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Exclusive Interview: “Pretty Dudes” creator Chance Calloway on the power of inclusive webseries

Calloway with Carlin James (left), Dionysio Basco (center) and Leo Lam (right) (Pretty Dudes/Twitter)

You learned a little bit about the inner-workings of Pretty Dude creator Chance Calloway in his #RepresentYourStory article; now he’s back in a full-length interview!

Pretty Dudes has recently wrapped its two-part season finale as well as filming for its theme song music video, all of which is available on the series’ YouTube page. Calloway, who is currently in the middle of casting for the second season, said he is even more consumed with the mission to cast inclusively.

“We purposefully put out a call for more actors with marginalized backgrounds and conditions,”  he said. “We want people with skin conditions or disabilities, people who you typically don’t see represented on screen. …We want everybody[.]”

I was happy to speak to Calloway about why he created Pretty Dudes, why he thinks fans are attracted to the series, and his take on the talk about representation that’s consuming Hollywood at the moment.

Go check out the webseries, which you can watch here. You can find Calloway on Twitter. Pretty Dudes releases a new episode each Tuesday, and you can also keep up with Pretty Dudes on Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Facebook. You can also support Pretty Dudes through a donation via PayPal.


What was the inspiration for Pretty Dudes?

I would say probably the main thing is that I love those sitcoms where everyone lives in one house, like The Golden Girls and Living Single. But…they’re pretty much monochromatic, no matter how you look at it. So…I really liked the idea of having an inclusive environment where we’d be able to talk about a lot of different things, not just have, “Oh, this week, the Latino neighbor comes over,” or “this week, we have the gay sister.” I wanted it to be every week. I figured that would free up more storytelling, but that is also the reality for most people, myself included–we have people with different lifestyles than we have, so I wanted to really explore that and put that out there because I’m thinking if I’m…missing that, then there are other people as well.

A lot of your viewers are clamoring for that storytelling. How important was it for you to have that kind of diversity and the kind of cast that you do have? How important was it for you to cast a multicultural range of actors?

It was very important. When we were doing the initial casting, the only role we specifically requested a certain race for was Ellington because we’d set up this entire storyline of him being black. But all the other characters [ethnicities] weren’t mandatory. [For some of the characters] I specifically did not ask for any Caucasian actors because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with a lot of white actors who could get cast in anything else and not have an opportunity for these actors of color who are working in the industry but never get to play any three-dimensional roles. I wanted to have that reality play out based on the casting, and thankfully, we were able to pull it off.

Webseries including yours are pushing Hollywood further more than the mainstream is. What do you think about the fact that there are a lot of webseries out there doing what folks have wanted Hollywood to do for a long time?

I think it’s great. The great thing and difficult thing about making webseries is that they’re often independently funded. So even though that creates a financial struggle, it allows for a freedom in storytelling and in choices of how you tell that story. So, the mainstream industry won’t greenlight something because they want something that’s safe. Whereas if I just wanted to make it, I could just make it, and a viewer out there could see it and get exposed to a whole world they never would have been exposed to before if it wasn’t for [a] particular series. There are a lot of things about the trans experience or the lesbian experience that I had no knowledge of until I started watching webseries and that’s something that you’re not going to get from Hollywood. I think that’s great because we can be bold in our storytelling and we can really do whatever we want. I think that’s huge.

What kind of response have you gotten from fans of Pretty Dudes?

Oh gosh! It’s been really positive. I’ve been really excited because you never know what you’re going to get. We had pretty much filmed the entire season before the first episode came out…So to put that much blind faith and trust into a project when you don’t know what the response is going to be is a little nerve-wracking. But the stories we keep hearing from people is “This happened to me” or “This happened to my friend,” and people who are really appreciating the inclusion in the storytelling. So, that’s positive.

The cast of “Pretty Dudes” (Pretty Dudes/Twitter)

In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about casting, whitewashing, inclusion, diversity, erasure, all that kind of stuff.

Yes.

As someone who is trying to make stuff that is combating those issues, how have you been taking in the conversations that have been going on right now?

Two-fold. One is that over the last five years, the majority of films that have focused on whitewashing, on white savior narratives have bombed spectacularly at the box office, so that’s been so vindicating–other people aren’t just accepting what Hollywood’s putting out. But on the other hand, it’s frustrating because it reminds you that these are the tastemakers, so to speak, who keep greenlighting these things, which have bombed spectacularly, then you have wonderful content that don’t have any kind of backing who are changing the game, who are making great strides, and it makes you wonder how long it’s going to take before Hollywood wakes up and realizes [this] is where it’s at.

