The first teaser poster for Solo: A Star Wars Story has been released, and let’s just say the response hasn’t been overwhelming. Or at the very least, my response isn’t overwhelming.
I’m not sure if it’s the Photoshop treatment, the color scheme (yellow’s not my favorite color), or just how the actors don’t really seem to be nailing their looks in this image, but the whole effect is just one that screams “This movie was salvaged.” Perhaps it’s also the background drama that’s surrounded this film, what with Phil Lord and Chris Miller being fired and replaced with Ron Howard.
You can read all about Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy’s reasons for firing Lord and Miller here, but what it ultimately came down to was a lack of directorial leadership amongst Lord and Miller and a mismatch between Lucasfilm’s well-oiled machine way of doing things and Lord and Miller’s more improvisational style of directing. Innovation is great, but all that admirable innovation goes out the window if you’re someone who’s not a team player. But overall, I feel like Kennedy and Lucasfilm are probably viewing this film as the new Star Wars franchise’ first big bust.
Another thing that’s infuriating to the nth degree is how there’s another brunette woman in a Star Wars film.
With respect to Our Lady of Star Wars Carrie Fisher, we need to tally up the amount of brunettes there have been in this franchise, counting Emilia Clarke (who will play someone named Kira).
Now let’s count how many women of color have been in Star Wars leading roles, including Thandie Newton (who is in this movie as a main character, but that character is shrouded in secrecy–in this photo set, she’s shown in her role in Westworld).
In short, that’s too many brunettes and too few WOC.
I’m quite sure there’s a reason Star Wars typically casts brunettes in their films; it’s to honor the first Star Wars brunette, Princess Leia. But that odd nod to Leia is only undercutting Lucasfilm’s focus to diversity. I’ve already written at length about Star Wars’ issues with WOC representation, and I’d basically be repeating myself, so I’ll just link my post here. Basically, the problem is simple: How can you have a universe full of aliens and creatures and not have a universe equally as full with people of color, especially women of color? To alter Whitney Houston’s famous lyric, It’s not right, and it’s not okay. But we’re gonna make it anyway (because that’s what women of color do).
There are two things that give me hope for SOLO: A Star Wars Story eeking out a minor win.
1. Lucasfilm do actually use WOC writers: As profiled by The New York Times, the head of Lucasfilm’s story group is Kiri Hart, a former TV and film writer and woman of color. Again, to tout Kennedy’s feminist-centric way of running Lucasfilm, Kennedy is the one who installed Hart in this seat of power.
Hart’s first act as story group head was to give female points of view a voice, and indeed she has. She’s also given women of color particular power in an industry that aims to silence them. To quote the Times:
“Today, the Lucasfilm story group is a diverse outlier in Hollywood: five of its members are people of color, and the team includes four women and seven men. This is a rarity in 2017, where women account for 13 percent, and minorities represent 5 percent, of all writers working on the top-grossing films. In addition to maintaining the continuity of the ‘Star Wars’ universe, they aim to increase its diversity.”
I don’t know if the casting branch and the writer’s branch work together at all—it can be hard to know exactly where one set of red tape ends and where another set begins. It’s also unclear if the casting decisions were left up to Lord and Miller. But regardless, hearing that there’s diversity behind the scenes gives me hope of seeing more well-rounded women of color grace the big screen soon. It also gives me hope that other marginalized people will be represented as well. You probably already know how much I talk about Stormpilot, and it’s for a reason; it’s because the LGBT community must be represented as well as women of color. Knowing that a diverse group is behind the Star Wars writing process gives added credence to Kennedy’s assertion that the fandom pairing is actually being considered as a legitimate avenue for exploration.
2. Thandie Newton is a main character; we just don’t know who she is: What has got some Solo followers upset is the rumor that several women of color tried out for Clarke’s role, with the role ultimately going to Clarke. What many WOC Star Wars fans hoped was that the role was Sana Starros, Han Solo’s former wife, and the worry is that Clarke’s role is of a whitewashed Sana. According to The Hollywood Reporter as of 2016, it’s unclear if Clarke’s role is actually the same one the other actresses—Tessa Thompson, Adria Arjona, and Zoe Kravitz—tried out for. Also, since Lucasfilm does have one of the most diverse writers’ rooms in Hollywood right now, one would hope that they wouldn’t make this kind of mistake.
However, we just might have our first clue as to who Newton is playing. In a September set photo featuring Newton and Howard, Newton is wearing a jacket with a mysterious-looking patch. SlashFilm’s Jacob Hall has surmised that the patch just might be an Imperial one, meaning Newton could be playing none other than Imperial naval officer Rae Sloane. If that’s the case, then Newton’s character will be a much-welcomed sight in the Star Wars universe.
— Ron Howard (@RealRonHoward) September 30, 2017
Granted, there’s the critique that could be made that the first prominent black diasporic woman we’ve seen in a major Star Wars role is evil. But again, we don’t know who Newton is playing for sure. For all we know, she is actually playing Sana, who just happens to be wearing an Imperial jacket as some sort of subterfuge.
This was a lot of words on a teaser poster I hate, but there you have it. What do you think about Solo: A Star Wars Story? Give your opinions below!
The Last Jedi is testing the patience of some Stormpilot uberfans, who are debating if this new chapter in the new Star Wars saga advances or hinders the fandom-supported Stormpilot romance. I’ve got my opinions on it, which I’ll divulge later on once we’re out of spoiler fever.
But discussing Stormpilot brings up the very insurmountable fact that Star Wars has yet to truly bring LGBT representation to the forefront in a meaningful way. Rian Johnson, who co-wrote and directed The Last Jedi, has been intensely aware of Stormpilot, so much so that he’s actually retweeted fanart and fandom conversation about Finn and Poe’s speculated relationship. He’s also made sure to say he’s in support of LGBT characters in Star Wars. In fact, both Johnson and J.J. Abrams, the producer behind the new Star Wars films as well as the directors of both The Force Awakens and the upcoming Episode 9, have championed introducing LGBT characters into the films. But will that happen in the current Star Wars storyline or will it be more apparent in the next trilogy Johnson’s supposed to helm?
Until we know the absolute answer, one thing’s for sure–same-sex pairings and fandom-made representation have been a huge part of Star Wars since the beginning. With fans getting more and more restless, it’s only a matter of time before pairings move out of the realm of fandom and into the realm of canon. In fact, the pairings featured below are so well known by many that they might as well have their own movies devoted to them.
Here’s how I’m ranking them in terms of how canonical they are in the Star Wars franchise (with their rank affected by cast and crew interviews, actors’ intentions behind the characters, and fandom acceptance). Some issues to discuss first–it would have been fun to be able to include some female same-sex pairings in this list, but Star Wars is still a male-dominated story, unfortunately. There still isn’t enough focus on women, even though that’s growing thanks to this new crop of movies. Second, this list is only focusing on pairings that are in the movies. I’ve heard about Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) possibility being a queer character in the Star Wars books. But we don’t see that in The Last Jedi. I’m only going by what I’ve seen in the films.
4. Han Solo and Lando Calrissian
I haven’t seen much chatter about this slash pairing ever, but I know it exists. How can it not? Han and Lando are frenemies who go way back, have had tons of adventures together, and definitely have a past we don’t know about at all. Also, as this Dreamwidth user wrote in 2003, Lando trusts Han enough to give him his Millennium Falcon.
Personally, I don’t see it, but that doesn’t mean others can’t. And it also doesn’t mean I can’t be swayed–with Solo: A Star Wars Story coming out next year, I’m sure there’s going to be enough slashable content for those who love this pairing. In any event, the film will allow Lando’s characterization to get fleshed out beyond “that cool black guy who sold Han and Leia out to Darth Vader.” He can still be cool, but I hope he gets more of a solid backstory this go-round.
3. Finn and Poe Dameron
It might seem ludicrous that I’m ranking Stormpilot at number three, when big chunks of both this website and my Twitter account have been devoted to Finn and Poe’s relationship. Here’s my reasoning; it’s not that I don’t think Stormpilot can’t happen. It’s also not even that I think the cast doesn’t support it; with the way Oscar Isaac is always talking up Stormpilot in interviews, I think he’d be down. Even John Boyega, who hasn’t really drunken the Stormpilot Kool-Aid, seems to have at least partially come around to the idea of anything being possible, conceding to Radio Times in 2016 “you never know what they [the writers] are going to pull.” The reason I’m ranking Stormpilot so low is that it’s tough to see which way the wind is blowing on Stormpilot in relation to what the Lucasfilm brass think.
Regardless of what writers and directors might want to do with Stormpilot’s potential, the buck stops with Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy. As of last year, Kennedy gave a longwinded answer to Ecartelera that simply amounts to “I’m undecided.”
We’ve talked about it, but I think you’re not going to see it in The Last Jedi,” she said. “In the next six or eight months we will have some meetings about the stories that we will develop next… After 40 years of adventures, people have a lot of information and a lot of theories about the path these stories can take, and sometimes those theories that come up are new ideas for us to listen to, read and pay attention to.
What can be gleaned is that right now, folks at Lucasfilm and Disney are hashing out whether they want to invest in the Stormpilot idea. With fan pressure mounting, plus directors already giving their blessing to LGBT characters and, in a way, forcing Disney’s hand on the matter of LGBT representation, the answer as to whether to include queer characters in Star Wars has already been decided for the joint company; it’s just a matter of deciding if Finn and Poe are who they want to spearhead that initiative.
From my perspective, there’s one moment in The Last Jedi that shows that Johnson did give a small nod to Stormpilot, despite romance not featuring heavily in this installment. Will other fans pick up on that moment? I don’t know. But regardless, Stormpilot is still firmly in fanon territory right now.
2. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker
The fandom for the Han Solo and Luke Skywalker pairing is only comparable to the other OG slash pairing in the stars, Star Trek‘s Spock and Kirk.
Fanlore is a great resource for learning about the history of the Han/Luke (or “Skysolo”) pairing, but just to quickly sum it up, Skysolo has been around since the 1970s and 1980s, even though the majority of the fan projects were published in the 1990s (due to Lucasfilm classifying slash pairing fanworks as “adult” and prohibited the adult content in their official fanzines). Whether passed around privately or published publicly, the allure of Skysolo has been a part of the Star Wars culture, and, like the Kirk/Spock slash pairing, it’s also been a part of fan skirmishes.
One fan in the 1980s complained about Skysolo slash fiction being “a sub-genre without a home.”
