The Man in Black Fled Across the Desert, and the (Black) Gunslinger Followed (or why Representation is Important)

I woke up groggy this morning an hour and a half before my alarm was set to go off, like usual, and scrolled through my Facebook feed to help me wake up, as usual. I leapt out of bed, however, when I came to this Bloody Disgusting post:

idrisdeschain

You should’ve seen ya girl. I didn’t even know I had jumps like that. I excitedly looked at the time, to know when I could share the news with my sister, who put me on to the series (who herself was put on to it by our southern nerdly father, but more on that later). THE MOMENT I heard her bedroom door open, I was like, “Fal, come here. IT’S IMPORTANT.”

But in the moment between my bed springing and me shoving my phone in her face, I had time to think. Remember when that indie filmmaker did a short on Susannah Dean’s training, and used a non-black POC actress? If you do, then you’ll likely remember I wasn’t too geeked about it.

Without question I stand in solidarity with and will fight for every actress of color’s ability to get good, meaty roles, indie and mainstream. Not just Black actresses, but all actresses of color. That said, in my mind, Odetta/Detta/Susannah is unequivocally, undeniably, from the motherland, BLACK.

This feeds my internal conflict. Idris Elba as Roland Deschain…I mean, man, can you imagine? Our dearly departed father would be flipping his lid. His family were sharecroppers in the Arkansas delta from roughly the 50s-70s, so you can just about guess the racial climate in which he grew up. Having been, as far as I can tell, a forever fan of horror, fantasy, and sci-fi writing, I don’t think he’d ever thought one of the main characters from a series he enjoyed would wind up looking like him (actually he and Mr. Elba do sorta favor) in a mainstream film representation. I bet that, were he alive today, it’d have meant a lot.

Which is why I am so afraid that his casting would open the door to using someone other than a Black actress to play Susannah. If we can validly justify changing Roland from Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, to, say, Jamie Foxx’s Django, then we can find justification in altering Susannah, too.

This has been an issue under discussion probably since Hollywood cut its first strip of film, but more recently and coincidentally with Elba’s casting as Heimdall in 2011’s Thor, which got tons of panties in tons of bunches. And let’s not forget the hubbub from 2014 when the first teaser trailer to The Force Awakens was released, which featured John Boyega‘s Finn as a Stormtrooper (I guess he’s actually a Jedi???). Oh the fanboys had a field day; I’ve stated before that I’m not a Star Wars geek, but I believe their argument had something to do with all Stormtroopers being borne of Boba Fett’s DNA, and since Boba Fett wasn’t Black, then there could not possibly be a Black Stormtrooper (did I get that right?). These arguments are usually handily debunked when Black Twitter/Tumblr users point out the innumerable instances when non-POC actors portrayed POC characters with no static whatsoever, a practice that is still, inexplicably, going on today (see Emma Stone’s Allison Ng in 2015’s Aloha, or damn near the entire cast of 2016’s Gods of Egypt). John Boyega as Finn, then, is not only culturally progressive but keeps in line with taking creative liberties in character depictions when telling a story that may buck against viewer expectations. The reasons why the two types of casting are fundamentally different – one being problematic and one being progressive – have been discussed all over the internet much more eloquently than I can state here, so if you need it broken down, allow me to point you to the Google. I will say this, though: representation is important, especially when you’re in a group not counted as “mainstream”.

Admittedly, then, I’d have to say that it’s not a deal breaker for me if a non-Black POC won the role of Susannah, but it’d be a heartbreaker for sure. Representation is important. I’ve been a Black woman all my life, just about, and I can say firsthand how media portrayals of Black women have influenced how I’ve been treated in my day-to-day life. At work, at school, at the corner store, people who have limited to no exposure to Black people in real life will expect you to behave like the characters (or caricatures) they see or hear in the media, and are often surprised when you don’t play to type, because media portrayals fail to include the entire spectrum of Blackness in the whole. We’re never seen as complex beings – we’re either very straight-laced, square, and obedient (rarely), or we’re loud, brash, trashy, and, dare I say, ghetto (usually). If the script keeps Susannah true to the books, The Dark Tower film property would be a great vehicle to show the complex characteristics of not just a Black woman, but a DISABLED Black woman, being sweet, kind, mean, prejudiced, vulnerable, nurturing, and a bonafide ass kicker, perhaps all in one scene. Like myself. Like my sister. Like my mother, my aunts, my niece, my dear friends. In Susannah Dean we have a vehicle to show the world that we are much more than one thing or the other, and in spite of that we still are valid, and we still have value. We have worth. Representation is important.

That said, it is my hope that the takeaway from my concerns is not that I don’t think Idris Elba shouldn’t be cast as Roland Deschain – I super duper do – and I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t think someone other than a Black woman couldn’t be cast effectively as Susannah. Of course they could, but I am admittedly biased in this regard and I won’t apologize for that. I understand fully that no one is saying that because Idris Elba may be cast as Roland that that doesn’t mean that Susannah won’t also be Black. And hey, it may all be moot because at the end of the day, it’s still The Dark Tower and we can all agree that this thing may still not get made. I just felt that I couldn’t leave this unaddressed in light of my prior related post, and I’m human and also sometimes have a self-interest. Representation is important.