You have a Hollywood film like Hidden Figures, films like Moonlight, Get Out, that have done amazing things, because people are looking for something fresh; people are looking to see themselves represented. It really kind of boggles the mind that you have Death Note and Ghost in the Shell, and they’ll come up with any excuse [for] whitewashing. They’ll even bring up feminism to excuse whitewashing, as if those two things don’t overlap in the Venn Diagram of representation and where Hollywood needs to move to. Like the whole thing with Tilda Swinton [in Marvel’s Doctor Strange]–[the excuse is] it’s so powerful to cast a woman, well they could have cast an Asian woman in Doctor Strange. I don’t get why that’s when things are so quick to descend [into] whitewashing and using white as the default and expecting the rest of us to just kind of show up for it as if we’re okay with it.

And even that argument with feminism–it basically says that white women are women and everyone else is just people.

Right, right!

That doesn’t make any sense at all because like you said with Doctor Strange, if they wanted a female Ancient One, they could have cast any woman. An Asian woman preferably, but any woman could have been cast, it would have been a nod towards feminism, not just a white woman.

Right, exactly. And then they’ll bring up tropes and that they’re trying to protect from those tropes. “If we had cast an Asian man, then we would have been accused of this.” If you look at a lot of the conversations that white filmmakers are [having], they’re never, ever conflicting with people of color. It’s always them saying “People would have said.” Well, who did you talk to? Did you have a room of people with varying opinions and went forth from there? The answer’s always “No,” otherwise, that’s what they’d be referencing. They would be saying, “We had test audiences,” or “We talked to this group of people,” but it’s always like, “We know that these types of people would have said this.” Well, did you ask?

…There needs to be diversity behind the screen as well as in front of the screen. The reason why people behind the screen keep making those mistakes…is because they’re not having conversations among a diverse group. You can go back to the Project Greenlight episode where Matt Damon basically shouts down Effie Brown, just shouts her down about her being wrong instead of listening. You have room for the white guys and one black woman, and you’re not going to listen to the black woman when she’s talking about diversity in the casting, and that’s where the major problems come in.

I purposefully reach out to have female crewmembers on Pretty Dudes, because with me writing the majority of the episodes–even though I’m an at intersection [of being] a gay black man, that still has nothing to do with the fact that I’m writing women characters. So, I know that what I’m writing may be problematic, so I want as many women to read it and tell me what they think as possible because I am not a woman, and I’ll never be a woman. I don’t know what that’s like. In order for me to write a story or a character that’s not problematic, I need voices behind the screen who are going to give me a different point of view. If you look at the situation with Iron Fist or even Ghost in the Shell, you have a lot of white men who are telling you what you’re supposed to think and feel. I’m kinda over that.

Or you have Scarlett Johannson telling you what to think. I still don’t understand how she thinks we’re supposed to think she’s not playing an Asian woman.

Thank God for Black Twitter and Shaun [Lau] of No, Totally and all the other voices out there [including] Asyiqin Haron [for Geeks of Color]. I love the fact that people are bold enough to speak up on a platform that we do have, to say “No, this is not good and these are the reasons why.” If you’re still [not listening], then you are choosing not to listen. It’s just like the co-creator of[the Iron Fist comic book] when he referred to Asian people as Orientals and he said, ‘I know that’s not the word.’ Okay, so you’re blatantly being racist, you’re blatantly showing that you’re unwilling to change. That’s the reality of it all, just blatant disregard. I call it “willful ignorance” of a lot of people, to just live in this darkness because that’s what they’re comfortable with, and they feel it doesn’t impact them. White isn’t the default, and that really needs to change.

Onto a lighter topic, what shows do you watch on a regular basis?

I just started Riverdale, which is a guilty pleasure of mine because it’s just diverse enough for me to feel like, “Okay, cool.” I’m a huge Archie Comics fan. I’m still finishing up Black Mirror. I think I only have one episode left. That show is amazing. I just started Season One of How to Get Away with Murder because I’m super behind. …I feel like when this interview is over I’m going to to think of five more, but those are the ones I’m watching. I’ll always go back to my tried-and-trues, which are A Different WorldGolden Girls, and Community. I’ll watch those any day of the week.

I do want to give shout out–my friend Danielle Truett, her show Rebel just started on BET. I love that this is a show about police brutality through the eyes of a black woman, especially because black women are usually at the forefront of all social change–if you have Hollywood tell it, that’s not the case. But Black Lives Matter is started and led by black woman, and I love that Rebel is looking through those eyes as well.