“Is the influence of the infamous Lucasfilm brouhaha still so widespread? It certainly suppressed “straight” sexually-explicit SW fanfic; only now are we beginning to see that come out of the closet (“‘groan! ‘” bad pun!). I’m not saying I want to see SW fandom go through the kind of schism and upheaval that K/S [Kirk/Spock fanfiction] wrought on ST fandom; but I’m curious why SW slash, even though it’s being written–and written by some extremely good writers–isn’t finding a publisher. Are we still looking over our shoulder for The Men From Lucasfilm? Or do we think no one out there will buy and read it…heh – heh- heh- you know they they’ll buy and read it!”
Nowadays, it’s found its place in the open world of slash fandom, and speculation over Luke’s sexuality prompted Hamill himself to speak out in favor of Luke being gay or bisexual.
“…[F]ans are writing and ask all these questions, ‘I’m bullied in school… I’m afraid to come out’. They say to me, ‘Could Luke be gay?'” said Hamill to The Sun in 2016, according to Vanity Fair. I’d say it is meant to be interpreted by the viewer… If you think Luke is gay, of course he is. You should not be ashamed of it. Judge Luke by his character, not by who he loves.”
So, in one way, Luke’s queerness could be considered canon. But frustratingly, it still keeps characters in a gray area; they are whatever the fans want them to be. This strategy has been employed with Poe as well, with Oscar Isaac saying how he’s happy Poe can act as representation to so many different people and different sexual spectrums. Even so, Hamill allowing Luke to be representative of LGBT fans gives more credence to the theory that Luke developed a crush on Han during their time together. Han might be a scoundrel, but who wouldn’t develop a crush on him?
1. Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus
Chirrut and Baze get the top spot because their relationship is, to me, the one that was the most apparently “married” in the canon of Rogue One. Yes, if you’re so inclined, you can choose to see their relationship as that of brothers, but from where I’m sitting, their level of comfort with each other was that of two people who are friends and also happen to be more than friends. I mean, a good romantic relationship does start from friendship, does it not?
Their comfort with each other has been supported by fans, who deem them the old married couple of Star Wars. And once again, the people behind the characters chimed in to say that the fans’ theories aren’t necessarily wrong.
As Rogue One director Gareth Edwards told Buzzfeed, while the Chirrut and Baze being a couple wasn’t the original intention, if fans want to see that as canon, they’re more than welcome to. Much of Edwards’ opinion comes from Donnie Yen’s own perception of Chirrut and Baze’s relationship.
Yen, who portrayed Chirrut in Rogue One, reportedly felt like there was more to his and Baze’s relationship than the script initially let on. As Edwards said:
“After a while, it was something that became interesting. Donnie asked, ‘What do you think these guys are? What do you think their relationship really is?’ And he asked if that was the case. I felt like, ‘You know what? If these were real people and I was filming them, I wouldn’t know. It’s not something we would see; they would keep it to themselves.’ For all I know, a little bit of that might be going on under the surface…Genuinely, if the audience wants to take that away from it, I’m very happy. I’d be very proud to have brought something like that to Star Wars.”
For me, this makes Chirrut and Baze the most canonical same-sex pairing Star Wars has right now. Their relationship is one that wasn’t solely defended after the film’s release; it was also one that was developed as the actors were fleshing out their characters. That means that much of their interactions were–or at least Yen’s–were calculated to read as “married.” That’s what makes Chirrut and Baze one of the most compelling parts of Rogue One.
Honorable mention: C3PO and R2D2
R2D2 and C3PO are here as honorable mention because…they’re robots. But if you even have a passing knowledge of Star Wars, then you’ll know the running joke is that C3PO and R2D2 are the “first gay characters” in Star Wars. Or, at least, C3PO is the “first gay character” in Star Wars. But with the advent of actual queer humans in Star Wars, this running joke can be put to rest, since 1) I don’t know if R2D2 really likes C3PO like that anyways (seems like he merely tolerates him and is merely comfortable with C3PO’s nagging) and 2) robots in Star Wars don’t exhibit the capability of having romantic love anyways. If we cross the streams and invoke Philip K. Dick’s Voight-Kampff test, the robots of Star Wars recognize that they are in service of their human masters and are comfortable with that reality. Even though exhibit have wit, sarcasm, fear, pride, happiness, and even anger, Star Wars robots never go beyond their programming to advocate for robot rights and free will.
What do you think about this ranking? What pairings would you add to this list? Give your opinions below!
I’ve seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and like the majority (save for a handful of fans, who I’ll have words about later on once spoiler fever has died down), I absolutely loved the film. The storyline and its more cerebral themes were amazing and refreshing–as SyFy Fangrrls/SyFyWire contributing editor Carly Lane wrote on Twitter, this is the most cerebral Star Wars film yet–and the introductions of new characters such as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and DJ (Benecio Del Toro) were organic and fun. It’s as if these characters have been around since the beginning.
Rose is also one of the characters that reminded me how little women of color are shown in Star Wars and how I wish I, as a black woman, could have had the same kind of representational experience in this fictional galaxy.
I was excited to see not Rose and her sister Paige, to see representation long overdue. It was gratifying to watch Rose challenge Finn on his planned desertion and to inspire hope in him and the rest of the Resistance. She’s a tremendous force in this film, and I think the film–and the franchise–is better for it.
I’m extremely happy that finally, after an entire two years of back-to-back whitewashing of Asian characters and stories, a big blockbuster film has put an Asian character at the center of its story. I’ve covered so many films that negate Asian characters or recast them as white actors, and there are even some projects I haven’t covered just because I couldn’t bring myself to write about yet another property that just didn’t get what it was doing. But seeing Rose was seeing what films can do when they are created by someone conscientious enough to tackle proper representation.
There was one thing that held me back a bit during my viewing of The Last Jedi—Star Wars has yet to give an African-American female character the same treatment as Rose. To be fair, Star Wars has yet to give a character who looks like me more than five seconds on screen.
Watching Rose kick the film into high gear reminded me of a coping mechanism I’d developed as a child on the chance I was watching a TV show that had no black women as a part of its cast. As a kid, I’d gravitate towards the character who was a minority like me and live vicariously through that character. The first time I remember doing this was as a 5-year-old watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. There was a black man as part of the cast, but no black women. But, there was Thuy Trang’s character Trini Kwan, the Yellow Power Ranger. Trini was my way into Power Rangers, and during recess, when my friends and I would pretend to be the Power Rangers, I would always make sure I got the Yellow Ranger. She may not have been my same race, but to me, she represented me and other girls of color who weren’t represented on the show. As a child, seeing Trini kick butt and be cool helped me formulate my personal voice and worldview. Through Trini, I felt like I could have a place on a show that apparently wasn’t designed for me.
I felt the same way with Rose. Through her, I felt happiness because women of color were finally getting their overdue shot at being heroes. Young girls, Asian girls especially, will be able to see themselves included in a fantastical place like the Star Wars universe. That kind of feeling is one that is unmatched–I felt it somewhat when The Force Awakens introduced Finn (John Boyega) as one of our new Star Wars heroes.
But the black woman is still left out. Despite my love for Rose, what I can’t ignore is a deep, personal longing to see black girls (and grown women like me) represented on screen in a hero they can be proud of. The longing doesn’t stop at just my own race, though; when will all women of color get equal representation in Star Wars? Now that Rose is here, will the Star Wars powers that be realize they owe the members of Star Wars‘ WOC fanbase the heroes they deserve?
Star Wars’ WOC track record
Star Wars having a rough time with representing women of color is nothing new. In fact, I wrote about it last year during the Rogue One hype. As I wrote then, women of color are largely absent from the films despite having a larger presence in the books. One character, Imperial Naval Officer Rae Sloane and Han Solo’s former wife, Sana Starros, have important roles in the Star Wars saga. But not only is it unclear if Sana will be portrayed in the upcoming Han Solo prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story, but Rae has yet to make a film appearance in any of the new Star Wars films.
Combine that with the fact that there is a highly sought-after actress that is a part of the films, but is currently stuck playing behind CG and motion-capture. Lupita Nyong’o was a big get for the franchise–The Force Awakens was one of her first acting roles after winning the Oscar for her role in 12 Years A Slave. But she has been tasked with portraying Maz Kanata, a character who is lively and fun, but is fully computer-generated. All we hear of Nyong’o is her voice.
Before Rose, the most prominent Asian female character in Star Wars was Janina Gavankar’s Iden Versio in the video game Star Wars: Battlefront II. But, like Rae and Sana, it’s unclear if Iden will ever show up in any film or TV Star Wars properties. Ditto for Shara Bey, Poe Dameron’s mother, who does appear in the comic book series Star Wars: Shattered Empire. Women of other racial and ethnic groups, such as Native American women, have no representation at all.
Adding insult to injury is how Star Wars has typically used women of color as WOC-coded sex aliens. As I wrote back in 2016:
Another strike against Lucasfilm and the Star Wars universe is how often black women and other women of color are often cast as Twi’leks, whose women are often enslaved as sex objects. To quote Wookipedia:
“Since female Twi’leks were regarded as graceful and beautiful beings, many of them were forced into a life of slavery at the hands of the galaxy’s wealthy and powerful.”
It’s more than a little disturbing that while women of color are all but absent in the Star Wars universe, they are readily cast as women who are sold into a sexual slavery.
It’s even more disturbing that Oola, the only sex slave coded as a black woman due to the actress, gets killed moments after we see her on screen in Return of the Jedi. There could have been a better outcome for her instead of just being used as disposable eye-candy.
To The Last Jedi co-writer/director Rian Johnson’s credit, he did make it a point to showcase more women of color, particularly African-American women, in scenes. One of the biggest cameos of the film is Chewing Gum‘s Michaela Coel as a Resistance tech. We see another black woman as a Resistance fighter pilot, and a South Asian woman is also featured as part of General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) ragtag team. Black women and other women of color also feature heavily in the luxurious Canto Bight scenes.
But the scenes that do feature women of color, black women especially, only feature them either in the background or in non-speaking cameos. We never get to intimately know other women are who are Latina, Native American, African-American or South Asian, etc. Much like the lone black woman in Rogue One, we know women of color do exist in this far away galaxy, but we never know them outside of being set dressing.
That’s what makes Tran as Rose even more powerful. Johnson said he cast regardless of ethnicity for Rose, and that opportunity–unencumbered by preconceived notions of what a “Rose Tico” should look like–led Johnson to finding the perfect person for the part.
“We saw a lot of talented actresses of a very broad range–but honestly, it was more about finding Kelly,” said Johnson to The Los Angeles Times‘ Jen Yamato. “There was something about Kelly that had that kind of genuine oddball nature and a real sweetness to her. She has the most open heart of anyone I’ve ever met and I knew that this was going to shine through onscreen. I knew that I was going to be rooting for her in the movie.”
As Yamato wrote, Johnson’s decision to create Rose as a main character and casting inclusively “led to the biggest leap forward for Asian representation Hollywood has ever dared to make on such a large scale.”
