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The Post-Racial Fantasy of ‘The Magnificent Seven’

Despite director Antoine Fuqua’s best intentions, it’s impossible to ignore

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter played by Denzel Washington, struts into the quiet town of Rose Creek on a tall Andalusian, black boots on his feet, black hat on his head, black shirt and vest on his back — and beneath all that, black skin to match. He’s quite a sight: a fearsome one, to the citizens of Rose Creek, humble farmers living under the thumb of an eely robber baron named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Chisolm, hired to stomp out Bogue’s influence, is a man of worthy intentions. But the wary townspeople hide when he approaches. They don’t yet know that this ominous man in black is here to save them.

We in the audience know, of course, and we trust that the good people of Rose Creek will figure it out soon enough. This is The Magnificent Seven, after all: Nothing in the movie would get done, no one would get saved, if everyone stood around too afraid to break bread with crooks. Like the beloved 1960 Western it’s based on, this likable remake, directed by Antoine Fuqua, dutifully dismisses almost all cause for genuine speculation. We’re not here to waste precious plot minutes wondering who the good or bad guys are, or doubting whether Chisolm and the six outlaws at his side will succeed. We know the emotional beats, and uncertainty — moral or otherwise — is not one of them.

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

So when an unexpected sliver of subtext creeps in and throws The Magnificent Seven off its axis just the tiniest bit, you might, if you notice it, sit up in your seat. You might get anxious. That was me, at least, watching Chisolm ride into Rose Creek as the townspeople, hidden behind pillars and boarded windows, scrutinize him from every side. The movie is set in 1879, in the long aftermath of the Civil War — a dangerous time to be a black outlaw, a worse time to be brazen about it. We, the audience, see Chisolm as a hero riding in to save the day. What do the townspeople see? A black man on horseback, gun holstered, face illegible beneath the wide black brim of his hat. A threat, undoubtedly, the kind of man who makes passersby say aloud, “That man’s trouble.” But what kind?

It’s the kind of real-world question you can’t help but carry with you into the multiplex when you live in a world that feels particularly unkind to black strangers. It’s also a question for Westerns themselves, movies full of cowboys and “injuns,” Civil War veterans and the ex-slaves whose freedom they either fought for or against. It’s not the question on Fuqua’s mind, however. The uncertain tension of Chisolm’s arrival is so brief, and so singular in the movie, it can’t help but seem accidental. It’s also the best, most complex thing the movie has to offer.

I suspect that’s not what Fuqua wants to hear. Since The Magnificent Seven’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival two weeks ago, he’s sought to make two things about his movie undeniably clear. One: “I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse.” (This is Washington’s first Western.) The other: “I’m interested in bigger stories than just the color of someone’s skin.”

To be fair, glancing at the cast list, you’d be forgiven for mistaking The Magnificent Seven for an offshoot of the Fast and Furious franchise or a purposeful clapback at the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. It’s a joy, genuinely, to see Korean star Byung-hun Lee, Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier, who’s of Tlingit and Athabascan descent, join Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Ethan Hawke to fill out the titular seven. And it’s a unique pleasure to feel that the diversity matters to the movie itself and not merely to the conversation around it. This is a story that, since its first iteration as Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954, has been premised on the outlaws’ differences: their ability to cohere, both onscreen and as a cast on set, should come off as a serious accomplishment. That’s as true of Fuqua’s movie as it is of the rest of the other four movies and the short-lived TV show in the Magnificent Seven franchise.

That the unintelligible cave-man squeaks of D’Onofrio and the timelessly staid charisma of Washington do not seem to belong in the same movie is part of what makes the movie. What’s that got to do with race? Nothing — unless race is part of what makes their partnership seem so implausible to begin with. And in a Western, no less. That’s the slippery thing. History is history, but movies are movies. An outlaw partnership between a black guy and a white guy, or a Mexican guy and a black guy, is not unheard of for a Western, even one set in 1879, no matter what was really happening in 1879. As far back as the ’60s, John Ford movies gave us multiracial pairings in movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sergeant Rutledge, both of which starred the indispensable black actor Woody Strode.

What to make, though, of a Western about a black guy, an Asian, a Mexican, a Comanche, and a gun-twirling Chris Pratt? Fuqua didn’t want to make a racially diverse Western explicitly concerned with race. But he made a Western. And he made it diverse. He set it in 1879, and he and screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) allowed the Civil War to creep into the characters’ backstories ever so slightly. That gap — between what the movie would seem to be, and what Fuqua wants it to be — is The Magnificent Seven’s central point of fascination. Much else about the movie works, mind you. The action is unusually attentive to detail, and the cast makes it look easy. But what really sticks out is everyone’s willingness to indulge the movie’s racial fantasy. This is “The Wild, Wild West: Post-Race Edition,” in which a Civil War–era black renegade cosplayed by Denzel Washington doesn’t have to withstand getting called the N-word or threatened with a hanging. Not once. (Your move, Tarantino.)

I value that. It’s worthwhile, in its own way. How much? We’d be wrong to confuse a pointedly non-racist Western for one that confronts the racism in Westerns outright. We’d be wrong to praise The Magnificent Seven for high-minded revisionism. But we’d be wrong to write it off, too, though it’s admittedly too much of a political fantasy for its own good — as if Fuqua took a scalpel to racial conflict but had nothing quite as salient, or dramatic, in mind to replace it. Maybe he tried — maybe there’s nothing. That would undoubtedly tell us something about the primacy of race to the drama of Western myth-making. And it’d tell us something about the hunger to live out fantasies like these.