Idris Elba in DARK TOWER: Felicitous Choice or Epic Fail?

Stephen King is a prolific writer. And of course, he is best known for his horror tales. Most of us have read some of them and have seen a few film versions too. And most of us are not as familiar with his Western Fantasy Series, written in the 1980’s. But his big fans have been very familiar with the series and so were naturally pretty excited when a film version was being planned.

That was in 2007, and as the years wore on, fans began to believe that it would never happen. It was passed from writer to writer, director to director and studio to studio.

Finally, in 2016, it was announced that Sony Pictures had taken the project and that Danish director Nikolaj Arcel, an Academy Award nominee, would be directing. Fans were elated.

Elation Turns to Controversy

Then came the casting. Matthew McConaughey would play the villainous Man in Black – sounded reasonable. And Roland, the last gunslinger and hero, would be played by Idris Elba. Wait. What? Suddenly, fans took to Twitter in outrage – Roland was white; his entire backstory was as a white man. Casting him as black was not going to work at all. Pretty soon, defenders of the choice were calling the outraged fans racist. It got pretty heated.

Ultimately, King himself weighed in on Twitter, stating that it didn’t matter what color Roland was as long as he played the role well. In fact, in a recent interview, the day before the film’s release, he re-stated this point:

“Well, what I said in tweet after all that discussion started. I didn’t’ care what color he was as long as he could command the screen, draw fast, and shoot straight, so it doesn’t make any difference to me. Because I don’t even really see people when I’m writing…Why shouldn’t he be black? Why couldn’t it be a black guy to do this?”

And with that Tweet, the controversy did die down somewhat.

Fans sat and waited for the film to be completed and released.

The Wait Lengthened

Filming began in South Africa in early 2016 with a projected release date of January, 2017. It was delayed. But finally, the weekend of August 4, Dark Tower hit the box office. The film was released along with two other films, Detroit, and Kidnap. In the competition, Dark Tower came out on top with a total “take” of $19.1 million. That doesn’t seem like a lot, considering the box office receipts of other blockbuster movies, but then August is a slow movie month.

Staying True to the Books

King predicted that some diehard fans who were also purists would find some differences, but if they had read the entire series, the film would make sense.

Getting all eight books of the series into a single film meant that a lot from those books would be cut out, and the plot doesn’t follow the series too closely. The boy Jake plays a much larger role in the film than in the series. Still the overall purposes of Roland and his enemy Walter, the Man in Black, remain, and the future of the Universe is still at stake. The purpose of the director was obvious – those who had not read the series would still be able to follow a good adventure story.

And How Was Elba’s Performance – Epic Success or Fail?

The critic reviews of the film are mixed at best and more negative than positive.

New York Times movie critic Gilbert Cruz had little nice to say about Dark Tower. He was critical of the plot sequences, references to people and events in the series that non-readers of it would not “get,” and even of McConaughey’s performance. What he did praise, however, was Elba’s performance:

“Mr. Elba is simply fantastic in the role – he sells the burden of being the last gunslinger, plays his moments of humorous dislocation well and look smashing in a neckerchief, vest and leather duster.”

Other critics, from such publications as Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and the Chicago Tribune seem to echo Cruz’s sentiments; and yet, not of them has anything but praise for Elba’s performance, even saying that it is this role that saves an otherwise dismal film.

So, What Say Those Earlier Angry Fans?

The same fans who displayed such anger, especially on Fandom Twitter account, do not seem to be very talkative since the release. Certainly, they are not “damning” Elba’s performance. Perhaps having seen the film, they, too, agree with the critics that Elba in many ways has saved the film.

Fandom itself has provided a review of the film and finds Elba’s performance solid. Its criticism of the film is only that it moves too quickly, not letting the viewer stop and breathe.

The Larger Issue

The controversy over a black Roland points to a larger issue in film in general. We tend to fixate on ideas of characters, usually white and male, and it’s difficult to see them as somehow different. When John Boyega, a black man, was cast as Finn in the latest Star Wars film, the same outrage ensued from diehard fans who insisted Finn had to stay white; when Hermione, the heroine in Harry Potter, was cast with a black woman in the play, outrage came from adults who envisioned her as always white, and nothing else. Even when people like King and Rowling insist that the purpose of casting has everything to do with talent and skill and not skin color, it is a tough “pill” for some fans to “swallow.” Some call it racism; some call it misogynist, when fans object to a male superhero becoming a female. But we are moving in a direction of greater diversity in the film industry, and it’s time to do just that.

Elba has proved his mettle, not just in Dark Tower but in every film in which he has been cast. His versatility is even more proven by his role as Roland.


Author Bio: Amanda Sparks has a lot of roles to play as a writer. She currently works as a pro writer and editor at Essay Supply and also as a lifestyle writer at Huffington Post. In her own words, “I love everything about writing, and I love everything about improving lifestyles. Being able to do both at the same time makes my life pretty perfect.”

The Author

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