I like Idris Elba. I really do. I haven't seen most of his most noted roles, such as The Wire or Luther. But he was great in the things I've seen him in.
He's not Roland Deschain, guys. He just isn't. And yet, Hollywood is apparently thinking about it.
Here's my problem with that: Roland's race is actually rather important to the story of The Dark Tower, and there are three reasons for that (at minimum):
- He's intended to be visually reminiscent of old-Hollywood cowboy gunfighters in general, and of Clint Eastwood specifically. Last time I checked, Eastwood was as white as it gets.
- He's intended to be a Twinner for Stephen King himself in some ways. Last time I checked, King was as white as it gets.
- The racial component of Roland's (and, to a lesser extent, Eddie's) initial-stages relationship with Detta/Odetta/Susannah would be changed utterly by making Roland a dark-skinned man.
There are arguments to be made as to how you could easily alter all of those things and still have the result be a good piece of cinematic art. For example, you could cast both Roland and Eddie with black actors, cast Susannah as a white woman, and have Detta call them both . . . well, you know what she'd call them.
But that doesn't really have the same meaning, does it? Susannah being a crippled but privileged young white woman in the sixties just doesn't carry the same weight. Will she go out to colored-only roadhouses and pick up black dudes and cocktease them in the parking lot? Not quite the same thing.
Similarly, it's not the same casting a black man as a cowboy archetype. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's the difference between Clint Eastwood and Cleavon Little, but the fact is that a dark-skinned man in this role is going to elicit a different emotion when he strolls into Tull and everyone looks at him funny. Unless they are all dark-skinned, too; which would be an elegant and interesting solution to the matter.
Elba would also be ill-suited to play an American West avatar; not that that is an absolute must, because there is room to argue that the High Speech of Gilead could sound like just about anything. I was fine with Javier Bardem as Roland for that reason (and also for the fact that he looks like he could walk into a room and kill everyone in it without blinking, a quality Elba also possesses to some degree). But if they're casting Elba, they're going to have him do an American accent, and his Southern accent in Prometheus was horrendously awful. Good performance; terrible accent.
All of this makes me think that fidelity to the source material is almost certainly the last thing on the mind of the people making this film. If you're confused -- or disdainful -- of the impact Roland's skin tone has on the subthemes of the movie, then you're not concerned with the books themselves, I'd imagine. You're not interested in intricacies. You're intrigued by the dozens of articles you read -- or that your intern read and told you about -- covering the buzz surrounding the idea of Elba playing James Bond. You're seeing dollar signs; you're seeing people clapping you on the back for the diversity of your casting.
You're not seeing The Dark Tower.
Now, all that said, I'm a great believer in diversity when it comes to movies and television shows. And -- as I've been arguing at least as far back as 2011 -- when the race of a character doesn't have any impact on the story, I think the movie producer who isn't actively pushing for diversity is making a woeful mistake in 2015. Same goes for gender and sexual-orientation concerns. So, for example, you couldn't -- and shouldn't -- get away with making a lily-white version of The Stand in 2015. And that's fine, because I'd argue that the majority of those characters can be white, black, brown, red, yellow, or just about any other color. A few, not so much; but mostly, it's irrelevant.
I don't think the same is true of Roland, or Eddie, or Jake, or Susannah. Other characters, sure. For example, good lord but Elba would make for a hell of a Father Callahan. You might want to consider changing him into a former Baptist minister instead of a former Catholic priest, granted; but otherwise, he'd own the hell out of that role. He'd be a beyond-awesome Cort. He'd be a beyond-awesome Eldred Jonas, or (if you were okay with this causing changes to the themes of the hypothetical film version of Hearts In Atlantis) Ted Brautigan, or the Tick-Tock Man. What a Gasher he would be! I'd buy him as Walter, too.
As Roland? I can't get there. I'm a great believer in the idea that no one race is better than another; and I'm a great believer in the idea that eventually, our species can get to a place in ourselves when we no longer see racial differences. But that time has not yet come, and pretending that it has won't get us there. So in some instances, I think you can change a character's race and have there be no impact on the story as a result; in others, I don't think you can. Not for now. Someday is not here yet.
And hey, while I'm at it, sure, why not, I'll go ahead and be that guy: you never hear these arguments going any direction but one. Nobody is out there demanding that there be a Murder, She Wrote remake starring Hugh Laurie as Jesse Fletcher; nobody is out there demanding that we redo In the Heat of the Night with Jennifer Lopez in the Sidney Poitier role. Nobody is calling for a Hawaiian Doctor Who. I've heard about a gajillion people ask this, but if James Bond is destined to be played by a black man, why isn't Shaft destined to be played by a white man? I have yet to hear anyone actually answer that in a satisfactory way, except to say that Shaft's race is important whereas Bond's isn't.
This ignores the fact that Bond's race is actually immensely important; he was a wish-fulfillment stand-in for his creator, author Ian Fleming, whose race was assuredly important to his own life. That, my friends, means that if you don't have Bond be a white dude, you're failing to ground the character in Fleming. So be it; but I think that's the wrong move, just as I think it would be a mistake to fail to ground John Shaft in Ernest Tidyman. I'd be just as opposed to seeing a white Shaft as I am to seeing a black 007. Put a good enough actor in the role, and I'll grit my teeth and go with it; but there will be teeth gritted.
Ultimately, my problem with this movement is that it's focused (without anyone admitting that this is the case) on stamping out Whitey. And hey, I get it: Whitey sucks. Historically, he has sucked ass. This is not lost on me; after all, I am of the clan Whitey, so I have seen some of that from the inside. (Similarly, I am of the clan Male Oppressor, and I know what sort of bullshit we've been perpetrating on you ladies for eons. Sorry about that.)
But here's the deal: why would you want to kill Whitey and then wear all his old shirts and all his old underwear? Why would you want to drive his old station wagon and live in his old house? I'd think it would be more satisfying by far to get my own house, my own car, my own clothes, and then drive my awesome self past old sourpuss Whitey every day and flip him the bird while laughing about how awesome my life was. Even if my life wasn't that awesome, that's how I'd want to play it; if I can't have an awesome life, I'd at least want Whitey to think I did.
I think there needs to be less focus on co-opting white characters for non-white actors than on commissioning stories told by non-white (and non-male) (and non-straight) storytellers. It's the story, guys, not he who tells it. Except that's kind of bullshit, isn't it? Because to a large degree, I think the two things are one and the same.
Let's start looking not for the black Roland, but for the black Stephen King. I don't want to read or see a gay Spider-Man; I want to know what the gay Stan Lee would be like. Where's my Muslim equivalent of Larry McMurtry? Find me a Native American Tolkien, or a Japanese Gene Roddenberry, or an Indian Jim Henson.
Don't take the short road, guys. If you want actual diversity as opposed to a diversity mirage, you do it through the stories, not through the pictures between the pages.
All that said, if Big Dris ends up playing Roland, I'll go see it, and I'll try to do so with an open mind. Give me Jennifer Lawrence as Susannah and Grumpy Cat as Oy, and maybe it'll be a classic.