My final question–with everything that we’ve talked about, where do you see the industry going as far as being more inclusive?

What I think what’s happening is that people are gravitating towards inclusive filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Cary Fukunaga. You can see the people who have the…passion to be more inclusive are the ones who are getting an audience–Donald Glover with Atlanta, Issa Rae with Insecure. I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to keep seeing people watching those shows, those channels, those movies, and Hollywood’s going to have to change or Hollywood’s going to continue to stay behind the longer they stay set in their ways. It’s likely that the industry could recover [or] the industry’s going to metamorphosize into something we don’t completely anticipate, because it’s fascinating that a film like Moonlight won Best Picture. Now, all of these other filmmakers like me, I all of a sudden thought after Barry Jenkins won that I had superpowers. …You just put in the dedication and the talent, and you can change the course.

There are a lot of upcoming filmmakers…who are invigorated by what they’re seeing and by seeing this type of representation, it’s pretty inescapable. But I think we also have to do that not just for black people and queer people, but we have to continue doing that for Asian people and Indigenous people and Latinos. We have to keep going forward and I think it’s also important that we band together, as we did with Ghost in the Shell. All of the marginalized communities have to support each other; that’s the only way we’re going to overturn how things are now.♦

Mediaversity Reviews: “Get Out”

Originally published on Mediaversity

Title: Get Out (2017)
Director: Jordan Peele 👨🏽🇺🇸
Writer: Jordan Peele 👨🏽🇺🇸

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸

Quality: 5/5
Get Out lives up to the enormous hype. A plethora of traditional film reviews can speak to the nuances of the writing, directing, genre-bending, and historical and social contexts, so I’ll just leave you with a succinct quote from Paul Whitington’s review in the Irish Independent:

“Get Out is so clever you could write a thesis on it the length of War and Peace.”

Gender: 2.5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NO
While none of the female portrayals were offensive, their screen time, number of speaking roles, and levels of sympathy were dwarfed by those of the male characters. Look, Get Out has no interest in discussing feminism or gender equality. But that isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, a tightly-executed film with a narrow focus is often stronger than a film that tries to do too much.

In this vein, similar to my feelings on Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, I might love and support Get Out wholeheartedly but would be remiss to score it above a middling grade on Gender.

Race: 5/5
Peele points his finger at American society and lets us know that, dammit, the emperor has no clothes on. White America might look relatively harmless in 2017 (or, at least it did in 2016), but underneath all that self-congratulatory noise about living in a post-racial society, Peele makes the convincing case that white Americans have craved ownership of black bodies for the entirety of our country’s violent history and continue to do so.

He challenges the notion that we’ve made any progress at all. Is today’s coded control of black communities via rigged legal systems, disproportionate levels of incarceration, and cultural appropriation actually any better than literal slavery? It’s a topic few are able to unpack, especially in less than two hours, yet somehow Get Out winks at centuries of painful history and honors it with an absurd, no-bullshit de-pantsing of race in America. No sin is left unturned—every small micro-aggression hints at entire tragedies such as police brutality or sexual objectification, and Peele even finds time to comment on Asian participation in anti-blackness through a single line, as detailed by Ranier Maningding on NextShare.

Meanwhile, one of the most complicated and internal struggles minorities face, cultural appropriation, gets an onscreen embodiment as well. As Amandla Stenberg explains, “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” For the black community, this could look like Miley Cyrus wearing cornrows and twerking, profiting immensely from the controversy. For Asian-Americans, this could sound like studios who say they are “paying homage” as they profit from Asian stories (Ghost in the Shell, Altered Carbon) or stereotypes (Iron Fist, Last Samurai).

Cultural appropriation is so insidious because of its blurred lines between “inspiration” and “theft” which are especially difficult to navigate for those in societal positions of power. All the more reason Get Out feels so necessary; it finds a way to bridge this disconnect, giving viewers a peek behind the curtain of the minority experience where they can feel for themselves the horror of having one’s identity and agency robbed from them for profit, victims able to do naught but watch on helplessly from the Sunken Place.

By the end of the film, we see the ugly guts of America’s racial history spilled out on the streets and are left with no choice but to leave the theater, chuckling a bit but thinking a lot.

LGBTQ: N/A
No representation but too short a program to ding them for it.

