No one who saw Denzel Washington walk through the ‘hood in Antoine Fuqua‘s “Training Day” will ever forget his menacing, charismatic gait. Likewise, you’re unlikely to forget Washington’s conflicted turn as a bounty hunter who grows a conscience in “The Magnificent Seven,” a remake by Fuqua that feels — for once — like Hollywood has gone color blind.
You meet Washington in the saloon of a small town in the West that is being threatened with extinction by a rapacious, violent businessman (played effectively by Peter Sarsgaard). He shoots a bunch of people but never once does anyone raise the “n” word. The fact that the bounty hunter is black gets no mention and plays no part in the unfolding story of Sam Chisolm leading seven gunmen on a mission to save the town.
Speaking to TheWrap after the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Fuqua said that’s what he was aiming for — a true take on Westerns that would feel contemporary. “I grew up watching Westerns — ‘The Searchers,’ all of them — with my grandmother,” he said.
But it was not an obvious project for him. Fuqua was going to work on “Southpaw” for MGM (eventually released by The Weinstein Company), but then the studio gave him a script for the remake of a movie originally made as “The Seven Samurai” by Akiro Kurosawa in 1954. Fuqua had seen it, as well as the Western made in 1960 with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.
“I kept it that simple — was the story still in place in the service of others?” said Fuqua, as the cast milled about him after the premiere at the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. “That’s what the word samurai means, to serve. So I went back to Kurosawa and I said, ‘What was he saying?’ As long as the script is saying that then we’re on track.’
Part of that was casting his oft-time muse, Denzel Washington. “I was going down the list and it wasn’t feeling like an event, it wasn’t feeling fresh. And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get Denzel Washington on a horse? The room got quiet, and they said, ‘Can you get him to do it?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll ask him.’ No one said anything about his color or anything.”
Producer Roger Birnbaum confirmed that’s how it happened. “When we had a script [Fuqua’s] agent Scott Greenberg got ahold of it, gave him the script, and I got the phone call that he wanted to meet,” he said. “We met, and this guy was exuding all the passion for this you could want. He watched this movie with his grandmother, he carried it with him, and you could feel that in the room.”
When Washington’s name came up, everyone got excited. “We could have brought up race throughout this movie, the point is you don’t see that. It’s just very good actors. I don’t think black or white ever.”
The movie is tracking for a strong opening on Sept. 23.