Watching Rose on screen provided me with both pride at seeing a woman of color finally take the reins of a Star Wars film, but it also made me a bit wistful that we have yet to see other women of color get the same opportunity.
But where Rose has paved the way, surely others will follow, right?
First Rose, now others
Let’s go back to Solo. This movie is the closest on the horizon, and it’s also the Star Wars can finally break the color barrier. Even though it’s unclear who Emilia Clarke is playing (reportedly, it was a role actresses like Tessa Thompson, Zoe Kravitz, and Adria Arjona tried for as well), Thandie Newton is also rumored to be part of the cast. We have virtually no substantial casting news on this front, so we have to wait until we get closer to the film’s 2018 release date. But, if Newton is a big part of the Solo cast, then she could very well be part of a new wave of diverse Star Wars leading ladies.
Regardless, Star Wars should come to grips with their startling avoidance of women of color. Now that inroads are being made thanks to Rose, writers and directors should continue to make giving women of color a voice in Star Wars a priority. Not as sex slaves and not as CG characters but as the heroes. Hopefully, Rose is the first of many more like her.
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve definitely seen the arresting image of the new enforcers in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Praetorian Guard.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, writer-director Rian Johnson revealed that the Guard, Supreme Leader Snoke’s personal protectors, is a more amped-up version of the Imperial Guard in The Return of the Jedi.
While the guards get their name from the real life guards who protected ancient Roman emperors, the look and feel of the Praetorian Guard is clearly more samurai in nature. Star Wars fans are already intimately aware of the cyclical nature of the Star Wars lore–any theme that has come up in the past can (and probably will) come up again. The same can be said of the Japanese influence on Star Wars, which is embedded right in the DNA of the Praetorian Guard.
The Jedi, samurai with lightsabers
Johnson gave Entertainment Weekly the background on the Praetorian Guard, including the guard’s Japanese connection.
“The Emperor’s guards were very formal, and you always got the sense that they could fight, but they didn’t. They looked like they were more ceremonial, and you never really saw them in action,” he said. “The Praetorians, my brief to [costume designer] Michael Kaplan was that those guys have to be more like samurai. They have to be built to move, and you have to believe that they could step forward and engage if they have to. They have to seem dangerous.”
The Praetorian Guard are wearing a simplified, almost-blocky style of samurai armor with a touch of the 1980s digital aesthetic in the curved grate that makes up the Praetorian helmet visor. However, the idea of samurai is nothing new to Star Wars. The Jedi themselves are based on the idea of the samurai, including the unwritten code the Jedi live by, a type of space-bushido (without the ritualistic honor-bound suicide, seppuku, of course–these are “kids’ films” after all). Even Darth Vader’s iconic headgear and outfit are based on ornamental samurai armor.
As Samurai: The Last Warrior author John Man wrote for Salon:
…I looked at the inspiration behind the look of both the Jedi Knights and their opponent Darth Vader. So much of it derived from samurai traditions: the cloaks, the tunics, Vader’s helmet, the lightsaber.
…They are expert in the use of swords, despite their ability to call on the most fearsome and destructive of long-distance weapons…Both forgo armor to fight in loose tunics. That is how the Last Samurai, Saigo Takamori, went into battle against the Japanese Empire in 1877; that is how Toshiro Mifune appears in Kurasawa’s film “The Seven Samurai”; that is how young Skywalker, up and coming Jedi, faces up to Vader, the father hehs lost to the Dark Side of the Force.
[With regard to Darth Vader’s armor]: …[A]fter Japanese unification in 1600, the samurai became redundant, but instead of vanishing they reinvented themselves as vital members of society, adopting ever more extreme armor designs, with overlapping plates, masks with bristling mustaches and helmets with horns, or crab-like extensions (symbols of protection), or rabbits’ ears to suggest longevity. Vader’s headgear is a simplified version of a samurai face-mask and helmet, with neck protection and ear-flaps. Unlike a samurai, though, he does not need a hole in the top of his helmet through which to poke an elaborate top knot.
Side-by-side comparisons really show the connective thread between the samurai, the Jedi, and fallen Jedi like Darth Vader and his Imperial Guard.
Even after we move away from the original Star Wars films, the idea of samurai-esque robes remains throughout the Star Wars universe, including the latest in the Star Wars main storyline, The Force Awakens.
Star Wars “samurai-in-space” focus comes from George Lucas himself. As Ollie Barder wrote for Forbes:
It’s widely known that George Lucas was a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s work and famously used inspiration from films like The Hidden Fortress for many of the film’s plot and characters as well as whole scenes.
Barder goes on to write that even the word “Jedi” stems from a Japanese connotation.
…[T]he term “jidaigeki is Japanese for “period drama.” Films like The Hidden Fortress and other aspects of Kurosawa’s oeuvre were often period pieces. Featuring the trials and tribulations of samurai and peasants caught in-between petulant warlords.
The word itself also gave birth to the Jedi and it’s no surprise that they too borrowed many elements from the samurai as well.
Lucas borrowing for the real world is nothing new; Lucas has used the name of Tunisian city Tataouine as the basis for the name of the desert planet Tatooine and in the Star Wars prequels, the costume design for Padme/Queen Amidala feature motifs from several world cultures. In Rogue One, the idea of a space Mecca, Middle Eastern stereotypes and all, is apparent in the spiritual planet Jedha. There are even more examples of Lucas borrowing from other Japanese properties. But despite all of the other disparate elements Lucas brings into his world, including 1950s diners (looking at you, Clone Wars), the biggest throughline in Star Wars is that this is a space opera featuring space samurai protecting the innocent against the space ronin, masterless samurai who are only thirsty for power.
A Shinto color for protection used for evil
The Praetorian Guard’s relationship with Japan doesn’t end with just Lucas and Johnson’s affinity for samurai. The bright red color that forms the Praetorian Guard’s formidable look also has ties to Japanese culture. In this case, it’s more than just mere borrowing–it’s borrowing with irony.
There are several meanings for the color red in Japan (as is anywhere else), but there is a particular meaning for red in the traditional Shinto religion: protection. However, unlike with the Praetorian Guard, who’s charged with protecting an evil leader, red is charged with protecting Shinto worshippers from evil and disease.
According to Mark Schumacher, who wrote about the history of red in Shinto, the meaning of red might have come from “demon quelling and disease (e.g., smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, measles).”
According to Japanese folk belief, RED is the color for “expelling demons and illness.” The rituals of spirit quelling were regularly undertaken by the Yamato court during the Asuka Period (522-645 AD). Centered on a fire god (a red deity), these purification rites were designed to purify the land by sending evil spirits to the Ne no Kuni [“The Land of Roots,” an underworld]. This association with evil easily segues into other links with child mortality, protection against evil forces (sickness), fertility, the caul (embryonic membrane covering the head at birth), and other child-birth imagery. The red bibs, red robes, red scarfs, and red caps found frequently on certain Japanese deities…lend strong support to his interpretation.”
Schumacher wrote that for a small amount of time, the Japanese god of smallpox, Hōsō Kami, was closely linked to the color red. This association came at some point between smallpox’s initial introduction to Japan in 550 AD and the first recording of smallpox in 720 AD. It was believed that if the skin of a person afflicted with smallpox turned purple, they would die, but if the skin turned red, they would live. Eventually red came to mean protection against ailments.
This early association between demons of disease and the color red was gradually turned upside down–proper worship of the disease deity would bring life, but improper worship or neglect would result in death. In later centuries, the Japanese recommended that children with smallpox be clothed in red garments and that those caring for the sick also wear red…The Red-Equals-Sickness symbolism quickly gave way to a new dualism between evil and good, between death and life, between hell and heaven, with red embodying both life-creating and life-sustaining powers. As a result, the color red was dedicated not only to deities of sickness and demon quelling, but also to deities of healing, fertility, and childbirth.
An argument could be made that, if the Star Wars crew were conscious of the fact that red has such a huge meaning in Shinto, maybe they were using red to align the Guard and Snoke even more with the evil and danger they represent. However, with what red has come to mean in Shinto over time, the all-red Praetorian Guard is more of an unintentional ironic statement; just like the red torii gates that signify a protection of the spiritual realm and a cleansing of the worshippers that stand near, the Guards are protectors who signify that entering Snoke’s realm is a rarefied experience. However, unlike those that visit torii, there’s no holiness or goodness to come from the Guard and especially not from Snoke. Instead of healing, there’s only spiritual disease.
The history of red gets even more complicated when you add westernization into the mix. If you notice, the color of the Praetorian Guard is not just red, but it’s a shocking red. It’s a red that makes you sit up and stand at attention. It’s an unnatural red, to be sure.
This unnatural red looks like it could be aniline red, a synthetic color that owes part of its origins to British scientist William Henry Perkin trying to find a cure for malaria. You can read more about aniline red’s road towards becoming a marketable color at Prints of Japan, but just keep in mind that it was the Europeans who brought this synthetic color to Japan. I would say it’s become one of its more iconic colors, too; as a synthetic, it’s able to keep its vibrancy over hundreds of years, compared to Japanese prints that utilize natural red dyes.
These two prints are saturated in aniline red; see how pop-arty they make these 19th century pieces?
I don’t know if the folks behind Star Wars recognized they were playing deep into the Japanese color history by making the Praetorian Guard shockingly red. Of course, the Imperial Guard are also red, and the real Praetorian Guard were also associated with red. But with so much Japanese influence making its way into the Praetorian Guard, it’s funny that even this small element of Japanese history snuck its way in.
So what does all of this mean in the end? It seems like there’s a conversation to be had about where the line stops when it comes to “appropriation” versus “inspiration.” It’s very easy to say that Lucas was inspired by samurai films he saw growing up, much like how Quentin Tarantino was inspired by the blaxploitation and grindhouse films he saw as a kid. While it’s certainly clear that Lucas found a more elegant way to showcase his inspirations by way of a space opera, is there much difference between Lucas’ insistence on direct Japanese ties to his work and Tarantino’s insistence on directly imitating and reworking major themes from blaxploitation? To a certain degree, both Lucas and Tarantino straddle the line between appreciation and flat-out lifting (or, to be nicer about it, “paying homage.”)
If you’re being really nitpicky, you could say that many directors out there steal from their favorite films. No doubt–every director has put in a scene that mimics a scene they’ve loved from their childhood films. But where it gets interesting for Lucas and Tarantino is that there’s a certain amount of damage attributed to how they represent (or don’t represent) the cultures they’re drawing from.
