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How the West wasn’t white: Building a diverse ‘Magnificent 7’

When director Antoine Fuqua first began contemplating how to go about remaking the much-loved 1960 western “The Magnificent Seven,” one image quickly popped into his head.

“I said, ‘I’ve got to see Denzel Washington on a horse,’ ” Fuqua recalled on a recent morning by phone from Italy, where the film, which opens Friday, was screening at the Venice Film Festival. “I’ve always thought about what Denzel would be like as a cowboy. Very few people have that kind of presence and power.”

Having grown up loving westerns, which he’d often watch with his grandmother, Fuqua knew as well as anyone that the heroes of the Old West in Hollywood movies of yesteryear were, with rare exceptions, almost always white. Director John Sturges’ original “Magnificent Seven,” the story of a band of gunfighters who join forces to protect a Mexican village from marauding bandits, was no exception.

Fuqua wasn’t looking to make any kind of statement by casting Washington as the bounty hunter who leads the gunslingers. The role, which had been played by Russian-born actor Yul Brynner in the original film, wasn’t written explicitly as one race or another. But he did feel it was important to try to blow the dust off of a genre that has fallen somewhat out of fashion, to make a western that, though set in the world of 1874, felt — and in some ways looked — like the world of 2016.

“The Magnificent Seven” trailer.

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“The western constantly changes depending on where we are as a society,” Fuqua explained. “What I wanted to do was bring it up to date and show people it’s an exciting genre. It represents who we are, what the promise of the United States is supposed to be.”

The 1960 “Magnificent Seven” — itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic “Seven Samurai” — had featured white actors in even some of the non-Caucasian roles, with Eli Wallach playing the bandit leader Calvera and Horst Buchholz as a young Mexican gunslinger named Chico.

In Fuqua’s remake, by contrast, four of the title heroes are nonwhite, including Washington’s Sam Chisolm; Comanche warrior Red Harvest, played by Native American actor Martin Sensmeier; South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee’s knife-throwing assassin, Billy Rocks; and Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s outlaw, Vasquez.

When Fuqua first met with Washington to discuss casting him in “The Magnificent Seven,” the idea instantly intrigued the actor — and not only because his previous collaboration with Fuqua, 2001’s “Training Day,” had been a box-office and critical success, earning him a best actor Oscar.

“You know, you don’t get that many chances to do westerns,” said Washington, who to this day says he has never actually seen the original “Magnificent Seven.” “Hearing Antoine’s enthusiasm about it, I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute.’ ”

In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the issue of diversity has risen to the fore in Hollywood. A recent study by the USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that the film industry has made scant progress in addressing what it calls “pervasive and systematic” inequality both in front of the camera and behind it.

Against that backdrop, the diversity of “The Magnificent Seven” cast has drawn extra attention; at the film’s press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, the director and cast were asked about its significance in the context of the industry as a whole. But Washington says, from his perspective, the diverse cast of “The Magnificent Seven” didn’t come out of any agenda. As he sees it, it only really became an issue when the media started making it one.

“I just think people are always looking for an angle, and that’s an easy angle,” Washington said. “I didn’t really think about that at all. I am who I am. I’m the actor Antoine called to play this part. Then they put a great cast together. We didn’t talk about diversity. That’s something for the town to talk about. We’re in the business of making movies, not talking about what people think about them.”

For Garcia-Rulfo, though, films like “The Magnificent Seven” show that Hollywood is catching up with the times. “I think it’s really important that it’s opening up in this way,” he said. “You can see it in this film or, in the case of Mexicans, we have Diego Luna being one of the leads in the next ‘Star Wars.’ I think that’s really cool because that’s what life is.”

While the subject may not have been discussed much on the set, the notion of creating a more diverse “Magnificent Seven” first came up early in the process when screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto, creator of HBO’s “True Detective,” pitched the idea to the studio execs who were looking to develop the remake. (The film was co-financed by MGM and Columbia Pictures with MGM overseeing production.)

“Nic was the one who instigated the idea: Instead of having a group of Caucasians saving a village of Mexicans, why don’t we have a diverse group of seven?” said Jonathan Glickman, president of MGM’s motion picture group. “Westerns are very tough to make if you can’t find a contemporary spin. At MGM, our goal was always, ‘How does this movie feel modern and current?’ And the cast was always first and foremost on our list.”

As for the casting of Washington, Glickman said, “How do you not cast Denzel if he wants to do any movie? He’s a movie star who’s also a great actor, and it’s rare to find those combinations.”

As blockbuster franchises like “The Fast and the Furious” and “Star Trek” have demonstrated, diversity in casting can be a boon at the box office. “The Magnificent Seven,” which also carries the drawing power of “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Chris Pratt, is expected to easily earn the weekend’s No. 1 spot, with domestic grosses landing somewhere between $35 million and $40 million.

While westerns don’t often perform strongly internationally, the casting of Washington, who has demonstrated strong global appeal for decades, as well as Lee, who is a major star in South Korea, could boost the film’s prospects in that regard.

“[Lee] is incredible in the film and it’s very helpful that he can be a spokesman for it overseas,” Glickman said. “Certainly that comes into the thinking, but only if it makes sense in the movie itself. It never works if it’s just a crass commercial move: ‘Hey, we can open in Brazil if we have this actor in it.’ ”

From a creative perspective, Fuqua didn’t want to force any kind of heavy-handed messages about race on the film. In developing the character of Chisolm, Fuqua and Washington left it up to the audience to decide what meaning, if any, to invest in the fact that he’s African American.

This was no “Blazing Saddles”-type scenario, in which the character’s race was a central plot point. “There’s no Count Basie out there playing,” Washington said with a laugh. “When he walks into the saloon, do people look at him because they don’t know who he is? Because of his color? Because he’s good with a gun? Because they’re afraid of him? Pick one.”

For Sensmeier, who grew up in a small village in Alaska and is making his first appearance in a major movie, playing a Native American as a quietly noble hero in a genre that has so often depicted them as cartoonish savages — and so often used white actors to play them — has its own special significance.

“I’ve been getting support from a lot of different tribes, a lot of different people all over the country,” he said. “People haven’t seen the movie yet, but just the fact that I’m in the trailer — they love it. They think it’s really cool that I’m up there with these big-name stars. I’m very blessed and proud to represent.”

The fact is, the Old West in reality was a far more racially and ethnically mixed place than the one that’s been traditionally been shown in the movies. Depicting that diversity, Fuqua said, is simply a question of historical accuracy.

“The West was quite a bag of tricks,” Fuqua said. “There were people of all colors coming from all around the world. People were coming out to the frontier to stake a claim and build a family. … It was the wild, wild West. It was no-man’s land. It was this romantic dream.”

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