When the cast photo for the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII was released in April, nerds everywhere jumped for joy. The rumors that had been swirling around for a few years were true. Not only were Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher reprising their roles from the original trilogy, but they were apparently going to be leads alongside at least seven newcomers to the series. Han, Luke and Leia—as well as Chewbacca and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2—would all be back on the big screen for the 2015 premiere. But the more I stared at the newly revealed “full” cast photo, the more I sensed a great disturbance in the Force: Where was Billy Dee Williams?
Unless you’ve been living on Tatooine for the past 30 years, you already know that Williams’ character, Lando Calrissian, was the original “black guy in Star Wars,” before Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu appeared in The Phantom Menace in 1999. Lando was not in the very first Star Wars movie in 1976, but he was one of the four major protagonists in the subsequent films The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. A deep analysis of the character, his enduring appeal and Williams’ incredible talent could fill a book, so I’ll just quote The Root’s own Stephen A. Crockett Jr.:
He also wasn’t a sideshow or a bit part but a relied-upon black character with as much game and wit as Han Solo. And let’s not forget (spoiler alert) that it was Lando who destroyed the Second Death Star!
The exclusion of Williams from Episode VII is particularly strange because of all the lead actors from the original films, he’s been the one most consistently willing to return to his character. He has returned to Lando again and again over the years, to the delight of fans like me—from video games like “Jedi Outcast” to audio dramatizations of the Dark Empire comic series to Robot Chicken “Star Wars” episodes and even to Web parody videos for which he can’t possibly be getting paid.
I notice that Williams’ distinctive voice seems to pop up whenever I least expect it to, often adding a dash of cinematic authenticity to spinoff products and fan creations that otherwise consist only of bad Harrison Ford impersonators. All of these appearances spell out one thing: Billy Dee Williams really likes being Lando Calrissian.
Meanwhile, until the possibility of a movie revival was raised a few years ago, Ford, Hamill and Fisher had done just about everything they could to distance themselves from their Star Wars past. Ford, as recently as 2010, insisted he would not be returning to the character of Han Solo, telling MTV, “No, no, no. Han Solo was very good to me at a certain point in my career. But I’m done. I’m done with him.” (Translation: “Nerdy sci-fi was fine when no one knew who I was, but it’s a bit beneath me now that I’m Harrison Ford.”)
I’m as happy as a droid in an oil bath that white actors Ford, Hamill and Fisher were able to overcome the burden of being adored by millions of nerds and accept the invitation to return to Star Wars. But this makes the omission of Williams all the more glaring. As GeekTwins breaks it down, Williams has repeatedly gone on record saying he would like to play Lando again in Episode VII if the opportunity arose. That’s not hard to believe given that he’s essentially never stopped playing Lando. It seems likely, then, that he was simply never invited.
Episode VII director J.J. Abrams has openly stated his desire to have a cast more racially diverse than previous Star War films, and to that end he has added black actors John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o and Crystal Clarke and Latino actor Oscar Isaac to a cast that now includes at least 17 people. This is fantastic news, and it may go a long way toward making up for Star Wars having brought us the walking racial stereotype that is Jar Jar Binks. Abrams has also made clear his desire to have this movie act as a generational bridge between the characters of the classic films and the new, younger characters he is adding to the Star Wars canon.
Gosh, if only there were an existing Star Wars character that could contribute both to the theme of “legacy” and also to the racial diversity of the cast!
Of course, there is. That’s why, regardless of why Abrams has decided to omit Lando, it is a huge mistake. Williams has built up an enormous amount of goodwill with Star Wars fans since his initial Empire appearance in 1980. Lando may have been slightly late to the party, but after 30 years, he’s now well established as one of the “big four” rebel heroes. Any Star Wars fan watching the movie will be distracted by the same question that distracted me looking at the cast photo: Why isn’t Billy Dee Williams in it? And why?