For instance, how can Lucas draw inspiration from Japanese films just to give a set of bumbling aliens stereotypical Asian accents in the Star Wars prequels? How can it be that Lucas has only rarely featured Asian faces in general–much less specifically Japanese faces–on screen? The Force Awakens, the upcoming Last Jedi and Rogue One have featured more Asian characters than the prequels and the originals combined, and all three of those movies have been under the inclusionary focus of J.J. Abrams, not Lucas. This article isn’t about Tarantino, but since I’ve brought him up (and since I’m black) it’s time to start talking about how Tarantino only views blackness through a limited scope, not through how actual black people behave. (Yeah, I know he marched against police brutality, but that’s the least he could do–that’s something we all should be doing, to be honest.)
With all of this said, where does this put the Praetorian Guard? It would seem, regardless of the arguments made for or against “paying homage,” the mysterious samurai and Japan’s relationships with spirituality and color are imports to Western culture that still fascinate us and keep us fascinated with the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun. The Guard are only one more block that cements that fascination.
It’s time to look to the near future of film. Just like how the fashion industry has become an industry that relies on trend forecasting, let’s utilize the same concept when discussing what kind of mood the country will be in when we decide to sit in the theaters next year. From where I’m sitting, 2018 is going to be a year of contemplation, a year of gathering one’s bearings after a tumultuous 2017, and overall, a year of figuring out where we in the U.S. and, indeed, the world, are going if we keep on our path towards destruction.
The color story that seems to be going on in 2018 is muted blues and black disrupted by explosive, fiery colors–dark red, orange, and gold. My using the word “explosive” is meant in both a descriptive and literal sense; there is a very real sense of literal explosions in our daily life at this point in 2017, what with the threat of North Korea, the growing Cold War-esque tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and the country’s own political explosions with mounting evidence that showcases President Trump and the administration under the sway of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s power.
The end of 2017 will see dark red come into play as we transition from this year into the next. Check out these Star Wars: The Last Jedi posters from this year:
Dark red is the dominant color, painting each of the characters to show that no matter what side you’re on, everyone’s going to be affected politically, socially, and personally by the upheaval that will happen in this next part of the saga.
All of this year’s colors are featured in The Justice League, which is coming out late 2017. The Zack Snyder-led DCU has been consistently moody, with blues, reds, oranges, and blacks making up the color palette. Perhaps it’s because of this big tentpole that we’ll see a lot more films take on a more Snyder-esque palette for their promotional material. What’s funny is that as much as people have derided Snyder for his bleak palette, 2018 will be the year that we as a culture actually feel it reflected in our collective mood. Maybe Snyder was onto something the whole time.
Red, gold, orange, neon blue and muted blues make their way into several of next year’s movies, both in their posters and in the trailers themselves. The throughline seems to be that humanity wants to find the balance between war and peace, technology and human experiences, existentialism and optimism. The importance of neon blue definitely shows itself in the more futuristic films; in these films, humanity on the precipice of extinction–or at the very least, fighting for some kind of co-existence with a more dominant species– is the main plot point.
ORANGE: Power, the unknown, disturbance
(featured: Proud Mary, Alpha, A Wrinkle in Time, Blade Runner: 2049)
NEON BLUE: Technology, mechanical coldness, human advancement (not always for the better)
(featured: Pacific Rim: Uprising, Ready Player One, Black Panther, Blade Runner: 2049)
RED AND BLACK: Ominous threat, fright, fight for survival
(featured: The Predator, Early Man, Blade Runner: 2049, Pacific Rim: Uprising)
NAVY AND MUTED BLUES: Contemplation, the dark side of technology, lurking threat, existentialism
(featured: Pacific Rim: Uprising, Blade Runner 2049, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One)
GOLD AND BLACK: Personal strength, inner power, intelligence, new beginnings
(featured: Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, Blade Runner 2049, Alpha)
2018 MAJOR THEMES
Movie studios will still be making reboots, remakes, and sequels. However there seems to be an even clearer note of nostalgia with some of these films in 2018 aside from Hollywood trying their luck with any book or older film property.
Nostalgia, particularly nostalgia for the ’80s and ’90s (a time when a big chunk of the most catered to media demographic, young people 18-40, were kids or teenagers) will be apparent in 2018. Of course, Blade Runner: 2049 is a big send-up to the ’80s, but there’s also Ready Player One, which will have properties that span the ’80s and ’90s making cameo appearances (such as The Iron Giant, featured above). Other films such as Goosebumps: Horrorland, The Predator, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom keep up the nostalgic ’80s and ’90s trend. Even horror is getting on the bandwagon with the resurgence of killer doll Chucky and Halloween‘s Mike Myers.
Other films, like Barbie, Peter Rabbit, S.C.O.O.B. (a new live-action iteration of Scooby-Doo) and Mary Poppins Returns show that childhood memories from any era are back in play. Overall, the nostalgic trend showcases the longing everyone has to go back to a time when they didn’t have to worry about the fate of the world every. single. day.
A big example of the ’80s trend in mainstream tentpoles is Thor Ragnarok.
Thor isn’t a legacy property the same way Barbie, Peter Rabbit, and Mary Poppins are. But, as was apparent in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the late ’70s and ’80s are a big influence on Marvel’s intergalactic adventures. I mean, it’s not accident that Bruce Banner shows up wearing a shirt featuring Duran Duran’s RIO album cover, or that ’80s genre it boy Jeff Goldblum is part of the main cast. The bright colors, bombastic feel, and Valkyrie showing up with a fleet of warriors on winged horses smacks of 1970s and 1980s heavy metal, Philip Castle airbrush art, as well as 1980s candy-coated cartoons, which also delved into their share of metal inspiration via He-Man, She-Ra, and ThunderCats. Even the ship that is felled by the fireworks display behind Valkyrie (below) seems to pay homage to the spaceship iconography apparent with the band Electronic Light Orchestra, aka ELO.
(featured: scenes from Thor: Ragnaork, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Philip Castle airbrush artwork, ELO spaceship artwork)
In short, film studios want those of us in our 20s and 30s to feel like we did when we’d stay up to watch TGIF or when woke up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons. That feeling of nostalgia is going to be used as a buffer and distraction from the scary times we have yet to enter come 2018.
While we’re all pining for our worry-free childhoods, we’ll also be taking stock of our place in the universe and whether we can keep our planet going for another couple thousand years. Quite a few films will focus on the world at its bleakest and most depleted as well as the world when it was fresh and new. Alpha, starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, is set during the last part of the Ice Age, and Aardman’s Early Man will have its protagonist, a Bronze Age man (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), on a journey to save his beloved city.
On the extinction side of things, Ready Player One takes place in a near future in which Detroit is inundated with trailer-home skyscrapers called The Stacks and Mortal Engines, based on the popular book series by Philip Reeve, shows an earth that is desolate after the “Sixty Minute War,” with cities roaming Laputa-style, attacking and eating smaller cities in its path to replenish supplies. Extinction, which will feature Michael Peña, Mike Colter, and Lizzy Caplan, will see our current world invaded by aliens.
Sci-fi in 2018 will be almost exclusively about the world’s dire straits and how we humans can protect ourselves and the world from becoming extinct. One of Dwayne Johnson’s many projects next year, Rampage, is based on an ’80s video game (yes, nostalgia again), but it’ll be a more serious take on the game, which involved monsters wreaking havoc on cities. In the film, the monsters are animals (endangered or vulnerable animals, no less) that have been mutated by a mad scientist to destroy humanity. Pacific Rim: Uprising continues the story of a world that is constantly at war with underwater aliens, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom takes the dinosaurs out of the park and into the metropolis, creating yet another version of Godzilla. (Also, don’t forget about the sequel to Godzilla, coming in 2019, which will continue the environmentally-conscious trend in sci-fi films).
So why do sci-fi films seem to have a lot of power when it comes to this environmental message? Well, one of the cornerstones of sci-fi film is to discuss our culpability in our own demise and whether we’ll have the smarts to right our wrongs. And while we’ve been fantasizing about aliens wiping us out, the real threat has been us all along–we’ve mutated as many animals and destroyed as much wildlife as any alien in sci-fi has. So the alien threat in most of these films has become nature itself. When there is actual science to back up your sci-fi–yes, the earth is heating up and we’re destroying the ecosystem at all levels and perhaps we’re making our own grave if we don’t invest in sustainable methods of living–then sci-fi’s environmental message becomes that much stronger.
(featured: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Rampage)
It’s a little early, but I’ve been looking at the 2019 slate as it stands right now, and it would seem that some more optimistic films are on the horizon after 2018. Perhaps the film industry is banking on us getting out of our present political and social state (we will be getting closer to Trump’s end of his first–and hopefully final–term) and we’ll finally have reason to celebrate. Let’s hope so. But in 2018, we’ll be in the existentialist thick of figuring out how we’re going to keep this world spinning.
We’re at odds with Russia, and more and more people believe that the Russian government has injected itself into our politics and in the country’s presidency. More insidious is the probability that Trump is willingly under Putin’s thumb. We haven’t faced such times as these since President Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the Cold War, which lasted from the lasted from the late ’40s to the ’80s (again, there’s a hint of ’80s nostalgia there). So naturally, 2018 will see an increased focus on ’70s and ’80s politics, the Cold War, Nixon and Watergate, and new interpretations of those themes in present-day stories. Films such as Red Sparrow and Finding Steve McQueen are directly related to Russian/American politics, both in the 1970s and today. The interest in Russia has already in TV, with Channing Tatum’s Comrade Detective and HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 (I’ll get to TV in another post, so don’t worry, I’ll get to the TV trends too). That trend is also already coming to film with this September’s The Death of Stalin, chronicling the days after the Joseph Stalin’s death.
(featured: Red Sparrow book cover, The Death of Stalin, Finding Steve McQueen, The papers set photo)
The Papers is another film that’s about the 1970s (and late 1960s), but it’s handling public distrust of another kind. The Papers is all about the discovery of The Pentagon Papers, which showed that President Johnson lied to the public about the nature of the Vietnam War. While this isn’t directly about Nixon or Watergate, it’s still showing that the film tide is turning towards investigating a lack of trust in authority, particularly in a “post-truth” society.
Eventually, the focus that is beginning to be applied to Russia and the Cold War of the ’80s will also rope in North Korea as well. With North Korea becoming more and more of a nuclear threat each day, screenwriters will no doubt want to turn their attention towards the Hermit Kingdom, and studios will also probably want to capitalize on some of the properties that are already out that focus on nuclear threat. (A possible resurgence of Watchmen, perhaps? Just spit-balling here).
As you can see in this Oceans Eight first look image, women are going to be in power in all kinds of ways. From robbing folks to executing hits to owning stardom, women in unconventional and/or powerful roles will be all over 2018. Some of the films we’ll see next year are Battle Angel Alita, A Wrinkle in Time, Mary Poppins Returns, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!, The Nightingale, Red Sparrow, Tomb Raider, Crazy Rich Asians, Proud Mary, Widows, Ant Man and the Wasp, Life of the Party, The Papers, Winchester, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Annihilation, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, to name a few.
