Racebending, Race-Blind Casting, and The Dark Tower

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

These are the opening words of a series of books that I’ve read probably a dozen times or more over the course of my lifetime: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.



My father introduced me to these books at a young age (I remember his face, thankee sai), back when only the first four in the series had been written and it looked like the tale would never be finished. We contented ourselves with scanning King’s other works for connections to Roland Deschain, Randall Flagg, and Gilead that was. When the last three books came out in quick succession, we read them together, crying over the ka-tet’s dissolution and by turns marveling and grousing over its strange (and yet somehow perfect, if disappointing) ending.

My father cried to see Roland’s erstwhile family reunited in The Wind Through the Keyhole. I remember him saying he felt lucky to have a chance to say goodbye to these characters in a happier place then where King initially left them.

So I can’t wait to see what he has to say about Stephen King’s announcement that the #DarkTowerMovie is moving forward with Idris Elba as the Gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as The Man in Black.







Of course, surprising no one, there are a some assholes who are hung up on the fact that Roland is described in the book as the white man with the icy blue eyes and point to his scenes opposite Odetta/Detta/Susannah Walker in order to insist that therefore Elba must be wrong for the role.

Ebla is no stranger to such complaints. He reaped a whirlwind of racist bullshit when he was cast in the role of Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor, and when fans started talking about him as a potential replacement for James Bond, the writer of the latest novel in the long running series protested that he was “too street” for the role.

We saw similar protests around Michael B. Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four and the rumors of Donald Glover’s potential casting as Spiderman.

We saw it when the first trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens dropped and a black man was shown wearing a stormtrooper helmet.

Heck, we even see it when canonically black characters are played by black actors, as when The Hunger Games cast black folks in the roles of Rue, Thresh, and Cinna.

Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed

But thankfully, King is pushing back against the haters…


as is producer Akiva Goldsman, who minced few words when addressing critics of Elba’s casting.

I think Idris Elba is the greatest possible idea for casting for Roland, and I’m unbelievably proud of it as a collaborator on this enterprise and because I think that he’s a great actor and I couldn’t be more thrilled that he is likely to play a part. I understand that people who are thoughtful about the storytelling and the racial politics of the storytelling might want to understand how that informs that storytelling, and I respect that and I hear that, and those things are not things we didn’t think about or don’t think about. The racist a–holes should go f–k themselves.

For me, casting is an extrapolation. As soon as you are having an actor play a character, whether they be living or fictional, it’s different. Movies are not lives, movies are not books. I think what we do as filmmakers is we interpret, and you are welcome to agree with our interpretation at any turn, but I encourage you to do it based on thoughtful, aesthetic acceptance and open-heartedness and not bias.

And J. K. Rowling offered a similar endorsement of a white character being played by a black actress in the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in London.


But racist fans still want to know: what is the difference between this kind of race blind casting, which ignores white original versions of characters and replaces them with more diverse versions of themselves, and white washing, or the recasting of a character of color using a white actor?

The difference becomes apparent when one takes into account the environment actors of color face in Hollywood generally. Whiteness is the default in Hollywood. Sure, there are black roles and Hispanic roles and Asian roles and Native American roles in Hollywood movies. But there are no “white parts” in Hollywood. Those are simply called “parts.” When actors of color star in a picture, it can skew how the picture is marketed, so that instead of just being a drama or a comedy, a film becomes an “African American movie.”  Take, for example, April Joyner’s recent story on MarieClaire.com on Netflix’s racial bias.  Joyner writes:

I could see the fact that it’s not until you express specific interest in “black” content that you see how much of it Netflix has to offer. I could see the fact that to the new viewer, whose preferences aren’t yet logged and tracked by Netflix’s algorithm, “black” movies and shows are, for the most part, hidden from view.

The examples illustrating the normalization of whiteness in Hollywood are too many to name, but I will try.

What about the “Racebending” scandal that plagued the atrocious live action remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a cartoon set in a racially diverse world that was transformed into a movie where only the bad guys have dark skin?

avatar pic


What about Rooney Mara as the “Indian Princess” Tiger Lily in Pan?


What about Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in The Ghost in the Shell?


What about the all-white casts of Noah and Gods of Egypt? Hell, what about the repeated casting of White Jesus?


What about #OscarsSoWhite, starting in the 70s with Sacheen Littlefeather’s acceptance of Marlon Brando’s Godfather win and continuing to today?

When the few roles that are out there for people of color are so often snatched up and re-cast as white, I find it difficult to get worked up over the idea that a beloved white character is getting played by a non-white actor. There are plenty of classic movies out there with white male heroes for me to choose from. We are not ever going to lack for movies starring white men.

I see you very well, Idris Elba, and I look forward to seeing you march on The Dark Tower.

One thought on “Racebending, Race-Blind Casting, and The Dark Tower

  1. 1. People threw a fit over Rue being black? The book said she had dark skin. Whaaat?! I loved her!
    2. Idris killed it as Heimdall.
    3. Guilty! My brain didn’t slow down to process that Idris is Roland and Matthew is The Man in Black. I had them reversed. Idris is such a suave guy that it’ll be interesting to see him portray this character.
    4. Never considered that there aren’t “white parts” in Hollywood. Interesting point. Should be painfully obvious.

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