We Need to Talk About Star Wars
By Jackie McGriff
And not just because it's Star Wars Day (#MayTheFourthBeWithYou) or because the person writing this is a total geek. But it's because the most recent saga is a prime example of a much larger issue in Hollywood.
Multifaceted and accurate representation, if you weren't already aware, is something that we deeply care about and, while the industry itself likes to boast that it's featuring more diversity in its cast and crew, it's not just about having a more diverse cast in front of (and behind) the camera, but it's also about actively resisting and intentionally writing and shooting narratives that don't perpetuate negative stereotypes that already exist out there due to America's deeply rooted problem of racism affecting our society.
It turns out that when you build a country on white supremacy, it seeps into all of our institutions.
The other thing that we constantly see is that if one of the central characters happens to be Black, Brown, or Indigenous, they are not fully fleshed out characters or not given much to do other than serve as a checked box in the eyes of the studios or as help for the development for their white counterparts.
Imprinted in my head forever is the trailer for The Force Awakens and how seeing that trailer made me feel. I was 6 years old again watching Star Wars for the first time.
And then up pops up John Boyega - a Black stormtrooper and I couldn't help but think about how nice it was to see another Black person (since Lando and Windu) in this franchise and what it also might mean to have a Black person's story at the center of a greater saga. (Is it really asking that much?) I mean, this meant that Boyega would be the first Black lead actor in a Star Wars film.
And then the next 2 movies happened.
In The Force Awakens, we find out that he was forcibly taken from his family to become part of the New Order. We see him refusing to kill innocent people at the command of Kylo Ren and wanting to escape it all, runs away only to be faced with a decision to join the resistance and embrace his potential. Or so I thought. Instead, his character is reduced to shouting "REYYYYYY!" for 2 movies. No character development, no deeper dives into his past, and nothing that points to his future. Nothing. In fact, in a 2020 interview with British GQ, Boyega spoke candidly about the racism and harassment he faced from some fans (the Twitter and Instagram fans know), as well as his disappointment with how Finn's storyline was handled in the trilogy. "What I would say to Disney is do not bring out a Black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are, and then have them pushed to the side," he said.
And sure, he provides some comic relief, but it further proves how Black characters are often given the side role as that supportive friend, the comic relief, and/or that character that we're introduced to in the beginning and not fully fleshed out.
And it wasn't just Boyega. Kelly Marie Tran, who we're introduced to in The Last Jedi as the character of Rose Tico in the same trilogy, also faced racist and sexist harassment from fans, which ultimately led her to delete her social media accounts. Like Boyega, Tran's character was underdeveloped and poorly written.
A few others to note - particularly with Black women in the franchise:
Jannah in The Rise of Skywalker - a new character portrayed by Naomi Ackie who's introduced in the last film of the saga. Arguably, while it's understood that she was always going to be a side character, it's unclear as to whether or not she was supposed to be there to encourage Finn in some way. If so, it comes too late in the franchise. It feels...OFF. There could've been so much more to her character.
Moses Ingram who portrays Reva in the Disney+ series, Obi-Wan, received a lot of racist
and sexist backlash online on top of remarks made against her character. Although I appreciated the cast and those behind the social media accounts for Star Wars releasing a statement, you'd think that Disney would've learned that this kind of hateful rhetoric is to be expected, especially considered what happened with Boyega.
Lupita Nyong'o portrays Maz Kanata, a computer generated character. She's the only other Black (and Latina) actress and yet we only hear her voice. I actually really enjoyed her performance, but I couldn't help but think about how larger fantasy and science fiction franchises have often placed a majority of the Black actors involved in a film in roles where they're hidden or portraying someone who's not human (orcs from Lord of the Rings, Na'vi in Avatar and Avatar 2).
I also want to note that while Donald Glover's portrayal of Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story was widely praised by fans and critics alike, his character was already well established in the original Star Wars saga. Likewise, Oscar Isaac's portrayal of Poe Dameron has been well-received and his role clearly defined.
Overall, however, our Black and Brown actors and their character deserve better. Representation, again isn't just about putting Black and Brown (and where are our Indigenous actors for these films, y'all?!) people in roles as cast and crew, but it's also about giving them fully thought-out characters and storylines to work with. Otherwise, you're just filling a quota and you can stop calling yourselves an institution committed to diversity and inclusion. I'm calling BS.
Off to watch the BEST Star Wars film. Rogue One. (I SAID what I SAID)