(featured: Rosa Salazar cast in Alita: Battle Angel, Meryl Streep in The Papers, Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon in A Wrinkle in Time, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson in Annihilation, Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider)
Several of the films mentioned have women of color at the forefront, and two such films, like Widows and Proud Mary have black women (Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson, respectively) taking on roles that require their characters to exact deadly revenge, a micro-trend by itself. Alita: Battle Angel, based on a popular anime and manga about a cyborg brought back to life, stars Rosa Salazar amid a multicultural cast, and Crazy Rich Asians finally ends the drought of a lack of a pan-Asian presence on screen. Zazie Beetz (seen below) will become the first lady of Fox’s Deadpool franchise and, of course, all of that is rounded out by the introduction of Storm Reid in A Wrinkle in Time and the big screen debut of ballerina (or as I like to think of her, my ballerina Barbie come to life) Misty Copeland in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. (As a huge Nutcracker fan, I can’t wait to see the film’s costumes. Here’s hoping they live up to my expectations.)
The tide has been turning for women in film, what with the outcry of several actresses about the lack of meaningful roles for women, the financial gain studios have seen from hiring women for action and bawdy comedy roles (such as Girls Trip, which became the highest-grossing live-action comedy in 2017), and movie-goers’ own demand for actresses getting equal treatment next to their male counterparts. This has led to the portrayal of women who aren’t just boobs and butts with mouths for male pleasure; Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider isn’t the busty woman of the past (who still kicked butt, by the way); she’s now a slimmed-down, more athletic-built woman who is on an existential search for herself as well as she finds out the truth about her father. Meryl Streep plays a newspaper titan who is out to get those Pentagon Papers. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson are scientists studying another world, with no men in sight.
But, as you can probably infer from the high gross from Girls Trip, that there’s also a racial element at play, too. It’s not just that women as a whole are getting more roles, it’s that there’s slowly more equity for women of color to be seated at the table as well. While women in general don’t have as much play as actors, white women still had the lion’s share of the roles. Technically, they still do, but thankfully, with directors of color like Ava DuVernay and actresses of color-turned-producers like Queen Latifah taking the reins, we’re finally beginning to see films starring actresses of color play in roles that were strictly relegated only to white actresses. Would we have seen Mindy Kaling and Oprah play interdimensional beings if it weren’t for another woman of color like DuVernay? I’m sure someone would have done it, but it wouldn’t have happened so soon, I’d think, and it might not have been done with the same intention of equity. Ditto for A Wrinkle in Time featuring an interracial relationship and what looks like a blended family (from the trailers, it’s seems like Storm’s character has a white brother, leading me to think that it’s her stepbrother).
Is Hollywood really “woke” by including more people of color and more of an LGBT focus in its movies? Let’s just say this is Hollywood’s first dip of its big toe in the water of being “woke.” However, this is still a huge push forward in 2018, with a bigger number of films showcasing either all-POC or mostly POC casts.
Of course, there’s Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and A Wrinkle in Time, but there’s also, Triple Threat, starring Tony Jaa, Michael Jai White, Tiger Chen and Uko Uwais, and The Predator, which stars Keegan-Michael Key, Sterling K. Brown, Trevante Rhodes, Olivia Munn and Edward James Olmos.
As mentioned before, Annihilation stars Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, and several movies, including Deadpool 2, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Skyscraper, Gringo, Creed 2, Mary Poppins Returns, the currently-untitled Han Solo Star Wars film, The Alchemist, Aladdin and Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom will prominently feature POC characters. Just take a look at this compilation of actors:
(Featured: Lin-Manuel Miranda in Mary Poppins Returns, Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok, the cast of Rampage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom‘s B.D. Wong, Star Wars Han Solo film’s Donald Glover, J.A. Bayona in Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, the cast of The Predator, the cast of Aquaman and director James Wan, Crazy Rich Asians‘ Henry Golding, Aladdin‘s Mena Massoud)
It also doesn’t hurt that there will be some big films directed by directors of color. DuVernay has been mentioned, and James Wan is in charge of Aquaman. Taika Waititi is behind Thor: Ragnarok and Steve McQueen is behind Widows. Jon M. Chu is bringing his directorial vision to Crazy Rich Asians.
There’s also Simon vs. the Homo-Sapien Agenda, which will be the live-action adaptation of a novel focusing on a high schooler taking coming out to his classmates in his own hands.
With all of this progress, there are still some indications Hollywood isn’t as woke as it’d like to be: at least two of the movies on the current slate feature Asian themes (specifically Japanese storytelling) without Japanese characters. As mentioned already, the Alita film adaptation will feature a multicultural cast with a non-Japanese POC lead, and Isle of Dogs will feature a mostly-white, if not all-white, cast (including Scarlett Johansson, whom people still haven’t forgiven for her role in Ghost in the Shell). We’ll see how these films are handled as we get closer to their releases. Also, Simon vs. the Homo-Sapien Agenda is currently the only high-profile film focusing on a gay character. We’ll see exactly how many LGBT characters and stories are a part of 2018, but it looks like Hollywood is, once again, lacking in this area. There’s also no clear word on how disabled people will be represented either. Seeing how disabled people have been represented this year, there’s no reason to think that 2018 will showcase anything different. But we can hope.
Of course, I haven’t mentioned every film coming out in 2018 (partially because not every film has released its promotional info) and, like with anything, there will be outliers that are hard to put into any category. But these are my general thoughts on 2018–an overview, if you will. What do you think 2018 holds for us? Give your thoughts below!
As you might have read from my Rogue One review, I enjoyed it very much. But with the good comes the bad, and I had some gripes with it. One gripe I forgot to mention in my review was the uber-aggressive Arab world coding they were doing in it. It had gotten so aggressive on Jedha that I was literally taken out of the movie at points and was like, “Where’d they film this?!”
I was reminded of my distaste for these films when I saw Twitter user Dina’s thread on the subject. Key takeaways:
From garb to environment to “primitive devout culture”, all of the usual suspects of stereotyping and denigrating arabs are there.
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
Seriously, are you kidding me? From color palette to sand to cables and chaos, every “savage Arab” stereotype coded right in. pic.twitter.com/GwZfXNj4IF
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
For reference how Hollywood “codes arab” and “actually Arab” are completely different things. Like this from Homeland (the series). pic.twitter.com/lFdLLev2M0
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
On left is what media wants you to think the Middle East looks like, carefully curated (shot in Israel), on the right is the real Hamra st.
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
I’m Lebanese born and bred. I’ve hung out in Hamra, gone shopping, met friends for drinks. It’s a lovely, normal street in the Middle East.
— Dina✨ (@PetiteMistress) December 28, 2016
So key questions to ask here are 1) Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding, 2) How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge, and 3) How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?
1: Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding?
Star Wars has a history of being slightly aggressive with coding planets with real world analogs. Tatooine is basically the Sahara Desert, but was actually filmed in Tunisia and America’s Death Valley. Yavin 4 is a lush jungle planet, which was represented by Guatemala’s Tikal ruins and the forests the ruins reside in. For every planet, there’s a real world place. But beyond just the filming locations, other parts of the planets crib from real life as well. For instance, George Lucas got the name “Tatooine” from the real Tunisian city Tataouine. Similarly, as Dina points out, The planet Jedha gets its name from Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia.
Of course, seeing how this film is made by terrestrial humans who have never been to space, much less to other galaxies and off-world terrains, it’s understandable why the planets (which, if we’re being honest, act more like moons than actual planets with different continents and climates) feel familiar to us. It’s because they, in many ways, are familiar. They’re a collection of earth’s coolest/most awe-inspiring places, launched into a space opera.
However, using a desert for a desert planet is benign. When you start cribbing parts of cultures while layering stereotypical imagery onto planet’s people, then we have a problem.
Let’s get into what makes Jedha troublesome.
• Jedha as Mecca: The official description of Jedha is that it’s a holy city for those who are disciples of the Force. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards has described it, quite literally, as Mecca. To quote him (via MTV News):
“If A New Hope is kind of like the story of Jesus, there must be a whole religion beyond that,” he said. “We felt like, for 1,000 generations, the Jedi were kind of these leaders of the spiritual belief system. It’s got to be like a Mecca or a Jerusalem, but in the Star Wars world.”
In the story of Star Wars, it makes sense that there should be a holy city. But does it have to be quite literally a city that takes all of the stereotypes of the Arab world and mash them together? Take a look at these pictures, culled from various press junkets and collections of official Star Wars images and screenshots:
Do these images seem familiar? Well, you might have seen some of their other brothers in Raiders of the Lost Ark:
and The Phantom Menace.
There are other tropes like this found throughout film and television. Dina notes Homeland, which is a great example, as well as Season 4 of Sherlock:
And Lawrence of Arabia:
And many more.
Hollywood’s fascination with what I’m calling “the bazaar aesthetic” is something that’s throughout film, and sure, bazaars exist throughout the Middle East and India, as shown below. But even then, there’s varying difference between bazaars; they don’t all look the same.
But that’s not all to the Middle East. Take for instance Jordan, where some of the Jedha desert scenes were filmed. What Rogue One used were Jordan’s deserts for the outskirts of Jedha. That’s cool. But let’s also look at what else Jordan has to offer in the real world aside from its deserts:
Of course, the main Jedha scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in London, but I’m using these images of modern Jordan because the tropes of Jedha reflect on the Middle East as a whole. Hollywood would have you believe that the Middle East is all desert and open-air markets, but surprise! The Middle East is just like the rest of the world; full of paved roads, cars, and buildings.
• Seriously aggressive sartorial references to the Middle East: It’s worth pointing out that the headscarves and ceremonial robes found in Jedha reference today’s headscarves, hijabs, niqabs, and burkas worn in various parts of the Middle East. Not that there wouldn’t be an outer space city that might have a cultural tie to head coverings, but it’s especially noteworthy that a place designed to be Space Mecca also has clothing with such overt references to Islam. Did the allegory have to be taken this far in Star Wars, to the point that we forget a little that we’re watching a film about distant planets?
Also, the act of using Islamic sartorial choices goes along with Star Wars‘ other practice of cribbing cultural and ethnic styles and arranging them in a mish-mash to “create” something otherworldly. This practice goes all the way back to Princess Leia’s “cinnamon buns,” the style stemming from Lucas supposedly using Revolutionary-era Mexican women freedom fighters, or soldaderas, as inspiration. However, there’s been contention with that statement, and some now link Leia’s hairstyle to the hairstyles worn by the women of the Hopi tribe. But the appropriation-as-inspiration practice was at its height during the years of the Star Wars prequels, in which Padme/Queen Amidala had styles ranging from Japanese geisha to ancient Mongolian elite, to African updo to actual Hopi hair buns.
