Nearly 40 years ago, a franchise set a long time ago, hailing from a galaxy far, far away, brought a magical, life-changing masterpiece to fans around the world. George Lucas constructed a compelling story about a mystical force, and a powerful lineage, set in a futuristic, science fiction universe with special effects and inventive ideas that were light years ahead of its time. We quickly came to love the characters and sympathize with the hearts of those oppressed by the tyranny of a dogmatic Empire. We held out hope for the rebellion and young Skywalker. We feared the Emperor and the Dark Lord Vader. The pure spectacle of it captured people regardless of age, gender or ethnic background and still, somehow, in all of its wonder, the original trilogy failed to accurately represent the full demographic of its fans. Work needs to be done. However, I am delighted to say that it has already, very well begun.
The original trilogy had a single diversely colored character, whom I sure we can all name without skipping a beat. Not many people can forget the smooth talking, credit gambling ruler of Cloud City, Lando Calrissian. Aside from that, the most notable role is of course the voice of Darth Vader, which is performed by the critically acclaimed James Earl Jones. This fact also stirred some controversy concerning the exclusion of black presence in the films, as to whether or not the lack of visual performance by this black man was intentional. But let’s be honest, Darth Vader is hardly ever seen out of that machine of a suit anyways.
Still, this brings to mind the character Maz Kanata, who is played by the beautiful Lupita Nyong’o who prior to Star Wars, was well known for the 1950’s set African America drama 12 Years a Slave. The inclusion of black women on screen, especially dark black women, is a sore area for Hollywood. This is not to say that her role was slighted in any way or that she didn’t perform well, but one could wonder whether or not she would’ve been considered for a roll that showed her, as opposed to the CGI animated character that she played.
As far as women in the original trilogy, the only person of note is Leia, but she does prove to be a strong character, and continue to do so over the years. The problem is that she is pretty much the only notable female character, and she still doesn’t play the main hero. That’s not a requirement of course, but initially she looks as if she is the cliché damsel, considering the fact that she starts off in A New Hope being saved by knights in shiny cortosis armor. Fortunately, we see her quickly grab a blaster and start taking out more troopers alongside Han and Luke. She quickly establishes her lack of patience for nonsense and shatters the stereotypes (especially in the 70s!) concerning what the world thought a woman should be.
When the prequels arrived, we finally started to see some color. On Naboo many of the Royal Security were people of color, the most notable of them being Captain Panaka and Captain Typho. We also come to find Bail Organa of Alderaan, who took in infant Leia after her birth, was a person of color. Mace Windu played by Samuel L. Jackson is the most notable black person on the council, and he holds a position of power that is second to only Yoda, who is a shriveled, green alien who cares nothing of human ethnicity. Among the council are also Jedi such as Adi Galia, Stass Allie, and Depa Billaba whose skin glows with the beauty of melanin.
Given that Star Wars is universe full of races other than human, we also tend to find aliens with features, personalities, and clothing representative of diverse culture. Twi’lek’s and Togruta for example, both have features and markings that draw from Native America, African, and Islander cultures. Kit Fisto, the Nautolan Jedi Master, though green with gills, has clear Rastafarian features as told primarily by the majestic spill of tentacles from his head, closely resembling dreadlocks. The Mirialian Jedi Luminara Unduli, and Barriss Offee have features, markings and clothing representing Middle Eastern Culture, and the former (though only appearing briefly) not only looks like a black woman in features, but is played by one in Episodes II and III. Unfortunately, other than Mace, no characters of color are front runners even he has minimal screen time), and no women aside from Padme, have much of a powerful role.
As we all know that changed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley is our main protagonist, and the transformative feminist lead that we need right now. She is a scavenger, a fighter, a pilot, and soon to be a Jedi. Her main supporting character is Finn or FN-2187 (love that cell reference!), played by Black English actor, John Boyega, and his new best bro is Poe Dameron, played by Hispanic actor Oscar Isaac! Now I’m excited.
What’s more is that they don’t stop there. The new Star Wars films seamlessly, and naturally integrate a medley of races and sexes with a multitude of characters including (but certainly not limited to) Korr Sela, Captain Phasma, Tasu Leech, Razoo Quin-Fee, Admiral Statura, and Jess Pava. Look these people up! I write about this, and specifically Star Wars because I feel that it has been the only fandom on as big a scale to (almost) capture the vision that we are looking for when it comes to diversity. They aren’t done yet either.
Rogue One, premiering in just a few months on December 16, 2016, has a whole host of diverse characters, once again lead by a strong female actress. Jyn Erso will be played by Felicity Jones, and though we don’t know much about her, we do know that she’s leading the mission to find a means to take on the Death Star. Furthermore, front running actors such as Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, and Forest Whitaker will be playing main characters in the movie! Again, this is a blatant challenge to the rest of Hollywood out there to include previously marginalized ethnic groups, and represent without obvious tokenism. Where it started off a simple white, Star Wars has evolved into a rainbow of color and is standing up to the status quo with powerful women leaders.
But alas, there is still one thing that the films can’t seem to do, right along with the rest of Hollywood. We need love for black women. We need a black woman feature, and we don’t need her in a ten second sideline role either. It is very rare that we can get a black woman placed into a major leading role in a non-ethnic based film, and almost impossible to get a dark skinned black woman there. This needs to change. Star Wars has been pushing diversity on all fronts. Even comics and novels have featured characters of color. There are black women in the Star Wars universe. Korr Sela, Leia’s assistant, has been one of very few to make it on screen (and spoiler she dies). Nakari Kellen was featured in Heir to the Jedi (and spoiler SHE dies). Sana Solo was revealed to be Han’s wife in the main run of Star Wars comics, and in several Star Wars novels we see Rae Sloan rise to the role of Grand Admiral of the Empire. There are options. Either some of these characters can be utilized, or new ones can be made, but if diversity is capable of working for everyone else, it can work for our black women too.
In the future, I have faith that Star Wars will reconcile this major issue, and continue to move forward on its path with hiring actors other than white males for major roles, while striving for inclusion and representation for multiple ethnic backgrounds and cultures. I’m anxious to see the cast for Episode VIII, and the newly announced Han Solo movie, and beyond that, what even Episode IX will have in store for us. Perhaps the most powerful of the Knights of Ren will be a black woman that even Michonne would be jealous of? Who knows? But looking at the future I hope that Hollywood and other industries take note of what Star Wars is doing and strive to do better themselves, so that we may possibly move forward and make this dream of accurately representative entertainment, a reality.