(Warning: Spoilers for Dune, both the book and the films)
Though Denis Villeneuve was fairly true to the spectrum portrayed Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, in the casting of his 2021 film of the same name, there was one key change that he made to the main cast of characters– he gender-swapped the role of planetologist Dr. Liet Kynes and cast Black English actor Sharon Duncan Brewster in the role, a move that caught many off-guard (and apparently irked some fans). Personally, I find this casting to be perfect, not just because it better reflects our modern society, but because of what Kynes’ role on Arrakis is, and what that means to the native population of the Fremen.
Let’s start by defining Kynes’s role. She is the imperial planetologist who was assigned to oversee the maintenance of Arrakis some twenty years before the book/film opens. Her job is to study the desert planet’s ecological systems and ensure that it remains in balance. It would be nice to think that the emperor has a mind to conserve Arrakis’ environment, its wildlife, and people, but as Arrakis is the only planet in the universe where the spice melange can be found, and as the spice is critical to the survival of the empire, imperial concerns regarding Arrakis are less conservation-minded and more commercial. Thus, the brutal Harkonnen family has spent eighty years brutalizing the native people and squeezing the planet for every last bit of spice it can yield, and the empire is just fine with this. After all, the spice must flow.
Kynes has ‘gone native’, though. She has fallen in love with Arrakis and fallen in with the Fremen, taken up their ways, and, thanks to her knowledge of ecology and terraforming systems, has become a spiritual leader, of a sort. This is where Villeneuve’s casting adds a layer of in-world meaning to Kynes’s role.
See, the sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit has spent centuries and more developing prophecies and superstitions among the peoples of the various planets of the empire. These stories, the Missionaria Protectiva, provided the Bene Gesserit a means of finding refuge and/or power if they found themselves stranded on a strange world. If the local culture told Story B, the Bene Gesserit sister would know that Section B of the Missionaria Protectiva had been implanted there, and that she needed only to recite certain phrases or stories from Section B to find a place among the people.
The Fremen of Arrakis had a selection of stories laid down by the Bene Gesserit in ages past which, when blended with the necessities of life on the desert world, led to a religious system led by women who called their leaders Reverand Mothers (just like the Bene Gesserit), used the spice in their religious practices to gain a sort of precognition, and awaited the Lisan al’Gaib, the voice from the outworld who will show the Fremen the path to freedom.
The book, the 1984 David Lynch film, and the 2001 Sci-Fi channel miniseries all make it plain that Paul Atreides is the prophesied figure. Villeneuve’s film points strongly in that direction, too, with Fremen calling out “Lisan al-Gaib” when Paul first steps foot on the sands of Arrakis.
But I think the casting of Sharon Duncan Brewster, a Black woman, in the role can add nuance to a straightforward narrative.
With Kynes and Paul, we have two people who each fulfill parts of an implanted prophecy, and who promise the Fremen a path to paradise if they only do what the offworlder says. Paul asks for Fremen aid to help him make a bid for the imperial throne after which, he claims he will be able to make Arrakis into a paradise with a wave of his hand. How he’ll do this is a mystery- presumably by throwing resources as rapid terraforming (which doesn’t end up going well for anyone). Kynes also provides a path to paradise, but her way is slower. Much slower. She has shown the Fremen how to gather the waters of Arrakis into underground reservoirs, how to stabilize dunes by carefully cultivating certain grasses, and how to hide their work by forbidding the use of satellites above the deep desert. This path will take generations to achieve its goal, but the Fremen are a patient people with a long, long memory. They’re initially willing to wait as they see the sense in Kynes’s methods and they see that she loves Arrakis and respects them.
As the years pass and Kynes integrates more and more into the deep desert community of Sietch Tabr, her influence grows and the Fremen begin to call her ‘Liet’. She’s still a voice for the emperor, but she also becomes a powerful figure among the Fremen– to the point where she has become a leader of leaders on Arrakis. This is particularly remarkable because traditionally, men become leaders through challenges to the death. That Liet Kynes became a leader to the Fremen without having to challenge anyone– and without challenging their power structure– points to Kynes’s importance in the Fremen’s religious life while making the gender-swapped role make even more sense. Fremen men have temporal power on Arrakis, but the women govern their religion and culture. Only women can convert the Water of Life from the poison it was to the prescience-granting drug it becomes. Only women have access to the genetic memories of the Fremen themselves. It makes sense that a woman, a voice from the out-world, could gain power and influence thanks to the promise of a path to paradise. It also makes sense that a woman and not a man could gain power without having to engage in combat; after all, no one may challenge a Sayyadina (a junior-level religious figure among the Fremen) to a duel.
Dr. Liet Kynes, as a woman, has a clearer path to power and influence than she did as a man, thanks to Fremen beliefs and cultural structures.
Did Denis Villeneuve have this in mind when he cast Sharon Duncan Brewster in this role? Probably not. But the novel Dune did not shy away from the notion that even the Kwisatz Haderach, the chosen one, could have been filled by multiple players. Paul became a Kwisatz Haderach, but his arrival was a generation early. The Harkonnen heir Feyd Rautha is portrayed as a dark mirror to Paul; could he have become a Kwisatz Haderach had circumstances been different? Count Fenring could have been a Kwisatz Haderach, save for a quirk of genetics. Had Jessica followed the Bene Gesserit’s orders and given birth to a daughter, that daughter would have been the mother of the Kwisatz Haderach. So many possibilities, and discussing them is part of what makes Dune so fascinating.
And so pondering whether Liet Kynes, as played by a Black woman, could have been the Fremen’s longed-for Lisan al-Gaib (or at least provides a less destructive alternative to what Paul will bring) adds to the appeal of Denis Villeneuve’s vision of Dune. If Villeneuve had such a thing in mind, I have yet to hear about it. But the possibilities are fascinating.