Last night, I took my husband to see the remake of The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington and directed by Antoine Fuqua. I’ll admit right here that I’ve never seen the original, but I’ve watched a surprising number of westerns (I’m not sure how — I think my dad used to watch them on Turner Classic Movies, and when Dad has the remote, that’s what you watch) and I can definitely see what the writers and the director were attempting to do: create a non-racist western to correct some of the discrimination that saturates the history of the genre. The time period where westerns take place is well known for the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement or segregation of African Americans.
The new version of The Magnificent Seven really wants to be an entertaining action western, celebrating all the trappings of the genre (a stoic leading man, quick-draw gunfights, kick ass horse-riding, and lots of staring at people menacingly) while presenting audiences with a racially diverse group of heroes serving as a clap-back against the genre’s history and the whiteness of Hollywood. I enjoyed the movie a great deal for these reasons.
Casting Denzel as a leading cowboy in his first western was extremely effective. It was like he was so badass that nobody dared mention his race, though they stared at him in a way that made it clear that his skin did not go unnoticed. Denzel has played hardcore righteous badasses before, and transplanting that into a western was deeply satisfying. Three of the Magnificent Seven were white, but they were interesting and flawed characters that brought a lot to the mix. The group rounded out with a Mexican bandit, an Asian gunfighter and knife expert, and a Comanche warrior played by someone with actual Native American ancestry. This coalition of people hired to bring justice to a town, despite their extreme diversity of character motives and ethnic backgrounds, definitely brought out the warm fuzzies, and made me desperately want them to succeed, and all the characters to live through the battle.
The way Native Americans are handled in the story, as stated above, attempts to correct some of the mistakes from the past. However, I find it interesting that one of the protagonist characters (played by Vincent D’onofrio) was known for killing 300 Crow Indians. There were also references to scalping. At one point in the movie *spoilers* Red Harvest, the Comanche warrior, is pitted against a Native American under the employ of the villain. He kills him, preventing one of the white characters from having to kill a Native American on screen. That same “bad guy” was the one who bested Vincent D’onofrio’s character earlier in the story. So, is the narrative suggesting that, in a way, D’onofrio’s character got what he deserved for his part in genocide? All of these theories could contribute to Fuqua’s attempts to be racially sensitive with this new version of the classic western film.
How successfully Fuqua’s film “sets the record straight” about race in the Wild West is up for debate. Some applaud his efforts, while others see his post-racial film as merely a fantasy that deliberately ignores the complex history of racism in our country. It’s the movie equivalent of white people saying they’re “color blind,” which seems like a nice thing to say until you realize it implies that the speaker is deliberately ignoring the inequalities faced by Americans every day, or attempting to shrug off some white guilt. I appreciate that an attempt was made, and I was delighted by watching the film, though I acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot more than casting a few different ethnic groups in movie remakes to create real change in Hollywood and the country at large.
Now, let’s discuss the gender roles in the film, which is where I think Fuqua’s remake fell flat. If you’re attempting to rewrite the western as a more diverse genre that is truly representative of America, I have to ask, where were the female characters?
Well, there’s only one worth talking about: Haley Bennett’s Emma Cullen. Her husband is murdered by the villain, and she takes it upon herself to recruit the Magnificent Seven to come save everyone. At one point in the film, she says she was the only one who “had the balls” to go out and find some gunfighters to wrest the town away from the evil mine owner’s clutches. Yet, she is accompanied throughout by a random male character (whose name I don’t even remember) who also lost a family member to the villain’s murdering ways. So, she wasn’t, in fact, the only one with the balls to try and find justice. Apparently she needed an escort.
They try to make her at least a little steely by showing off that she’s a good shot (only to then have her shown up by Chris Pratt) and when Goodnight flees the battle the night before, she offers to take the bell tower position as a sniper. I’m like, “Oh, good! I’m pretty sure Goodnight’s gonna come back at just the right time all Gandalf-style, but maybe she’ll get some sweet head shots and be badass!” Nope. They put the schoolteacher, who was previously introduced as a shitty shot and not even really a character, in the bell tower instead.
Emma does insist on joining the fight instead of just guarding the women and children, and the men let her, but they don’t give her a key role except as “cannon fodder” with the rest of the guys shooting down from the saloon balcony behind shoddy sandbag barriers. Which, if they were going to try and save her from danger, was the WORST place to stick her, as 99% of the dudes up there got shredded. Oh, and when she gets attacked by the evil Native American guy, she still can’t defend herself, and has to get saved by Red Harvest. The schoolteacher makes it, and even though the bell tower ends up being dangerous, if Emma was up there to be relieved by Goodnight, she would have survived. There was no reason her character couldn’t have taken that position and skipped the sandbag barrier scenes altogether.
Fuqua re-imagines the characters as different races. Would it have been so much of a leap to write Emma as a useful character, or (gasp!) MAKE ONE OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN A FEMALE?!!
So, all-in-all, the movie was entertaining, and I appreciate what was trying to be done, but as a feminist, I was pretty disappointed. I look forward to another remake along these same lines that is a little more decisive when dealing with race, and actually attempts to be fully inclusive by embracing well rounded female characters.