However, due to the allegorical nature of Get Out, I found that the racial anxieties explored in the film could be used as a thought exercise for other marginalized groups—for example, the experience of being queer in America. In the same way Peele suggests we lose some of ourselves by “acting white”, is there a similar loss of identity when LGBTQ individuals “act straight” or attempt to “pass”? What’s more important to us—celebrating our vibrant cultures and fighting for acceptance while staying authentic, or do we take the path of least resistance and lobotomize ourselves in order to assimilate into straight and/or white America for access to social and economic opportunities?

Through the lens of the black experience, Get Out presents the tension between the self and the performance for society—of having a double-identity. But this tension is hardly limited to black individuals; rather, it’s an overarching hallmark of the marginalized experience, whether that means being a woman worried about sounding too aggressive during a meeting, or an introvert trying not to seem “anti-social” at a party. Herein lies the magic of Get Out: it strikes a chord with so many viewers and in such personal ways.

Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.17/5
Jordan Peele sows the seeds and we water, nurture, and let bloom our own ideas of what Get Out means to us. Are we the oppressed, like Chris, who just want to live our lives without being interrupted by the crime of existing? Or are we the inadvertent oppressors, who awkwardly code-switch when we meet black individuals? More interestingly, are we both? For an Asian-American such as myself, I relate to the minority experience of being used and erased by white America, yet I also recognize the relative economic privilege of East Asians and the fiscal conservatism of my own parents—positions that sustain systemic oppression of low-income communities.

Get Out is the mirror held up to our faces that forces us to to pause and think about our own culpability in contributing to cultural tensions. The virtuosity with which Peele weaves together this complex social commentary with genuine comedy alongside eerie, horror-flick thrills, is impressive to say the least.

Monique talks Oscar predictions on Ebony.com

These actors and actresses could have some history-making Oscar wins. (Ebony.com)

Are you interested in knowing what my thoughts are about the Oscars when it comes to films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Loving, and Moonlight? Just click on Ebony.com and read my first post for the illustrious website!

I give Ebony readers my predictions on who has the best chances of winning the coveted Oscar trophy. Overall, I think it’s going to be a very, very tight race. Here’s a snippet about Mahershala Ali’s chances at winning Best Supporting Actor:

Yes, Ali bowled critics over with his performance in Moonlight. Yes, he’s had a banner year, starring in nearly everything from Marvel’s Luke Cage to another of the Academy’s nominated films, Hidden Figures. But if there’s one thing Oscar gamblers use to place their bets, it’s the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Ali won that award, upping the ante for what could potentially happen Sunday night. If he doesn’t win, expect people to rise up in anger.

Read the rest at Ebony.com!

All eyes are on The Oscars

THE OSCARS® – Late-night talk show host, producer and comedian Jimmy Kimmel will host the 89th Oscars® to be broadcast live on Oscar® SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2017, on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/Jeff Lipsky)
The Oscars are upon us, and this year in particular, all eyes are going to be on the nominees.
We’re one year out from the phenomenon #OscarsSoWhite, which actually began two years ago by April Reign. The hashtag brought to light how lopsided the Academy nominating process has been, which resulted in showcasing primarily white actors and movies over movies with diverse or majority POC casts, like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Beasts of No Nation.”
Since then, the Academy has taken strides to diversify its board members and nomination list, and this year, the results of that process are promising.
Hidden Figures, Fences, Loving, Moonlight, and Lion are among the films getting top honors, and actors like Mahershala Ali, Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Ruth Negga, Naomie Harris, and Octavia Spencer are poised top possibly go home with covetted statuettes.
With the nomination pool this diverse, it’s more of an even playing field than it’s ever been. But there’s still work to be done, chiefly with nominating women directors and highlighting actors and directors of other ethnic backgrounds. But this is just the first year in an ever-ending battle to keep the Oscars current and truly reflective of American diversity.

“Rogue One:” A satisfying, sad chapter in the “Star Wars” franchise [SPOILERS]

Lucasfilm/Disney

SPOILERS ABOUND!

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?!

The good:

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?

Lucasfilm/Disney

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.

Lucasfilm/Disney

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.

The bad

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.

Lucasfilm/Disney

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?

Final verdict

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.

Queer Coded: Carmilla

Carmilla is a vampire book that, in my opinion, really isn’t as veiled of a homoerotic piece of fiction like Dracula is. While Dracula is couched in mystery and has a fairly strong tug of (suspiciously aggressive) heterosexual love, Carmilla is  full-on lesbian erotica. But also like Dracula, it’s also a piece that functions as a cautionary tale against same-sex love.