Inspiration: Mongolian headdress
Inspiration: Hopi hairstyle
Inspiration: The hairstyles of the Mangbetu women of the Congo
I get that these styles are “cool,” but they aren’t just cool for cool’s sake; there’s are complete cultures these styles are attached to, and to rob them of their actual context by putting them in a “cultureless” space opera whitewashes these styles to a certain degree.
2: How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge?
The answer is simple: Americans already believe in too many stereotypes as it is. Due to what the media tells us about foreign locales, we believe that cities that aren’t in the Western world are behind the times or haven’t been affected (for better or worse) by westernization and capitalism.
Another example of a modern movie casting a “noble savage” light on a foreign place: Doctor Strange. As I wrote in my review of the film, the film posits Nepal as a place that still hasn’t been touched by the effects of the 21st century.
The film portrayed Nepal as some mystical place without roads or modern transportation. Everyone looked like they were mere seconds away from getting on their knees to pray. Religion might be a huge part of a country, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country have to look like devotees. The film shows a side of Nepal that looks like this:
This picture looks similar to the types of crowds Stephen Strange came upon as he was looking for The Ancient One. But Nepal also looks like this:
The point is there’s a lot more to Nepal, to just Kathmandu, than the film suggests. Is there time to visit every locale in Nepal? Of course not. But there was enough time to not give Nepal the “noble savage” treatment, which means, according to Wikipedia:
A noble savage is a literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden‘s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672), wherein it was used in reference to newly created man. “Savage” at that time could mean “wild beast” as well as “wild man”. The phrase later became identified with the idealized picture of “nature’s gentleman”, which was an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism. The noble savage achieved prominence as an oxymoronic rhetorical device after 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for a satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, whom some believe may have wished to disassociate himself from what he viewed as the “feminine” sentimentality of 18th and early 19th-century romantic primitivism.[a]
Even though the film didn’t have any of the extras speak, it clearly showcased Kathmandu as an idealistically mystical, Othered space, with closeups on holy men and temples. The extras also weren’t wearing Western clothes, something that further separated them from actual depictions of 21st century Nepalese people. Western exports have made their way all around the globe, including Nepal, and as you can see in the above pictures, folks are wearing leather jackets, hoodies, polo shirts, slacks and jeans. Even the woman with the shawl on in the first picture is wearing Westernized sandals, a long-sleeved red shirt and some green pants, and one of the men buying her wares, the guy with the leather jacket, has an iPod. If you took a shot of the extras in the Kathmandu sequence and put it in black and white, it could act as a shot from a film about Nepal in the 1800s, not the 21st century. This is not to say that portraying Nepalese people wearing traditional clothing is anachronistic; what I am saying is that painting a picture of the Nepalese as a people who haven’t been affected by world commerce and capitalism is a false picture.
The “noble savage” idea wasn’t explicit, but it was very subtly implied in order to make Kathmandu seem like a perfect place for The Ancient One and to act as further contrast to Stephen’s New York sensibilities and, indeed, his whiteness.
When movies decide to portray places in a stereotypical fashion, it’s too easy for the stereotype to be accepted as the truth. It’s even more dangerous to use stereotypes in science fiction; when a place can look like anything and be anything, why rely on stereotypes? But when stereotypes get used in science fiction or fantasy, they’re usually couched in the excuse of “Well, it’s not real anyway! It can look however the creator wants it to look.” But when we’re limiting what’s possible in the imagination, we’re also dulling our senses to what actually exists in reality.
3: How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?
The quickest answer is for Hollywood to start using a bit more imagination when coming up with a look for a futuristic place. Too often, science fiction relies on stereotypes or cultures-as-backdrop to do much of the heavy lifting in a scene. For instance, Blade Runner, in which an aggressive Japanese undercurrent can be seen in futuristic San Francisco.
Of course, it can be explained away that San Francisco has a high Japanese population, so perhaps San Francisco would embrace more of Japan the more futuristic it gets. However, there’s hardly an Asian person in Blade Runner–Alexis Rhee, who is the billboard geisha, and James Hong as Hannibal Chew, round out the film’s Asian population. So the whole effect comes off as a cynical costume for a huge audience payoff.
Currently, we have Ghost in the Shell coming in where the original Blade Runner left off, using Japan itself as a costume for a film lacking in Japanese characters.
Hollywood has got to stop relying on tired tropes like these. It only helps keep America in the dark about its neighbors, and it keeps movies themselves from having an even greater impact than they could have.
Star Wars images: Lucasfilm/Disney
Synopsis (Lucasfilm): From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.
Monique’s review: What a film.
Maybe it’s that time of the month and I’m being hormonal, or maybe the film was just that sad. But it’s about 48 hours after having seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and I’m still reeling from the ending. AUGH! MY HEART!
The opening crawl to Episode 4: A New Hope states that rebel spies steal the Death Star plans, but it doesn’t say that they die! I haven’t gotten over it yet.
It also doesn’t help that the princess of all space, Carrie Fisher has died. Can 2016 give us a break yet?!
What I loved about the film is that we got to see what Star Wars is like outside of the confines of the traditional crawl, so to speak. I, for one, liked that the film decided to forgo the crawl and throw us right into the movie. It makes sense, since this is the first story that that kickstarts the entire franchise, but it’s also a bold move that takes the franchise further into the future. We’re in the 21st century with Star Wars now; it needs to go beyond what the older fans expect. Now that we’ve got younger fans, the franchise has to use the 21st century modernization to enthrall and keep them. Also, the lack of a crawl added a freshness that a new fan like me appreciated. It made me feel like I was watching a sci-fi action film that didn’t chastise me for not having grown up with the Star Wars franchise.
Let’s talk about the cast. Overall, the cast is 8/15 POC (or should I say MOC), which is hefty for a blockbuster film, especially since they are all main characters. This number, I should say, is if you count the voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (the actual figure of Darth Vader, as usual, is played by another actor, this time Spencer Wilding) There are only five main characters who are women, and one of them, Jyn’s mother Lyra (Valene Kane), gets killed early in the film and the other, young Princess Leia, is portrayed by a body double (Ingvild Deila) with a CGI’d face. Aside from Jyn, the most prominent woman in the film is Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), a senator from A New Hope who is mostly used in this film to give gravitas with her face and clothes, but not much more. If anything, she seemed to act as a loose replacement for Leia in the majority of this film, almost as if she were a preliminary sketch for the actual Leia character, down to her white robes.
(Interesting fashion note: It appears that this film is setting up the idea that style trends are a thing in the Star Wars universe–White is a color that seems to have been popular up until the construction and usage of the Death Star. Perhaps the lack of white after A New Hope suggests that the innocence of the galaxy before the Death Star had been lost.)
Why is counting the amount of non-white people and women important? Because in Star Wars films of the past, the cast has been mostly white, with only a few POC actors as minor rebel pilots who quickly get killed. Having people of all racial, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds gives Star Wars the legitimacy it needs as both a contemporary film in a multicultural world and as a space opera itself; why does science fiction/fantasy just have be a place for white people, when we all would like to live in a galaxy far, far away?
The character portrayals themselves are great despite being a little truncated. Was it because the screenwriter knew we’d only be seeing these characters in one film? At any rate, the characters’ collective fates make their performances even more riveting and haunting. Felicity Jones held down the movie as Jyn Erso, further establishing the notion that women can successfully helm “boys’ movies” and bring in the big bucks. I also thought Diego Luna played Cassian Andor convincingly, but I must point out that like Mon Mothma, his character seemed like a sketch of an early Han Solo, what with his own “who shot first” moment early in the movie (although they don’t show a close-up on Cassian’s hand pulling the trigger, we know he’s the guy who shot his informant in cold blood).
Cassian, though, provides one of the most satisfying character arguments I’ve seen in film in a long time. Surprisingly, the film delves into privilege when discussing Jyn’s sudden turn to the resistance after years of not caring about who’s in power. Jyn’s turn comes after her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) dies. Even though Galen dies due to his involvement with the Empire—he was the chief architect of the Death Star, who defected, then later came back to work on the project in order to place a well-hidden weak spot—Jyn blames Cassian, who was ordered by the resistance to kill Galen. It’s when Jyn offends Cassian’s honor as it relates to fighting for the resistance that Cassian decides to tell her the ugly truth about herself. Jyn, he said, was picking and choosing when she wanted to fight for the resistance, whereas he had been fighting for it since he was a small child. While Jyn found it easy to take up the resistance mantle after years of running, Cassian and others like him had devoted their entire lives to the cause. Jyn had no right to assert she automatically knew more about fighting the good fight than someone like him, who had sacrificed everything to get to that point.
On the surface, it reads like a standard argument about who has more to lose and who has the most to learn. But when it’s played out, the optics—a white woman “Damonsplaining” resistance fighting to a Latino man whose been in the trenches long before she had no choice but to care—took the scene up a level to near discomfort for some in the audience, I’m sure. If put in today’s context, the scene was basically a man of color telling a “well meaning,” but insensitive and selfish white woman that she can’t co-opt the fight for social justice and chastise someone else’s part in the fight just because she realized she should have been fighting long ago. The distillation of Cassian’s message was that Jyn should be reckoning with herself as to why she found it so easy not to fight the good fight, considering all she had at stake. It shouldn’t have taken Galen’s death to spur her into action. Similarly, a lot of Jyn Ersos in the audience should ask themselves why it’s taken them so long to join the social justice fight a lot of marginalized people have already been a part of and, indeed, have sacrificed a lot for.
Other standouts include Donnie Yen as the blind devotee to the Force, Chirrut Îmwe, and his friend? life partner? Baze Malbus, played by Wen Jiang.
I went into the film aware of the strong reaction these two had garnered online, with many believing that these two could be Star Wars‘ first gay couple. I say that’s great if it’s true, but if it is, then it’d be nice for Lucasfilm and Disney to actually confirm that.
Rogue One director Gareth Edwards told Yahoo! Movies that he doesn’t mind people reading a relationship into the characters. “I think that’s all good” he said. “Who knows? You’d have to speak to them.”
“Them” being the characters. Come on now, Edwards. Quit being coy.
The coyness is what kills me, honestly. I’ll get to this in “the bad” section of this review, but seriously, the cutesy answers like this from directors need to stop. People don’t like having their emotions played with, and LGBT viewers are a demographic who have had their hopes dangled in front of them like carrots by the entertainment industry for far too long. Queerbaiting isn’t a good business practice for any entertainment studio, especially not in today’s time.
