Idris Elba is a fascinating choice for Roland in The Dark Tower, as Cindy reported yesterday. The eponymous gunslinger has always been envisioned as something quite like Clint Eastwood both in manner and style, of that prototypical gunman of the old west. And of course there’s the repeated reference to those cold blue eyes, those “bombardier eyes” as King liked to say again and again.
There has been the minor uproar on the Internet that follows any casting rumor of a black man for a previously white character. Perhaps it’s been a bit less than usual, if only because The Dark Tower is a niche enough series with a fan base less predisposed in the first place to such sentiments that always seem to begin with “I’m not a racist, but…”
On the other hand, there can be legitimate curiosity about what this implies for a couple of stretches of the series that as written depend on Roland being white.
I’ll start with the point that is raised later in the novels first, when Roland and Eddie meet Stephen King in the flesh. There’s a moment of shock when it’s realized that Roland looks incredibly like King, because his creation was in his secret heart an ideal representation of himself. And of course a modern American audience cannot conceive of a white man whose ideal representation shifts race. But remember that all of the characters are reflections of King, it’s just that Roland is the most so as his central character. Eddie is, Jake is, and even Susannah - black and female - reflects King’s features and mind. The characters we create our inevitably reflections of ourselves, whether darkly or clearly, and to think that an author cannot be reflected across race and gender and age is just absurd.
But the more direct question raised is in The Drawing of the Three, with the insane and vicious Detta Walker. That half-character is irrevocably intertwined both with being black and with a virulent and irrational racism that is a central pillar of most of the novel’s plot. Her character and all the plot that depends on her simply doesn’t work without her racism and the way it is directed homicidally at Roland and Eddie.
But that’s also why Roland being black can work so well, because it lets her rage have two textures instead of a single one. She can direct that racism at Eddie (who, let’s face it, absolutely needs to be played by Aaron Paul) but then her hatred towards Roland can easily be rewritten as the hatred of a race traitor. Roland isn’t African American, and his world has no concept of black and white, per se. He looks upon her hatred with a blank sort of incomprehension, a man raised in a world without that particular societal construct. It would be positively treasonous in her eyes, to see this man who doesn’t care about race, who kneels to no one, and carries iron on his hips. All that unconscious privilege and power in Roland is exactly what being white means as a social construction, and so changing the color of his skin without the substance of his character would ironically make him even whiter to Detta’s eyes. And it makes the statements about race in the story that much more powerful.