Culture

Hollywood Running Mates

Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven (Photo: Sony Pictures)
The Magnificent Seven panders to constituents. Queen of Katwe peddles social-services banalities.

Actor Denzel Washington (born in 1954) and director Antoine Fuqua (born in 1966) belong to the generations excited by the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. Their latest collaboration, The Magnificent Seven, a reboot of the 1960 Hollywood film, shows no sign that they respect the social frustration, ethnic pride, and moral daring that were apparent in even the weakest films of that movement (which followed the cultural and political ferment of its era). This unoriginal reboot reveals Washington and Fuqua to be hacks as they take on a brand-name property and a formerly great genre, the Western, which for decades was a wondrous means of stirring one’s sense of historical imagination and personal, cultural belonging.

This remake is “updated” in the most insipid way: set in a Western town in 1879 where settlers are driven off their ranches by a ruthless robber baron and his band of anonymous thugs. Washington and Fuqua fail to use this setting as a metaphor for the internecine warfare in urban ghettoes, as ’70s Blaxploitation would have done. The Western motif is simply a mechanism to stimulate rote audience responses. In fact, Washington and Fuqua work without any political, moral, or revisionist impulse. The unarmed ranchers hire vaguely principled Warrant Officer Chisum (Washington) to fight their battle. “You don’t need a bounty hunter you need an army,” he tells them. So he recruits an army of ethnically diverse rogues (Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Roulfo, Martin Sensmeir), each with varied talents for killing.

The dishonest emphasis on violence in The Magnificent Seven relates to the currently popular code words “gun violence.” But Washington and Fuqua fail to honestly connect modern insensitivity with the classic, perhaps timeless theme of Westerns: the clash between civilization and savagery. A remake ought to give filmmakers the opportunity to reassess attitudes toward a genre, but Washington and Fuqua show no feeling for history, land-ownership, law, or the tension between cowardice and self-defense — the themes that were prominent in the 1960 Hollywood film that was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1955).

This craven, doubled-down remake simply reduces America’s difficult history to a series of violent, affectless, and inept set-pieces. Killing for the sake of killing. The brutal present, in which urban turmoil can be seen as a reflection of America’s violent history, seems to have no impact on Washington and Fuqua’s careerism. They even disregard the social stress articulated by hip-hop artists as career-minded as Jay-Z and Kanye West.

The Magnificent Seven exemplifies the least conscientious escapism. Normalizing “gun violence” is part of Washington’s Hollywood macho game; his Warrant Officer Chisum might seem studly, but he shoots blanks. Through Chisum, Washington’s soulless violence offers a black version of what white Hollywood celebrities from Matt Damon to Sean Penn decry in news stunts and then exploit on the screen. Meanwhile, Fuqua’s clumsy landscapes — with no focal point, indecipherably dark imagery, and mis-framed Sergio Leone–style close-ups — distort a once-magnificent genre as if he were a TV director merely interested in acclimating audiences to violence and cynicism.

This Magnificent Seven is not a pacifist Western like the post-WWII High Noon, and it’s far from the poetic study of masculine aggression that made Kurosawa’s samurai film a masterpiece. In spirit, the truest remake of Kurosawa’s film was not Hollywood’s cornball “oater” version of The Magnificent Seven but Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), which confronted America’s new, post-assassinations, Vietnam-conscious era of violence. It combined beauty and tragedy as Kurosawa did — and was consonant with the cultural desperation of Blaxploitation movies.

Washington and Fuqua forgo political allusions for the simple appeal to vengeance and slaughter.

Washington and Fuqua merely combine the contradictions of this political era in which people pay lip-service to “gun violence” (and the term’s implicit call for more gun control) while holding a contradictory, yet unexamined, egotism — particularly the right for a privileged few, but not others, to use guns. The training sequence in which the seven soldiers of fortune put the ranchers through target practice could have evoked U.S. involvement in Afghanistan or other foreign-policy operations, but Washington and Fuqua forgo political allusions for the simple appeal to vengeance and slaughter. A rancher cries, “We’re not killers!” and one of the mercenaries explains, “Most people aren’t until looking down a barrel of gun.” That trite, simplistic response lets Washington and Fuqua have it both ways. They make Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight look ethical and accomplished. Washington and Fuqua are running mates for the Hypocrite Party.

*****

In Queen of Katwe, actors Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo join up with the most powerful of Hollywood super PACs, the Disney Corporation, to retell the “inspiring” story of Phiona Mutesi, the Ugandan teenager who in 2012 became an international chess master. Madina Nalwanga gives an interestingly ageless performance as Phiona, but it’s Nyong’o and Oyelowo (respectively martyred in 12 Years a Slave and Selma) who are running mates of the Exotic Blacks Party. They are figureheads for the Obama Effect by which African-American experience gets swamped by an open-borders ideology. Queen of Katwe may suggest the title of a Disney animated princess (like the lamentable The Princess and the Frog), but all possibilities of romantic fantasy are submerged in the film’s semi-documentary reporting on eternal Third World poverty — the Slumdog Millionaire standard.

As inspirational movies go, this is inferior to the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee, Doug Atchison’s marvelous recognition of a black schoolgirl’s spelling-bee struggles as a triumph that combined family, school, and community effort. Critics rejected the beautiful Akeelah as ghetto mundanity, but it’s Queen of Katwe that is banal. Its social-services appeals stop only at the end during the actors’ curtain calls as they stand, in awe, next to their real-life counterparts. It is the only time director Mira Nair seems to relate to the story. Nair never dramatizes the intellectual pride or the complexity of an underclass child outgrowing her native circumstances — one of the unforgettable insights of Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, the greatest of all films about education and upwardly mobility.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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