With that said, the evidence for Chirrut and Baze being that couple that’s been together so long that you can’t understand what they still see in each other (no pun intended) is strong from the beginning. They’re a package deal from the first time we meet them, with Baze hovering protectively over Chirrut, who is very much capable of being on his own. But even though we come to know that Baze is entirely aware of Chirrut’s independence (I mean, Chirrut can beat up hordes of stormtroopers in minutes), he still watches over him, and Chirrut lets him. Perhaps a better word to use is that Chirrut allows it.
Second, we have when the gang is on some rainy planet (the same planet Galen and Jyn have their sad reunion) and Chirrut decides to go trudging after Jyn, Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) and Cassian. If memory serves, Baze taunts him a bit, saying Chirrut would have to be lucky out on his own to survive. Chirrut says, “I don’t need luck; I have you.” At the very extreme, this could be excused away as just banter between really good friends. Sure, Chirrut and Baze are best friends, but movies don’t usually portray friendship in this fashion. This moment was basically the “You complete me” line from Jerry Maguire. Except that in movies, men and women are instantly coded as being in a relationship, while same-sex couples are nearly almost instantly coded as being “just friends.” If one of these characters was a woman, you’d have people vehemently arguing against any idea that their relationship was merely platonic friendship.
Also, this moment, as explained by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, is something that seals the deal, if you were in doubt after the “I have you” statement:
“He spends his final moments in Baze’s lap, and as his friend stares down at him, devastated, Chirrut raises his hand as if to caress Baze’s cheek. It’s the simplest gesture, but it packs a potent, more-than-platonic current, and as Chirrut expires, it’s clear that Baze does not want to live in a world without this man. He charges almost suicidally into battle, firing at Stormtroopers while repeating Chirrut’s mantra over and over–finally, at the end of his life, paying tribute to his partner’s guiding philosophy–until he, too, is felled. And while there are still plenty of big moments yet to come as Rogue One completes its story and links up with the familiar opening minutes of A New Hope, I couldn’t stop thiking about that near caress and what it might mean. After the movie was over, I asked other audience members if they thought Baze and Chirrut could have been in a relationship, and I was surprised by how many people had been picking up on the same signal.”
I must also add that as Baze faces his death, he looks back at Chirrut’s body, as if he was mentally telling himself and Chirrut that he’d be reunited with him soon. Comfortable friendship is one thing, but showing an all-encompassing love to where you don’t want to live without the other is a completely different kettle of fish, and Rogue One toys with that kettle a lot. If you read their relationship another way, you’re basically sticking your head in the sand.
Another point: Yen did an interview with GT, formerly known as Gay Times Magazine. Movie stars who are playing gay characters do interviews with gay outlets, for instance, Moonlight‘s Trevante Rhodes doing an interview with OUT Magazine. So that kinda cements it as far as I’m concerned.
Chirrut and Baze as two people in a same-sex relationship remind me of what John Cho said about the invisibility of gay Asian men in movies. Cho said that for Star Trek Beyond, he took his character Sulu’s sexuality as a way to pay homage to some of his friends:
“…I always felt the Asian gay men that I knew had much heavier cultural-shame issues…I felt like those guys didn’t date Asian men because of that cultural shame,” he said. “So I wanted it to seem really normal in the future…that there was zero shame in the future.”
In this vein, Chirrut and Baze are even more important; not only are they providing a much-needed outlet for LGBT viewers, but they are also providing an outlet for gay Asian men, who are marginalized along racial lines and within the mainstream LGBT community as a whole.
I mentioned Riz Ahmed above; his character Bodhi is super important because it finally breaks with Hollywood tradition of casting brown actors as “the terrorist” or “the taxi driver.” Finally, an actor like Ahmed, of Pakistani heritage, can be the hero of a film.
Silicon Valley‘s Kumail Nanjiani explained it best with his Twitter thread:
It was also cool to see Tyrant‘s Fares Fares in a role as well. The racial and ethnic diversity abounds in this film, and I’m glad for it.
I liked Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera. The trailers make you think you’re going to spend the majority of the movie with him, but we don’t. I wish we had more time with him.
Saw raised Jyn after was forced to separate from her parents, so you’d think we would have gotten to see more of their relationship after their reunion. It seemed like a waste to just have Whitaker around for a couple of scenes, only for him to die nobly minutes later. Whitaker gave his scenes his all, though; you can’t say he didn’t chew scenery.
K2SO, played by Alan Tudyk, was…interesting. This might be the first droid I’m lukewarm on. I get that he’s supposed to have a personality—all of the droids do—but maybe the personality went a little overboard with this one. He (since the droid is coded as such) sounded a little too human to be a realistic, more crudely made droid, and it took me out of the film a little bit each time he spoke. He did grow on me, but it took a while.
I wish there were more women of color in this film. I address this at length in this article, but just to reiterate, it’d be nice for me, as a black woman, to see more black women and women of color in general do things in this franchise.
Also, it kinda seems like Jyn still co-opts the resistance and becomes a de facto leader, even though she hasn’t done much to earn the role. Meanwhile everyone else who has given much has to follow her, as if they’ve never come up with a bright idea before. That bugged me. Again, the optics—white savior leading POC soldiers towards victory—painted the picture.
Chirrut is awesome, but does his characterization bleed into the “Hero” stereotype of disabled characters? It definitely could.
Much emphasis is on how accomplished and independent he is in spite of his disability, as if his disability is something that would make him weak otherwise. What’s actually true is that he’s strong because of his disability; it’s because of his adversity that he’s found the strength to channel the Force. On the other hand, though, the fact that he uses the Force to see has its roots in the ableism of the script, which posits that with “sight,” Chirrut is closer to being an able-bodied person. However, Chirrut doesn’t struggle against his disability, which is something that is seemingly inherent in the “Hero” stereotype. He seems to embrace it as a part of himself, which is encouraging. In short, Chirrut’s characterization teeters on both edges of the disability stereotype spectrum.
I already mentioned it above, but just to reiterate: It’s not cool when franchises bait the audience. If Chirrut and Baze are together, everyone in the film should be of one accord and say that to the press. Edwards’ maddeningly cutesy answer flies in the face of those who don’t feel Chirrut and Baze’s relationship is a joke to piddle around with. Of course, I’m sure Edwards is a fine person; he, like most of the people under the Bad Robot helm, is all about diversity. I also don’t think he means to turn Chirrut and Baze into a joke. But to say that we should ask the characters takes all of the onus off of him as the director, who has the unique ability of deciding who gets to be what in the movie. He made it a point to have a diverse cast, right? Why not make it a point to say definitively if Chirrut and Baze are in love? What’s the difference? (I know, “money,” but seriously, though, what’s the difference?)
Finally, I didn’t like the idea of reviving characters with CGI at all.
I understand the minds behind the film feeling that Tarkin and Leia were crucial to tying this film into A New Hope. But I just didn’t care for it at all. It was way too creepy and jarring to me. However, Leia looked a lot more convincing than Governor Tarkin (who we know as Grand Moff Tarkin in A New Hope). Like Leia, Tarkin had a body double (Guy Henry), but whereas Leia’s transplanted face looked like it could be sustained relatively easily throughout a film (because of Leia’s Disney Princess like features, which are probably easier to animate), Tarkin’s wasn’t realistic enough. To me, this was a case of the animation needing to be as close to the uncanny valley as possible, if not all the way in it.
For me, Tarkin’s face had too many Pixarisms to make me believe it was a real person. Yes, I know the CGI was by Industrial Light and Magic, but I’m sure there was some crossover at some point since this is a Disney movie after all. The eyes seemed too big, the nose seemed to long, and he ended up coming off as a more realistic version of the old man from Pixar short Geri’s Game.
This video explains what I’m talking about (after much fanboy-ing):
If O’Reilly could play Mon Mothma, who looks just like the original Mon Mothma, Caroline Blakiston, how come Guy Henry, who looks and sounds similar to Peter Cushing, couldn’t play Tarkin without the CGI?
I liked the film a lot. It’s a bit of a mood-killer, since all of our heroes die. But I don’t think we were ever promised they’d survive. The subversive aspect of a genre film like this one injecting some realism is quite jarring; we’re used to the heroes surviving no matter what. Even when Han Solo was supposedly dead from carbonite, he still survived. The fact that everyone dies and not just one singular character ups the stakes for the entire fight for the galaxy. It’s no longer child’s play; it’s hardcore. We’re not just following fun characters on an adventure; we’re following people who will give up their lives for a cause. Things are serious, and it’s fascinating that such a serious tone would inject itself in these films at this point in time. As many have said, this film has a serious social message embedded within it (again, something the film’s team coyly deny). If anything, the film warns us to jealously guard our own freedoms; don’t wait until it’s too late to stand up for what’s right.
I love the new direction Star Wars is taking with The Force Awakens and now Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I even support the fact that Rogue One is rumored to be the first Star Wars film to not begin with the classic Star Wars preamble crawl. Rogue One is also running with the diverse platform The Force Awakens started, featuring a woman as the main character (Felicity Jones) and a main ensemble cast featuring Forrest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Fares Fares, Jimmy Smits, James Earl Jones (as the voice of Darth Vader, of course), and Genevieve O’Reilly.
But for the most part, Star Wars has only been killing it when it comes to white women and men of color. Once again, it’s time to ask the age-old question: What about the black women?
In the latest Rogue One trailer, this lovely lady makes an appearance:
But do we get to learn more about her? I’m already wanting to know the rest of her story and who she is in the resistance.
What’s the worst part of this erasure is that it’s not like Star Wars hasn’t prominently featured black women before. It’s just that the women are usually in the written tales of the franchise. For instance, Imperial naval officer Rae Sloane, who appears in various Star Wars books, her first appearance being A New Dawn.
And Sana Starros, Han Solo’s self-proclaimed former wife, is featured in the Marvel’s Star Wars comics, first appearing in Star Wars 4: Skywalker Strikes, Part IV.
But Disney and Lucasfilm might have not taken a prime opportunity to actually cast Sana or any other woman of color as Han Solo’s opposite in the upcoming Han Solo spinoff film. Emilia Clarke is set to play a prominent role in the Han Solo film, a role that Tessa Thompson, Zoe Kravitz, and Adria Arjona (Guatemalan/Puerto Rican) might have auditioned for. According to The Hollywood Reporter, it’s currently unclear if Clarke’s role is the same role the other actresses tried out for, if the film will feature multiple women. As it stands right now, though, Clarke’s is the only name we’ve heard since the news of Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover landing the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian roles, respectively. That doesn’t bode well for black female Star Wars fans who have been waiting to see themselves represented in a big way in what’s supposed to be a highly diverse intergalactic universe.
