Why ‘The Dark Tower’ movie needs to have two black lead characters

04.29.16

I love Vikings. I love the costumes, I love the hair, I love the strong women who take no guff. I love how the show hides education inside interesting character arcs, betrayal, and violence. It”s edutainment for adults. So when I heard yesterday that Katheryn Winnick (Lagertha) had been cast in the film adaptation of Steven King”s The Dark Tower, I was excited. But then I remembered the how Hollywood thinks, and I got nervous.

Back in March, Idris Elba (Luthor, Pacific Rim) was announced as Roland Deschain, the Gunslinger in The Dark Tower. A great piece of news. But if Hollywood is known for anything, it”s tempering a good decision with a terrible one. And the track record for casting two black leads in a fantasy-action film is…not good.Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is Will Smith”s After Earth. Why does this matter? Because one of the other main characters in The Dark Tower is Susannah Dean, a black woman from our world in 1964.

Susannah”s blackness is inextricable from her character, her race has informed every aspect of her life and how she reacts to the world around her. Having a disabled black woman who was plucked from Civil Rights”-ers New York City and has all the baggage that comes with that interact with Roland, a man who, if The Dark Tower plays his character straight, has never had to think about his race a day in his life, would be an interesting take. Blackness is not a monolithic experience. But with Ebla already on set to star – and Columbia reps being cagey about whom Winnick is playing – my “Oh no” radar is pinging hard.

In order to understand why The Dark Tower might recast Susannah as white, we need to dive into some wrong-headed thinking that still dominates decision-making in film. Other than historical dramas such as Selma or The Color Purple, most movies with two black leads are labeled as “black films.” Andre Selwood at Indiewire breaks down exactly what that means better than I ever could:

Black movies are those films with a majority Black cast that situate Whites, if any, in peripheral or non-influential roles. No matter what the genre and no matter what the race of the director, these kinds of Black films, we are told, form a niche market within the broader domestic U.S. market and are but a tiny fraction of the Global film marketplace.

The top brass in the executive boardrooms think white people can suspend disbelief and empathize with aliens, monsters, and dragons…but not black people. The same Indiewire article points to research done at the University of Toronto Scarborough backs up this line of thinking. “This study found that the degree of mental activity when White participants watched non-White men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task.” One could argue white people less likely to empathize with people of color because we are so seldom required to, and not because we”re hardwired to be jerks.

Another study – this time at the University of Southern California – found that of the Top 100 films in 2014, 73.1% of them featured entirely white casts. This didn”t surprise Nikesh Shukla, creator the of the Shukla Test. Much like the Bechdel Test shines a spotlight on the dearth of women in film, the Shukla Test does the same for racial diversity. In an interview with PBS, Sukla explained his reasoning for coming up with the test, “I realized that white people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences.”

Based on this information, it is easy (if depressing) to see why Hollywood suits would be skittish about shaking up the status quo. Money talks. If having more than one minority lead even APPEARS to hurt the bottom line, they”re going to be less likely to take the risk. Especially with a big budget franchise-starter like The Dark Tower. Then again, there”s the Fast and the Furious franchise just sitting there, defying conventional thinking.

There is good news, though. Researchers at the University of North Carolina and McGill University very recently published data showing audiences don”t mind racially diverse casts as much as Hollywood thinks they do. The two researchers – Venkat Kuppuswamy and Peter Younkin – set out to see if the given logic that audiences aren”t receptive to non-white actors could be verified with data. It could not. In fact, quite the opposite. Even with international audiences. The Huffington Post has a detailed chart of the data.

The researchers found that after controlling for factors like genre, seasonality and the size of its opening release, having one black cast member did not significantly affect revenues, and having two black cast members correlated with earning roughly 60 percent more at the box office than the average film with no black actors. It was when films employed two or more black leads, however, that the real gains were seen: those films outperformed films with no black actors by 149 percent at the box office.

Which brings us back to The Dark Tower casting. If ever there was a time to make a huge tentpole franchise centered around two black leads, now is that time. I”m not saying Katheryn Winnick is playing Susannah. They could very well be gender-bending one of Roland”s original Ka-tet ( a group of gunslingers bound together). She could be a gender-bent Cort (which would be fantastic). She could be playing Susan, though my money is on Abbey Lee playing a name-changed Susan. What I am saying is, Winnick better not be playing Susannah.

Around The Web