When Josh Faraday — the hard-drinking, hard-gambling gunslinger played by Chris Pratt in The Magnificent Seven — first lays eyes on Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the newest addition to the team of mercenaries of the title, he hollers, “Oh good — we’ve got a Mexican!”
Faraday is a cowboy variant on the lovable dirtbag that Pratt has made his specialty, the kind of guy with a heart of gold and the mouth of a man born two centuries too early to complain about political correctness on Facebook. But that line is less a racial quip than it is a statement of purpose for the movie. Vasquez, a wanted man recruited with the promise of one less bounty hunter on his tail, is, indeed, Mexican. The group’s leader, bounty hunter Chisolm (Denzel Washington), is black. They’re eventually joined by Chinese knife-thrower Billy Rocks (played by Korean megastar Lee Byung-hun) and bow and arrow–wielding Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). The group’s stated function is to protect the small town of Rose Krick from a hammy evil industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), but their stealth reason for being seems to be to allow for an array of faces so diverse on marketing materials they make the Fast & Furious franchise look like a Woody Allen movie.
The Magnificent Seven, like another recent ragtag-band-of-outsiders-saving-the-day movie, Suicide Squad, is an awkward milestone in Hollywood’s ongoing and urgent conversation about representation. As a sheer feat of casting, it feels like it deserves a salute — a $100ish million remake of a 1960 Western (itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1954 Seven Samurai) in which four of the titular seven aren’t white. The Magnificent Seven is quick-shooting, dynamite-blasting evidence that the filmmakers and executives behind it agree that onscreen diversity is important, but not that they understand that diversity might mean something more than simply having characters of color show up. Suicide Squad leaned heavily into stereotypes to fill in its characters — its Japanese woman wielded a katana and wore a mask patterned after her country’s flag, and its Latino man was a heavily tattooed gangbanger. And The Magnificent Seven does the same. Turns out, Faraday’s right: Vasquez really is, as far as his development goes, just the movie’s Mexican.
Billy Rocks is mystifyingly referred to as a “petite fella” by his bestie, the PTSD-shaken sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, who’s played by Ethan Hawke, an actor at most an inch taller than Lee Byung-hun. It’s as if the idea of the character as a deadly but elfin Asian man is more powerful than what the actor who’s been slotted into the part looks like. Red Harvest joins the seven because, as he explains to Chisolm in Comanche, he was given a mystical promise that his path would be different from those of his tribe. Later, in an unintentional echo of a similar bit in Suicide Squad, it’s revealed he’s been able to speak English all along; he hasn't said a word during conversations with these men he’s ready to die with not because he can’t, but because he’s chosen not to. Maybe he’s been wondering what to say to the aging, woolly former tracker Jack Horne, who Vincent D'Onofrio plays with very entertaining and outsized weirdness, and who was a notorious collector of Native scalps, a fact that is seemingly introduced to cause tension between the two characters and yet never does.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, where The Magnificent Seven was the opening night feature, director Antoine Fuqua insisted his choice to remake The Magnificent Seven with so many actors of color was not at all political. “We just wanted to make a good movie together,” the filmmaker said during a press conference. “When I was in a room with MGM and Sony and the producers, we just talked about actors, and I just wanted to see Denzel Washington on a horse. I didn’t think about color or anything; I just thought that would be an event.” It’s a statement that explains a lot about why its ensemble feels like an assemblage of token characters loosed from the background to ride to the rescue of a white frontier settlement. That’s provocative imagery the movie never goes deeper than — never exploring what it would mean for its collection of historically oppressed, sidelined, and discarded men (along with Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen, their female plus-one) to work together and be willing to sacrifice their lives for a community to which they couldn’t belong.
Or maybe, in Fuqua’s world, they could. The race of the stern Chisolm, played by the filmmaker's repeat leading man Denzel Washington, goes uncommented on, even as he strides into all-white spaces and starts giving orders to men who are happy to take them, showing no trace of bigoted resentment. The Magnificent Seven is set not long after the end of the Civil War, with the country having only recently finished tearing itself apart over slavery, and yet that turmoil is made to seem like a fading memory, like the genocide of the Native Americans, like the treatment of the Chinese that will lead to them being federally barred from immigrating into the country not long after. In real life, its characters would have all sorts of reasons to not be welcomed by the people they’re fighting for, and to not get along with each other, but in The Magnificent Seven they’re easily united by the spirit of beating up bullying rich dudes, and by how excellent they look together. Hey, it’s Denzel Washington on a horse — a neat idea, but it’s just for show.