Everything Zendaya Does As Chani in ‘Dune’ (2021)

Photo: Chia Bella James/Warner Bros.

Zendaya opens and closes Dune. You hear her before you see anything onscreen. And at the movie’s end, it’s her character who tells Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, “This is only the beginning.” Her presence as Chani, the Fremen warrior whose fate is intertwined with Paul’s, doubles as promotion for both this film (in interview after interview, Zendaya and Chalamet talk about how they became “best friends” in the four days she was on set in Jordan) and its promised sequel. Her last line itself is marketing copy — stay tuned.

The film, which premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on October 22, calls itself “Part One.” Though director Denis Villeneuve only agreed to work with Warner Bros. if the studio guaranteed two films, between pandemic delays and studio logistics, part two still doesn’t have a green light or a script. Consider this then both a spoiler and a PSA: Zendaya really only spends about seven minutes in Dune, including her voice-over. (That’s being generous — she officially clocked in at six minutes and 14 seconds during my admittedly rudimentary test watching with a stopwatch.)

Fans have been Zendaya-fished by studios before. Spider-Man: Homecoming had the audacity to position her as the next MTV Movie & TV Awards Best Kiss winner, only to leave her MJ out of the majority of the movie. Adding insult to injury, they also gave her a lower billing than Gwyneth Paltrow, who really only had a cameo. Zendaya is a great actress, but it’s hard to watch her being sidelined when you know she’d be an incredible hero in her own franchise. She’s been going mononymously since she was a teen, when she already had so much star power she was out of orbit before her contract with Disney was even up. Dune allows her to be a more complete version of any of her past characters: a fighter (Euphoria), a lover (The Greatest Showman), a dream girl (Malcolm and Marie). But as you’ll read below, she isn’t allowed to do much with it so far.

Dune handles its race-blind casting casually, thanks to the plot’s futuristic space setting. But we should be past the point where it’s remarkable to see a light-skinned Black woman as a love interest. Especially one with a résumé as stacked as Zendaya’s, who should have their pick of auteurs like her co-star Chalamet does. Instead, she’s used to create hype for expensive franchises — doing more press for Dune than those with much larger roles. Studios are lucky Zendaya stans are ride or die. For those of us who want to get to the good stuff, we broke down every moment you see Zendaya onscreen in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune.

  • Like she does in all three official trailers, Zendaya opens the film. You hear her explain the premise — the colonization of Chani’s native planet Arrakis, which is mined for its powerful psychedelic “spice.” “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low. Rolling over the sands, you can see spice in the air. The outsiders ravage our lands in front of our eyes,” she says over shots of Chani battling in the sand dunes alongside Fremen. “Their cruelty to my people is all I’ve known.” Maybe we got spice in our eyes, but it’s actually not clear if Chani’s narration here is part of one of Paul Atreides’s dreams or something just for the audience. It’s weird that he’d have a premonition about facts as basic to humans in the year 10191 as putting gas in a car is to us back in 2021.
  • Our first glimpse at Dream Chani will probably look familiar. We’ve seen most of the dream sequences already in the trailers. But they’re new to Paul Atreides, who tells his mom, Jessica, about them. Raised in the sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, she possesses a power to control others with the Voice and she’s teaching it to her son. The prescient dreams have something to do with all that, but we’re not really supposed to know it yet. In the visions, Chani is backlit by sun, her blue eyes drawing all the focus. She’s aloof yet beguiling, slowly pulling Paul toward Arrakis.
  • Before he and his family leave their home planet, they’re visited by the head reverend of the Bene Gesserit, who wants to know more about these dreams — after she tortures him a little bit. She doesn’t actually have much to say about the dreams, but we are treated to flashes of Chani in traditional Fremen clothes. Timmy — I mean, Paul — learns that his existence is part of a Bene Gesserit prophecy to create a fabled, all-powerful messiah.
  • And when he goes to sleep, he dreams of getting close enough to almost kiss Chani, then being stabbed.
  • Then, a lot of really spoiler-y things happen that don’t involve Zendaya. Rude. Not going to mention them gratuitously because we respect that the story is new to many, despite the other film adaptations and the expanded book series that still publishes new installments to this day. Anybody who read the book(s) will eagerly let you know that Chani doesn’t, in fact, have a major role in this part. They might even say her role in part two will be so big, it’ll make up for it. If that’s the case, a little set-up would be appreciated. There’s more foreshadowing about Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Harkonnen than there is about Chani’s backstory. It would take a Midnight Sun retelling of these two hours and 35 minutes to make up for the lost opportunities. The film might have even benefited from having half of the story told from her perspective as a Fremen, if anything, just to better inform new viewers, who have even less info than Paul.
  • The dreams make Paul more terrified than ever about his fate. He sees bodies burning, flames singeing the sands of Arrakis, and he can hear people chanting his name. Chani’s standing next to him, but it’s unclear whose side she’s on.
  • Navigating the desert, the spice triggers visions (future memories?) of Chani guiding him through rocks. Here, she’s friendly and open. They almost feel like friends.
  • In reality, Chani opens with a threat. During a standoff between Paul Atreides and her crew, he thinks he has the upper ground until they call a truce. Chani sneaks up from behind and says she wouldn’t have let him get away with it. Ouch. That’s why they call it a crush, Paul. Unlike Paul’s made-up version of her, the real Chani has a permanent scowl. She carries herself in a sturdier way and speaks in blunt sentences. To Zendaya’s credit, the distance between her performance in the dreams and in reality is clear, emphasizing Chani’s distrust of otherworlders.
  • Before he’s accepted into her group of Fremen, one of them (played by Babs Olusanmokun) challenges him to a duel. Even as Chani does something nice, offering him her ancestor’s knife — a crysknife made from the tooth of a sandworm — it’s with the sting that she could not care less about Paul Atreides. It would be a great honor for him, she says, to die holding a sword like that. It’s at this point that fans might realize we don’t even know Chani’s last name yet. Apparently, it’s a spoiler that Chani Kynes is the daughter of Liet Kynes, Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s gender-swapped character, who loses her life saving Paul. It’s a small detail that easily could’ve been thrown in to make several moments featuring Black actresses all the more meaningful to the storyline.
  • Fine, Paul can live. Chani isn’t impressed that he wins the battle, but rather amused at his total naïvité to life on Arrakis. The film ends as they descend upon a Fremen community like nothing he’s ever seen before. “This is only the beginning,” Chani turns to tell a stunned Paul Atreides. For Zendaya fans, that couldn’t be truer.

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