include a Muslim in a leadership role who lives simply.
“It’s just this pervasive rejection of our existence,” she said.
Chalamet’s character “White Savior” was also something that annoyed Rasul. She’s familiar with the Dune sources and author Frank Herbert’s inspiration behind Paul’s character. He was supposed to be a “Western” man, who himself fueled a savior’s story.
“For some audiences, this means that the white man has these Christian impulses to dominate other communities and attach himself to the environment,” she said. But she noted that “there is diversity in the West, too,” so Herbert’s description of “Western” doesn’t necessarily need to be interpreted as “white” on screen.
With the second part of “Dunes” scheduled for release in 2023, Rasool said she hopes the cast will reflect the culture of the MENA region they portray. She said that Muslims are part of the present and the future, and she wants this to appear in the media.
“We want to be included, but we also want to be centered,” she said.