It has been a rough couple of weeks around here when it comes to diversity in film and cultural erasure. Hollywood kept the hits rolling: first with the Doctor Strange trailer, then with Ghost in the Shell digital Asian news, and finally, they rounded things out with a reminder that #AsianAmericanIronFist would never happen on Netflix and a sexy update for Rita Repulsa.
The latest round of Hollywood whitewashing has been focused on Asian cultures, but it is merely the umpteenth verse, same as the first. For example, a couple of years ago we were having these conversations about casting white people as American Indians then pulling the 1/14567th Cherokee card.
Why bring this up? Because today Sony Pictures Entertainment released the first trailer for the remake of The Magnificent Seven, which nimbly sidesteps both the erasure of Japanese culture AND whitewashing of an American Indian character.
For those of you who don”t know, The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a 1960 film which itself was based on the 1954 Japanese film called Seven Samurai. Set in 16th century Japan, the original story followed Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an older ronin warrior, as he collects a rag-tag group of samurai to protect a village against marauding bandits. The film was a smash success, becoming Japan”s highest-grossing movie, despite its 207-minute runtime.
That piqued the interest of Hollywood executives. Six years later, The Magnificent Seven arrived in American theaters. The samurai were swapped out for gunslingers, and the Wild West replaced the 16th-century Japanese countryside. A product of its time, The Magnificent Seven starred a cast of white men rescuing a village in Mexico, as diversity wasn”t even on the radar yet. The original film was uncredited entirely. However, by choosing to keep the essence of Seven Samurai without directly lifting it, The Magnificent Seven managed to do something Ghost in the Shell can”t seem to manage in 2016: how to adapt a film from another culture without appropriating it.
Samurai are an integral part of Japanese culture. Cowboys are the same for American culture. The Magnificent Seven takes the important bits from Seven Samurai – the plot, the characterizations, the essence – without insulting the source material. The cast of the 1960 version weren”t white men in Japanese costume, with Japanese names, marauding through the 16th-century Japanese countryside. Because that would be absurd. Why would they do that?
But that is exactly what Ghost in the Shell is doing, casting white Scarlett Johansson as Motoko “the Major” Kusanagi and the equally white Michael Pitt as Hideo Kuze. Hollywood is a business. Johansson is a known quantity that will put butts in theater seats. There is no reason Ghost in the Shell couldn”t have been adapted take place in America, using American names. Besides The Magnificent Seven, there is a long history of cross-pollination between East and West films. In 2013, Japan remade Unforgiven, setting it in 19th century Japan. From The Ring to The Departed, Hollywood has proven they can take the essence of Eastern films without appropriating their cultures.
Which brings us to today. In 2016, The Magnificent Seven is an example of how Hollywood can get it right when they want to. Building on the foundation set down in 1960, the film kicks it up a notch. From the diverse casting of both people of color and women to reattributing the original screenplay to Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni, the film feels like a truly 21st century Western. But then, a miracle happened.
The Magnificent Seven cast Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest. Why is this such a big deal? Because Sensmeier is actually an American Indian. According to his biography on IMDB:
[Sensmeier] is of Tlingit, Koyukon-Athabascan, Irish, and French descent. He was raised in a Tlingit Coastal Community in Southeast Alaska and grew up learning and participating in the traditions of his Tribes. He is also an ambassador for The Native Wellness Institute, as well as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and advocates for wellness amongst Native people of all Nations- focusing largely on the youth.
In a perfect world, this wouldn”t be a big deal. It would only make sense that a Native American would be cast in a role like this. But at least The Magnificent Seven is proving Hollywood can get it right when they try. No more excuses, y”all.
The Magnificent Seven arrives in theaters this fall.