Like most Star Wars geeks, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the December release of The Force Awakens. I’ve been a major Star Wars fan since I was a kid with an R2-D2 trash can in his bedroom, eating C-3PO’s cereal. Despite being thoroughly underwhelmed by the prequel trilogy, from the moment the first trailer landed online this year, I’ve been all-in for this latest installment of the space opera set long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
But I’ve also always been aware that most of my favorite characters in these films I adored growing up didn’t look a thing like me. Generations of black kids grow up rooting for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo—would it be difficult to imagine generations of white kids becoming obsessive Star Wars fans if the main character was a black guy? Impossible to know for sure yet, but we’ve gotten some indicators that speak to the racial divide that’s come to define Hollywood and pop culture, in general.
After the proper trailer for The Force Awakens was released this past spring, some fans balked at black actor John Boyega appearing in a Stormtrooper uniform. The Stormtroopers were all cloned from the same non-black guy, geeks fumed, so it’s impossible for a black guy to be one. Never mind the fact that no one really knew the film’s plot at that point and any number of factors could lead to a black Stormtrooper in a movie set 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi—which itself was set 30-plus years after the prequel trilogy that depicted the Stormtroopers’ origin. This is all very geeky stuff, obviously. But that backlash was racist.
It wasn’t the last one, either. A month ago, the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII began trending on Twitter, started by racist fans objecting to the realization that Boyega’s Finn is the film’s lead character and accusing the film of serving as “anti-white” propaganda.
There’s a famous story about the first Star Wars film told by filmmaker John Landis, director of Animal House and a close friend to George Lucas. “I remember after George Lucas shot Star Wars in London, he showed it to all of us and I said to him after the screening: ‘George, is everybody in outer space white?’”
Indeed, 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope contained an entirely all-white cast, with even the blackest character in the galaxy, Darth Vader, later revealing himself to be a white man with the voice of James Earl Jones. The original film’s astounding lack of diversity is particularly odd considering it was inspired by the events of World War II. Stormtroopers, of course, borrow their name from Nazi stormtroopers, or the Sturmabteilung; the uniforms of Imperial officers like Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin resemble the Wehrmacht; there are entire planets named after famous Germans, like Hoth (see: Hermann Hoth, panzer commander in the German Army) and Kessel, a German term referring to a trapped military force with little chance of escape. The Great Jedi Purge is akin to the Holocaust, and the medal ceremony at the film’s end is lifted straight from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams has continued the trend, admitting that his new batch of villains are also inspired by the Nazis. In discussing how his baddies are related to the fallen Empire, Abrams told Empire magazine, “That all came out of conversations about what would have happened if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again?”
Lucas (sort of) took Landis’s criticism to heart, casting Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in sequel The Empire Strikes Back. And for his oft-derided prequels he went a few steps further, with Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), Senator Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits), and Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), an actor of Maori descent who served as the model for the clone troopers (there were also several racially problematic aliens, but that’s a talk for a different day).
Though all of these characters held significance to the overall Star Wars story, they weren’t exactly central to it. The crux of this galaxy far, far away has been the Skywalker bloodline and the characters closest to it, from Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi to Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn, have mostly been white and male. Everyone else was more or less a plot device to further the white male-centered narrative—not unlike so much Western pop culture, in general.
Star Wars’ historic lack of diversity is held in even harsher relief when you compare it to Gene Roddenberry’s rival franchise, Star Trek, whose TV series debuted in 1966 and prided itself on the Starship Enterprise’s diverse crew—with noteworthy members George Takei and Nichelle Nichols—and even featured television’s first interracial kiss. “Roddenberry’s idea was ‘infinite diversity and infinite combinations’—the Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for Earth, and he wanted to have that represented in the make-up of the cast,” Takei told The Daily Beast.
But Star Trek is more the exception than the rule when it comes to diversity in sci-fi. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner features a famously foreboding urban landscape of the future, where grizzled cops try to control humanlike bio-android replicants, aka “skin jobs.” The replicants represent an oppressed minority in this society, but they’re all aggressively white—though the film does feature Edward James Olmos as a Japanese character with a penchant for origami.
So why should Star Wars fans be angry if the leads aren’t all white? They shouldn’t be. But it’s not hard to understand how the franchise—and sci-fi movies, in general—arrived at this place.
Audiences have gotten very used to these kinds of stories featuring white people at the center of the conflicts, and are very used to caring about white protagonists. As we saw with the first Hunger Games back in 2012, the conditioning that white supremacy has wrought has rendered many resistant to any storytelling that demands the emphasis of non-white actors. Fans voiced their displeasure with the casting of doomed youngster Rue, who was played by biracial actress Amandla Stenberg. The racist tweets from moviegoers subsequently made headlines, revealing just how disgusted (and disgusting) these “fans” were, with tweets that read “why is Rue a little black girl?” and “Call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
In Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books, the character of Rue was written as having “dark skin and eyes,” but apparently these fans hadn’t quite paid attention. However, they didn’t seem to mind blond-haired, blue-eyed Jennifer Lawrence playing a character who’d been described as having “straight black hair” and “olive skin.” But the sentiment was obvious, and it’s also what informed the Star Wars backlash against Boyega:
“We’ve never had to care about brown people in big, white fantasy franchises before—why now?”
This isn’t just a case of pandering to “political correctness”—which seems to be the standard dismissive whenever anyone seeks to broaden the cultural palette of a popular American property. This is about more than just wanting to see yourself represented onscreen. The past two years of unrest in American society is rooted in a generation recognizing how badly we bungled race relations in America’s post-Civil Rights era. This is not a paean for tokenism and no one is begging for black faces. It is simply past time that the films that go on to make billions around the world more accurately reflect the audiences who flock to them—and that means asking the audience to invest in non-white characters, not just recognizing those characters as window dressing or reducing them to facilitators for the main characters. Seeing Uhura on the deck of the Enterprise or Billy Dee Williams flying the Millennium Falcon may have signaled some kind of superficial progress decades ago, but that shouldn’t be the bar that we set for ourselves today. Guys like George Lucas may not have recognized how white their movies were, but we do now.
It’s time to move forward.