Fear Of A Black Gunslinger
NOTE: This post contains spoilers for The Dark Tower series.
Last night, word broke that Idris Elba was being sought to play the lead role of Roland Deschain in Nikolaj Arcel's The Dark Tower. Somewhat predictably, the idea of casting Idris Elba - an increasingly-popular actor whose name has been bandied about for months now as a possible successor to the James Bond throne - as Roland was met with quite a bit of support: everywhere I looked last night*, people were slapping their foreheads and saying, "Why didn't I think of that?"
And why wouldn't they? It's perfect casting, particularly on the heels of Elba's performance in Cary Fukunaga's Beasts Of No Nation, which required the actor to exhibit many of the same traits that would inform the character of Roland: a commanding, charismatic presence; a steely resolve; a fanatical devotion to a very personal cause; courage under fire. Setting aside the fact that Roland was written as a white man, there's absolutely no reason Elba couldn't play this role. He would kill it.
I mentioned all of this last night when I ran a post announcing the news, and at the time I said the following:
Despite what I expect some fanboys will tell you, Roland's race plays no role in the Dark Tower cycle; there's literally no rational reason not to cast a black guy here, especially if one as talented as Elba's interested in taking the gig.
A number of people expressed their support for Elba playing the role while also taking exception with the claim that Roland's race plays "no role in the Dark Tower". These people pointed out that Roland's race does factor into The Dark Tower - specifically in the series' second novel, The Drawing Of The Three - and, y'know what? These people are not incorrect. A little pedantic, maybe, but not incorrect.
There is, in fact, a stretch of The Drawing Of The Three where Roland's race is very relevant to another character, a schizophrenic (and deeply racist) black woman by the name of Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker. When the wheelchair-bound Odetta/Detta is drawn into Roland's world, she is enraged to find herself stranded in an alternate dimension with Roland and Eddie Dean, a pair of "honky mafahs" she immediately suspects the worst of. A sizable portion of the novel is devoted to the dynamic between these three characters, and a number of their interactions are racially-charged.
So, for starters, saying that race plays "no role in The Dark Tower" is, perhaps, a small overstatement. Racial tension absolutely informs the actions of Detta/Odetta throughout a large chunk of the series' second novel. That said, it's also almost completely done away with by the time the third novel, The Waste Lands, begins: at that point, Odetta and Detta's personalities merge into a single character, Susannah, and - with the exception of a few lapses into "Detta-speak" - the character's reservations about Eddie, Roland, and white people in general have no real bearing on the story that unfolds across the next five books. So perhaps the better way to put it would've been, "Roland's race is not integral to the Dark Tower cycle".
Besides, it's not as though making Roland black would rob Detta/Odetta of her ability to be a racist. The way you make that work is, you direct all of Detta/Odetta's anti-white rhetoric against Eddie Dean. Maybe you have Detta/Odetta attempt to play Roland against his white-boy counterpart, and when he doesn't take the bait, Detta/Odetta decides Roland's an "Uncle Tom" type. You'd maintain the racial tension of all of those scenes, and you might actually be making the dynamic a little more interesting in the process.
Indeed, when you stop to consider the implications of a black Roland Deschain, things get very interesting. For instance: does racism even exist in the film version of Mid-World? Maybe it doesn't, and you play with the idea that racism is actually a failing of Eddie and Odetta/Detta's (read: our) reality. Or maybe racial prejudice is very much alive and well in Roland's world. How would that impact the Line of Eld's ability to rule? How would the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis react to a black Gunslinger? Better yet, how would the Barony of Mejis react to Roland's romance with Susan Delgado? Might that not play a role in Delgado's fate? You might be eliminating a piece of the Detta/Eddie/Roland puzzle by making Roland black, but you'd sure as shit be opening up a number of compelling doors in the process.
The trouble with all of this is, we're having this discussion in an online world where GamerGate and Donald Trump aren't just actual things, but have actual supporters. It's legitimately hard to tell anymore when people are being pedantic for the sake of being pedantic, and when they're being belligerent thanks to unaddressed (or, even worse, totally upfront) racial prejudices. When I see someone arguing why Spider-Man or James Bond or Roland Deschain can't be black, my first thought is to suspect that the person making the argument isn't just being pedantic; my suspicion - unfair though it may be! - is that these people are, at best, scared of change and, at worst, racist. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but...just be aware that it's become increasingly difficult to do so.
At any rate, this entire line of thought starts with the assumption that the adaptation is going to be faithful to the books, and lemme tell ya: Sony's adaptation of The Dark Tower is likely to be very, very different from the books. Not only will the Dark Tower franchise need to contend with the aging of Jake and the whiplash-inducing series of genre changes this material demands, but they're also going to have to solve the "Stephen King wrote himself into the goddamn story" issue and address the ending, which I can assure you will not be the ending attached to a series Sony may end up pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into.
Without getting into it too much, I'll say this: I've been privy to a number of details surrounding the Akiva Goldsman draft of the Dark Tower script. It is my understanding that, as we speak, an entirely new script is being written by Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen. But Ron Howard - who was set to direct the Goldsman draft, and who presumably played some role in helping Goldsman shape the narrative for the multi-platform franchise he had planned - is still executive producing Arcel's film. And if the Goldsman draft is any indication, you should expect major changes to King's text, not just in the details, but for big picture stuff, as well. If you're expecting The Dark Tower to arrive onscreen looking, sounding, and feeling exactly like those books you fell in love with, you are setting yourself up for a major disappointment. Plan accordingly.
The good news is, the books are the books, and whatever Sony's planning - some Franchisenstein's monster of both film and television - will be its own thing, as well. Changes will be made to the source material, for better or for worse, and some of those changes may be sustantial...up to and including changing the race of the protagonist. Of the many, many narrative hurdles The Dark Tower needs to clear on its way to the finish line, I believe Roland's race may actually be one of the most easily-conquered. And as such, I see no reason not to fully endorse Idris Elba for Roland.
* = I'm sure some of the darker corners of the internet weren't thrilled, but fuck them, anyway.