Diversity as Farce in “The Magnificent Seven”

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

Written by Richard Wenk & Nic Pizzolatto
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
USA, 2016

This review was previously posted by Ampersand. It was originally posted, in slightly different form, by USC Annenberg Media.

The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, is something special: a remake of a remake. Remakes are common enough, and they’re almost always a pale substitute of the original film. This film, an update of the 1960 film of the same name, which was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Seven Samurai (1954), is the least successful of the three. It’s a sterile film that makes a farce out of diversity.

The film opens in the late 19th century as robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) interrupts a church service in a small mining town called Rose Creek. The locals are meeting to propose ways to stop Bogue, who has taken over the town and demands that they pay him exorbitant fees to regain access to their land. There’s no law to stop Bogue—he owns the sheriff, and the deputies constitute a small army of armed men who do his bidding. Sensing the beginning of an insurrection, Bogue’s men slaughter many of the townspeople and set the church on fire to teach them a lesson.

Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), whose brother was killed by the deputies, goes to a nearby town on behalf of Rose Creek to hire someone to fight Bogue. She finds Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter who leaves a trail of death and destruction in his wake. Chisolm isn’t interested in fighting for her until Cullen mentions Bogue’s name. The reason for his familiarity isn’t initially explained, but it’s clear that Chisolm knows Bogue.

Chisolm goes through the motions of the requisite recruiting scenes. First, there’s Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler who inspires men to shoot at him. Then he finds Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a sharpshooter, and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), who is as skilled with a knife as with a gun. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays Vasquez (just Vasquez, no first name), a Mexican outlaw. The group is rounded out by Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) a tracker and killer of Native Americans, and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche warrior. The seven begin to prepare the town for Bogue’s onslaught, booby-trapping the surrounding fields and teaching the townspeople how to use firearms.

The Magnificent Seven is undeniably a diverse film, with actors of ethnicities that are rarely represented on screen in depictions of the Old West. But it is diversity as farce, rather than realism. Contrary to popular opinion, there were African American cowboys. However, they endured plenty of discrimination and had a far different experience out West compared to white people. The West of The Magnificent Seven is a fantasy land where no one seems to care about Chisolm’s race, despite the fact that many of its inhabitants would be veterans of the Civil War who fought for the Confederacy. Even Robicheaux is a former Confederate. The treatment of Billy Rocks is also difficult to believe. He’s played by a South Korean actor, although presumably he is meant to be a Chinese man, since Koreans did not arrive in the United States until the end of the 19th century. Chinese workers immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers in the 19th century and helped to mine gold and build railroads. They were treated as subhumans by many employers and were victims of racist caricatures and violence. But Billy Rocks exists in a universe where no one has any prejudice toward Chinese people. The only time that the film alludes to racism is when members of the group mention how Jack Horne is famous for scalping Native Americans. Somehow, he and Red Harvest strike up a friendship even though Horne has likely killed scores of people from Red Harvest’s tribe. The other members of the group even joke about how much they both would like to scalp each other. The film’s attempt to rob these characters of their histories is an offensive act of intentional amnesia.

Beyond its unfortunate treatment of minorities, The Magnificent Seven is often simply unintelligible in its action sequences. The cutting is so quick that it’s not always clear who is being shot and whether they are friend or foe. The final battle of the film is so shrouded in dust and smoke that it’s nearly impossible to tell which character is on screen. It’s difficult to even grasp the geography of the town.

Hundreds of people are killed in the film, but unlike revisionist Westerns such as The Wild Bunch (1969), the violence of The Magnificent Seven is barely felt. In The Wild Bunch and many Westerns that followed, people didn’t just die quick, bloodless deaths. Death was a painful, drawn-out process — the audience was supposed to experience the pain of being shot and feeling your blood slowly drain out. But there’s almost no blood at all in the current film. We see splotches of red on the clothes of the characters who are shot, but it’s only a hint of the violence they have actually experienced. We don’t understand their pain because director Antoine Fuqua doesn’t show it. He seems to be trying to avoid getting an R-rating, but it’s inappropriate for the film’s subject matter. Westerns are about violent passions, about greed and murder, and trying to fit that into the confines of a PG-13 film robs the movie of legitimacy.

If there’s one thing that this current version of The Magnificent Seven has in common with the 1960 film, it’s this kind of sanitized death and violence. But the older film, while not a great work of art, was at least better paced. It gave the audience some time to meet the gunslingers, even if they were mostly just caricatures. That film also gave the battle sequences some room to breathe. It’s slow by modern standards, but there’s never any confusion as to what’s happening and who is being shot. There’s an even greater difference between either of these films and the original, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Kurosawa actually used slow motion in some of his action sequences, which was quite rare at the time. He focused on the ballet precision and grace of his warriors. In contrast, Fuqua seems like he wants to hide his actors by cutting so quickly.

The Magnificent Seven could have been a corrective to the 1960 film with its depictions of African American and Asian characters. Those are important perspectives, and there were plenty of people of color living out West during this time period. But The Magnificent Seven isn’t interested in their stories. Instead, it creates a feel-good alternative that ignores the hardships experienced by people of color. It’s still possible to craft an exciting thriller while commenting on the experiences of marginalized groups. By ignoring the lives of people of color, The Magnificent Seven becomes nothing more than a farce.

Watch the trailer below:

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