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“DUNE”: Will We Ever Get The Representation We Deserve In Film?

“DUNE” is a highly anticipated film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name. It is set to release on October 22, 2021. And anyone who is a fan of Timothee Chalamet is probably going to see it — whether or not they like Sci-Fi/Fantasy in the first place.

Recently, the official YouTube page released the official main trailer, creating even more buzz around the film release. But, the buzz surrounding the film was not left without hesitancies as the novel used many Islamic vocabularies within text derived from Arabic, Turkish, and Persian language, along with discussing colonialism heavily throughout.    

Hollywood, though, tends to go the other direction when it comes to Islamic representation in film. Apart from acting as a target or a villain, Muslims have little representation in film. let alone accurate representation. So, is this seemingly inclusive and representative movie any different from other white savior movies? And does it even matter?  

It seems that we, as Muslims, must decide between what we would rather have: a white-savior movie or be relegated to the role of playing a terrorist.

Like many of my Muslim friends, I had an assumption that the writers of the film would rewrite the original text in order to sell the Islamophobic narrative that Hollywood loves so much. Some notable offenders: “The Assassin,” “Homeland,” “American Sniper,” and the list could go on. However, from the trailer, it seems as though “DUNE” stuck to the original narrative enough to be — dare I say — a decent representation.  

Zendaya’s character, Chani, is from the planet Arrakis. It’s a desert planet that sounds a lot like Iraq: full of women covered in veils being invaded and burned down by colonizers. It’s refreshing to see the Middle East and Muslim culture influence the entire universe in a positive way because we rarely see this.

Usually, Muslims would play the role of aliens attempting to exterminate an entire population but, in “DUNE,” that role is given to Chalamet’s planet. The historical accuracy of just that makes up for Zendaya’s character saying she can see “spice” in the air.   

Some scenes of the people of Arrakis show them prostrating in a way that is similar to how Muslims pray. The people of Arrakis even dress in traditional clothing worn by many in the SWANA area.

The fact that the invaders claimed that the people of Arrakis were cruel, not humans, did make it more obvious this film is about the American invasion of the Middle East. After all, the “defense” of Muslims being backwards and brutal is even now used to explain the war crimes of white Americans against Muslim countries.  

But, since this is a film about a white man leading a movement to save the people of Arrakis, we cannot deny the fact that this is, in the end, a white savior movie. In essence, this story is about a white man who finds an attraction to someone from a community that his people are terrorizing. That said, for him, in order to speak against injustice, he had to be attracted to one of the “enemies.”    

In order to speak against injustice, he had to be attracted to one of the “enemies.”

Yes, people who practice this fictitious religion similar to Islam are the ones you support; we cannot deny this. But we mustn’t deny the fact that their savior is a white man, Paul Atreides, played by Chalamet.   

It seems that we, as Muslims, must decide between what we would rather have: a white-savior movie or be relegated to the role of playing a terrorist. At least there is no scene where the girl who wears the hijab takes it off because the most boring white guy you could possibly conjure up told her to. It’s the little wins. 

After all, every piece of representation in movies and TV always seems to be lacking in the worst conceivable way. The Muslimah hates her hijab, her family is abusive and oppressive, she leaves her religion for the Islamophobe, she talks down about other girls who practice Islam differently, and do not even get me started on prayer scenes.

At least the people in the “DUNE” trailer were fully covered and didn’t stretch out on the floor while seemingly praying.  

Although this seems to be a major step in representing Muslims in the media, we hope that others will follow suit and let an overtly Muslim character represent us. Rather than a fictional world inspired by us, we still don’t have Muslims or Middle Eastern actors playing this role.

Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, this film is not the worst piece of representation. However, Muslims deserve to be represented in the media. Muslim women are not here to be saved by those who try to eradicate us. 

Why It Matters

I noticed when I was discussing this piece initially after seeing all the Islamic references shown in just this trailer…I realized I was accepting it purely based on Zendaya’s character.

The film, as a whole, did not matter to me at first because at least her character is dressed in traditional clothing; at least we finally have a film where the seemingly American-representative planet is the one terrorizing the Middle Eastern-representing planet; at least that one second of the Arrakis people kneeling in a prayer-like way was not completely bastardized by them either not covering up or laying down on the floor.

This was a film without overtly Muslim characters representing us in a better light than films and shows that are about overtly Muslim characters. I ignored all the issues with it, like the lack of agency, because I was so relieved. Then I realized how problematic that relief was.

My analysis comes from the perspective of someone who is excited and a fan of the actors, but also as someone who has been wrongfully represented in the media as a Muslim woman — since, again, this is a more covert representation in the film, but still falls in line with the written text.

In writing this, I thought it was important to think about our priorities when it comes to how we are represented, but also show other Muslim women they do not have to accept things at face value. We deserve proper representation, preferably played by people from our community.