miscasting in the dark tower

One of the latest casting controversies is the new Stephen King book adaptation, The Dark Tower.  This is because Idris Elba was cast as The Gunslinger.  Why does that matter?  Well he’s black but the The Gunslinger looks like this

and is described as “pale” in the books.

Now the debate becomes, “Is it essential to the story that The Gunslinger is white?”  This same question was asked with all the talk about making the next James Bond black, when both of the new Star Wars movies were cast specifically to avoid using white people in certain roles, and even with the new Beauty and the Beast and its black townsfolk.

The question, “Is it essential to the story that [character] is [race]?” can be a tricky one, since it can be asked in a way that is either sincere or disingenuous.  On the surface, it’s a very legitimate question to ask.  You’re trying to cast a movie and need an actor that captures in a believable way how that character would look and act in the minds of the audience.  What race the actor is often a very significant part of that.

On the other hand, the “is it essential” question can be asked in a very disingenuous way and becomes akin to the “When did you stop beating your wife?” question.  It’s asked this way in order to accuse and shame.  If you think the race of the character matters when everyone who is Correct Thinking does not, then you are a racist.  “Oh, you think it matters that James Bond is white?  Explain to me why it matters and also answer why you’re so blind to the diversity of the world that you only want to see yourself and your white privilege in every character.”  What they really mean is, “Think correctly or be shamed until you shut up.”

This problem occurs all the time when racial questions are asked.  One party asks a question in a social-shaming manner while the other tries to answer sincerely.  If questions are not asked in good faith, they should not be answered in good faith.

As far as The Dark Tower goes, I did not read the books so I don’t have strong feelings one way or another.  I don’t really care that The Gunslinger is black and if enough people are like me and didn’t read the books and don’t care very much about the movie, the studio could be justified in casting a black dude to play the role, provided he was a good fit in all the other ways.  This seems to be the case with Idris Elba.  I think he’ll do a great job in the role.

However, if people have a serious problem with him being cast, their thoughts are also completely legitimate.  They could have grown up with the books and always imagined The Gunslinger a certain way.  They could be aware of the trend in Hollywood for giving nonwhite minorities overrepresentation on screen (“overrepresented” being defined based on share of the population).  They could be sensitive to the environment today in seemingly every institution where words like “diversity” always mean “less white.”

This is the debate.  I don’t think there’s a right/wrong answer in terms of morals.  Let’s be honest, who really effing cares about the casting in yet another stupid fictional movie?   My whole point in writing this post is to say that there is a debate to be had (among the people who actually care) that doesn’t include calling one side racist.

As a final note, let me point out that the real controversy about The Dark Tower should be how horribly miscast Matthew McConaughey is as The Man in Black.  Look, McConaughey is a fine actor and has done incredible work in several movies and one of my favorite TV shows (True Detective), but The Man in Black he is not.  Again, I haven’t read the books, but something the character who the trailer describes as “worse than the devil” should be is menacing.  He should have an intimidating and otherworldly presence on screen.  He is the ultimate foe–one whom it seems can not be bested and through whom the end of the world may come.

Sorry, but Mr. Alright Alright Alright does none of those things.  Can he play a character that’s brooding?  Mysterious?  Concealing a dark secret?  Hell yes.  But intimidating?  Powerful?  Menacing?  Not his forte.  I can’t have been the only one who kind of cringed when he coyly delivered the line, “Did you tell the boy that everyone who walks with you dies by my hand,” as if he was revealing a magic trick.

You know who would kill it as The Man in Black?  Idris Elba.  The guy just exudes power when on screen.  Menacing is second nature.  Think about it: can you even imagine Elba in some goofy comedic role?  Not a chance.  He’s too calm, cool, and badass.  But how natural are comedic roles for McConaughey?  Is it because he’s so much the superior actor and has that much more versatility?  Uh, probably not.

My point is that McConaughey is out of his depth as The Man in Black.  He probably doesn’t need to be in the movie at all but if you absolutely must cast both guys in this movie because that’s how you billed it to the studio heads, switch the roles.  Idris as the scary af villain and Matthew as the troubled, bitter, and thoughtful Gunslinger.

Wait, hold up.  We’re now casting the one black guy in the movie as the villain.  That racist.  Whoops.

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2 Responses to miscasting in the dark tower

  1. tz says:

    Even worse, I did the audio versions which although not really dramatized, there are certain inflections I’d expect (and worked for the character) that the robotic read-to-me text would not convey.
    One measure of an actor is versatility. So I have to suspend judgment for a bit. And I expect they will cut out large portions (e.g. Tull, just as Tom Bombadil and the whole story around him doesn’t appear in LoTR).
    Are they going to cast a woman as The Prisoner, and some blond dude as the “lady of the Shadows” which they’d have to tweak?
    The larger problem will be that the book intersects with this world and New York City and a few other places at a specific point in time, not 2017. There’s even a Civil Rights movement tie in. King captured these reasonably well, but that casting will be even more brittle.

    • harmanson says:

      Yes, it’s not very fair of me to criticize a single line from a trailer that may not be in the final cut. I remember the lines in the Lord of the Rings trailers did not always match the films. The real point of good casting is so that you don’t undermine the audience’s suspension of disbelief and studios frequently forget this because they’re sometimes trying to make a social statement. Usually, though, it’s because they think they can make more money with certain actors. It will be interesting (for those who are familiar with the source material) to see how they cast the rest of the roles.

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