‘Dune’ Repeats Tired Tropes of a White Savior in a Middle Eastern Setting (Guest Blog)

The Oscar contender “perpetuates a harmful history” of Orientalism, argue Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Sue Obeidi and scholar Evelyn Alsultany

Dune stillsuits
Warner Bros.

When the BAFTA and Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month, Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Dune” received a total of 21 nominations, including the highly coveted Best Picture nomination from each group.   

“Dune” is about a young white man from the fictional planet Atreides. He develops his special abilities and fulfills his destiny by saving the planet Arrakis and its people from the brutal Harkonnen empire. Arrakis, a desert planet where the Fremen people live, is the location of the rare and powerful substance called spice that is used for space travel and needed to save the universe. The Fremen’s environment is reminiscent of the Middle East, including a language that happens to contain Arabic words. Additionally, the style of dress is not unlike what one might find in the Middle East.   

When the film was released last year, many Muslims insisted that the film was Orientalist, promoting the old trope of the white savior. The film appropriated elements from Islam while diluting the Islamic and anti-imperialist elements from the 1965 Frank Herbert novel on which it is based.  

We define “Orientalism,” popularized by the late scholar Edward Said in 1978, as a paradigm that justifies colonialism or the assertion of Western power over the East. Historically, it has consisted of exotic images of harem girls and desert landscapes, depicted as backward and uncivilized.  

“Dune” is not the beginning or the end of this problem, but it perpetuates a harmful history. Orientalism is so ingrained in how we see other peoples and cultures that it goes unnoticed.   

Hollywood has a long history of trafficking in and profiting from portraying the Middle East as exotic and backward with films such as “The Thief of Baghdad” (1921), “Arabian Nights” (1942), “Aladdin and His Lamp” (1901, 1928), and others. But this is year 2022, not 1922.  

Hollywood has made strides in diversifying representations. In the last five years, we have seen a marked change from Muslims being ancillary characters or villains, to being the stars of TV shows like “Transplant,” “Ramy,” “We Are Lady Parts,” “Young Justice Phantom” and the wonderful animated children’s show “Glitch Techs.” Unfortunately, films continue to lag behind.   

While there has been this progress in Hollywood, it is often in response to a crisis — #OscarsSoWhite, Black Lives Matter, or President Trump’s Muslim ban. But for real long-term and long-lasting progress to happen, it cannot be a knee-jerk response to the latest instance of police violence against Black people, or the latest hate crime against Muslims, or the latest discriminatory policy against trans people.   

Real change requires understanding and approaching the crisis as one that is centuries old rather than a momentary surge.  

The issue of “inclusion” of so-called Muslim characters and storylines has never been a problem for the industry. Hollywood has made billions of dollars “including” us, but unfortunately in ways that are inaccurate and inauthentic.  

This is why we do the work we do at MPAC Hollywood Bureau and History Studio. Our respective missions are to get better, more nuanced stories told about Muslim communities.   

In this moment in which Hollywood is diversifying representations as never before, when it comes to Orientalism, why is it not controversial enough to stimulate change?  

If we are serious about diversifying and creating truly inclusive representations, then it is time to get serious about the negative impact of Orientalism. As advocates and academics, we suggest that Hollywood’s fascination with exoticizing and othering Muslims, Arabs and their cultures should be a red flag for the industry as a whole.  

To be sure, many will say that depictions of the Middle East as exotic are far better than those as violent. According to whose standard? Any narrative that normalizes Western superiority over any group is harmful no matter what decade or century we are in. It has proven to be the case and it will always be the case.