PUT SANA STARROS IN THE HAN SOLO MOVIE pic.twitter.com/CwL3epeiOH
— Viktor T. (@wondermann5) November 27, 2016
Also something that’s annoyed many a black woman fan—the fact that the one black woman we do have in the new Star Wars universe, Lupita Nyong’o, is playing Maz Kanata, a character that is completely CGI. (A similar annoyance with black men in sci-fi can be read about in this companion article concerning Idris Elba’s role in Star Trek Beyond.)
Another strike against Lucasfilm and the Star Wars universe is how often black women and other women of color are often cast as Twi’leks, whose women are often enslaved as sex objects. To quote Wookipedia:
“Since female Twi’leks were regarded as graceful and beautiful beings, many of them were forced into a life of slavery at the hands of the galaxy’s wealthy and powerful.”
It’s more than a little disturbing that while women of color are all but absent in the Star Wars universe, they are readily cast as women who are sold into a sexual slavery.
It’s even more disturbing that Oola, the only sex slave coded as a black woman due to the actress, gets killed moments after we see her on screen in Return of the Jedi. There could have been a better outcome for her instead of just being used as disposable eye-candy.
Meanwhile, the Star Wars universe is proliferated with brunette white female protagonists:
This isn’t to disparage against these actresses, since I like all of them. But I’m trying to prove a point. Star Wars has a predilection, a tradition, in fact, of casting brunettes, when brunettes don’t signify all of woman-kind. If Star Wars is really going to be the franchise that puts women first, it’s got to put all women first. Black women and women of color in general have been historically forced to identify with women who do not look like us or experience life like us. You’d think that in a galaxy far far away, it’d be all too easy to find women of color, and not just women of color who happen to be sex slaves. In a way, Star Wars reiterates a fact of life that has been apparent to many women of color; we’re usually more palatable heard and not seen, and if we are seen, then we have to be as vampy and erotic as possible in order to matter. That’s not the kind of message Star Wars needs to bring into something as uplifting and inspiring as a sci-fi space opera that preaches equality for all people.
Am I still going to see Rogue One? Of course. Supporting it means I’m supporting the actors of color who are prominently featured. But my dollars will hopefully act as a means for Star Wars to increase their focus on diversity. Hopefully, this will mean that someday soon, we’ll finally have a sistah in space.
Star Wars is, of course, highly covetable science fiction. We’ve got “tales of daring-do” (as Stan Lee would say), awesome anti-heroes, a young person on a hero’s journey, and one of the biggest villains of all time, Darth Vader. But one constant that might escape the ableist point of view is that all of the Star Wars films involve a relationship between the main character(s) and disability. Specifically, one of the central themes of the the film series is how disability comes to define and/or change the character, either taking them further along their hero’s journey or down the path to the Dark Side. The paths Anakin/Darth Vader and Luke take inform how Finn, another character with a disability, will be treated as he develops in the films after The Force Awakens.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
Anakin Skywalker’s change into Darth Vader is steeped in a classic film stereotype: defining a villain by their disability. Anakin starts his villain’s journey simply enough; emotionally, his ambitions toward greatness lead him to believe that his master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is failing to teach him all there is to becoming a Jedi. Anakin’s distrust of Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order as a whole (which, in fairness, have their part to play in Anakin’s descent by doing nothing to solve the problem of Anakin’s dissatisfaction within the Order) leave Anakin to become easy prey to Emperor Palpatine. Palpatine’s knowledge of the Force allows him to see that Anakin has the potential to become something much greater than what he is, and he decides to use that potential to start the Empire. Not to mention that Anakin believes Palpatine will be able to save Padme from death in childbirth, something Anakin comes to believe the Jedi wouldn’t do (because it’d be an interference with the will of the Force). You’d think with the Jedi being powerful individuals themselves, they’d want to harness all of the power Anakin has for good instead of emotionally leaving him by the wayside, but that’s a topic for a different article, an article that could also compare Anakin to Kylo Ren, who also became a member of the Dark Side due to neglect (in his case, parental neglect).
That by itself has the makings of a great showcase for a hero’s descent into evil (and it would have been great, if the scripts and character development were actually fully realized). But the prequel series decides to ape the original trilogy by having Anakin lose an arm to Count Dooku. Anakin’s first disability is something that defines him both as an able-bodied hero, by taking a sacrifice in order to stop the Evil Sith, and as a disabled villain, a man who will eventually defect from the Order and follow Palpatine.
The loss of his arm leads Anakin to take revenge on Dooku, an act that is taught against by the Order. Anakin cuts off Dooku’s hands and his head, which StarWars.com calls “one of the many turning points for Anakin.” Connecting disability to violence is something that defines the “Disabled Villain” stereotype; because a character isn’t fully able-bodied, the character then becomes angry at the world and decides to take out his or her aggression on others. (It’s also worth mentioning that before and after he loses his hand, Anakin kills the Tuskens and the entire crop of young Jedi trainees, so it’s as if his his inner discord becomes symbolized by his mechanized hand, the thing that takes him out of the “normalized” dynamic and into the space of the “Other.”)
Anakin goes deeper towards his destiny after leaving the Order and siding with Palpatine, who himself becomes disfigured by Mace Windu (after the Order finally put two and two together and realize that Palpatine has been the mastermind the entire time). During his fight with Palpatine, Windu becomes disabled as well—Anakin cuts his hand off, then Palpatine uses his Force electricity to shock Windu out of the window (which strangely has no glass at all). There is a casual quality to the way disability is conflated with evil; two individuals with disabilities are fighting against the “good guy,” who is able-bodied. The theme of inflicting pain on others because of the “evil” disability continues. As Palpatine tells Anakin at some point in the prequels, he must let his hate flow through him.
Media Smarts, ran by Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, backs up this reading of Anakin’s anger and Palpatine’s direction to embrace hate as a consequence of disability. “Throughout history physical disabilities have been used to suggest evil or depravity, such as the image of pirates as having missing hands, eyes and legs. More recently, characters have been portrayed as being driven to crime or revenge by resentment of their disability,” states the site. Media Smarts gives the example of the film Wild Wild West, in which Doctor Loveless has lost his legs. (The site also mentions that the TV version of Doctor Loveless uses another type of disability, dwarfism, to show villainy).
That hate Palpatine carries becomes shown as disfigurement; the hate Anakin carries becomes shown not only as a lost hand, but the loss of all four of his limbs as well as disfigurement. The final battle of the prequel trilogy features Anakin and his once-master Obi-Wan battling it out on an effects-heavy volcano. How they didn’t die just by the fumes and fire is a huge scientific and common-sensical oversight. But the ending of the fight once again conflates evil to disability. Anakin’s transformation into the Darth Vader we know comes after Obi-Wan leaves him for dead in the lava, leaving Palpatine’s droids to piece him back together inside a suit/breathing apparatus. The suit becomes the only thing keeping Anakin alive, but the suit—and Anakin’s disabilities—become symbolic of Anakin’s metamorphosis into a legendary villain. His use of the Force is one thing that struck fear into his underlings, but his classic muffled breathing through his apparatus is what audibly defines him throughout the original series and cements the erroneous relationship between disability and evil for the viewer.
What is interesting is that later on, Vader’s disability makes Vader become a different type of disability stereotype—the Victim.
Media Smarts cites Jenny Morris’ article “A Feminist Perspective” (part of the collection Framed Interrogating Disability in the Media), which examines how disability is used to make the viewer feel pathos with the character. Morris describes it as “…a metaphor…for the message that the non-disabled writer wishes to get across, in the same way that ‘beauty’ is used. In doing this, the writer draws on the prejudice, ignorance and fear that generally exist towards disabled people, knowing that to portray a character with a humped back, with a missing leg, with facial scars, will evoke certain feelings in the reader or audience.” Media Centre cites A Christmas Carol‘s Tiny Tim and The Elephant Man‘s John Merrick as characters whose disabilities are used to garner sympathy, and the moment Luke takes off Darth Vader’s mask during his death scene is also using disability to create sympathy in the viewer. His burned and disfigured face makes him pitiable when Luke finally sees him. Now, he’s not a villain; he’s a man who has finally been redeemed and must be forgiven by Luke and the audience.
Luke’s journey involves disability too, but his tale is laced with yet another stereotype; the “Hero.” Media Centre calls the “Hero” stereotype one involving the character overcoming their disability in order to prove their worth. Stirling Media Research Institute’s Lynne Roper wrote in her article “Disability in Media” that this stereotype is a way for characters to conform to “normal” standards “in a heroic way.” Media Centre uses superheroes like Daredevil (who is blind), Silhouette (who is partially paralyzed) and Oracle (who is a wheelchair user) as examples of the “Hero” stereotype, and Luke adheres to this stereotype as well. Luke is deep into his Jedi training by the time he comes into direct contact with Darth Vader, and his fight with Vader becomes a lynchpin moment for Luke. Vader cuts off his hand and reveals to him that he’s Luke’s father.
There are two choices Luke can make; either he gives into the Dark Side—aka become a disabled villain stereotype—like his father, or he can rise above his father’s expectations of him. Luke chooses the latter, but it’s fascinating how disability is used as means to set up a choice between good and evil in the original series, and how the prequels decide to continue this train of thought.
The theme of disability defining good and evil still endures in The Force Awakens. Towards the end of the film, Finn gets sliced up his spine by Kylo Ren’s lightsaber.
Medically speaking, Finn should have a severe spinal cord injury, most likely rendering him unable to walk or even use his arms. It’s already predestined, by evidence from the other films, that Finn’s disability will propel him even further on the good path (which could include the Jedi path, since the jury is still out on whether he’s Force sensitive).
It’s also clear by all the training John Boyega’s been doing that Finn will be walking in the film. This also ties into another theme of Star Wars: If there is a disability, it must be “normalized.” Anakin goes through excruciating pain as his fake limbs become fused to his body. Luke has a mechanical hand that seems to be linked to his nervous system, just like his father’s. It’s expected that Finn will have a mechanical spine that also has fused to his nervous system, allowing Finn to walk, run, and do other able-bodied functions. In a way, the new appendages not only “normalize” these characters post-injury, but it also suggests to the audience that they are now superhuman to a degree. They can now defy regular expectations and either become a powerful villain or The Chosen One.
Star Wars is a fascinating film series that manages to encompass several themes that are at the root of great science fiction, the main one being that the future features those that accept others regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or disability. But, despite that ideal, the film series still showcases disability in a binary way. Either you’re a once-in-a-lifetime hero or an all-powerful villain if you’re missing a limb. You can probably assume that at some point, Kylo Ren, who wants to live up to his grandfather Darth Vader, will have a missing limb as well at some point in Episode 8. Remember: he still has to complete his training.