A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people of color were outnumbered by green characters, and the only important woman wound up a love slave. The latest sequel in the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, released in the U.S. Friday, is light-years ahead in terms of cultural realism, and everybody—with the possible exception of some Twitter trolls—is on board. The film has already pulled in about $250 million domestically. See, people? Money talks; monochromatic casting walks.
If you were around in 1977, you know that this galactic fantasy featured self-aware droids, a heroic nonhuman and fur-covered co-pilot, and yet not one memorable character of color. James Earl Jones did give voice to the central antagonist, Darth Vader, but the bizarre oversight did garner side eye. Blacks? Latinos? Asians? Whaat? You had a much better chance of spotting a fish-eyed alien.
By 1980, the powers that be wised up and Billy Dee Williams was cast as Gen. Lando Calrissian. And in the largely unloved prequels, we got the glory that is Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu and Jimmy Smits as Sen. Bail Organa, but those powerful actors didn’t drive story.
I’ve got nothing but love for Luke Skywalker and especially Han Solo, but it’s refreshing to see the series embrace the notion in the 30 years that are supposed to have passed since the end of Return of the Jedi that the day can be saved by characters other than white guys. The torch, or lightsaber, is passed to Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is the heiress apparent to Luke, and leading man John Boyega as Finn, who, like my beloved Han Solo, is the cocky guy with a shady past who is reluctantly drawn into the resistance even though he’s got a bad feeling about this.
Latino actor Oscar Isaac plays brave and intriguing fighter pilot Poe Dameron. The Yoda-esque alien adviser Maz Kanata is a female character played by Lupita Nyong’o. In a small role, the flight squad includes a woman, Jess Testor, played by Jessica Henwick, an actress of Asian descent. And when the rebel heroes gather to decide strategy in a callback to Episode IV, it shows a greater representation of human and alien races than we’ve seen in any of the previous films. The casting isn’t forced or clunky here; it’s not presented as an after-school special/public service announcement. That’s what’s remarkable: The gender, race and ethnicity of each of these characters aren’t treated as remarkable.
The parallels to emancipation couldn’t be clearer. Finn says he was “taken from a family I never knew” to go to work for a state that views him as dispensable. Even his name was chosen by his overlords. Sound familiar? After claiming his new name, he informs his former oppressor, “I’m in charge.” By the way, he’s shouting that line to his former stormtrooper superior, a woman named Captain Phasma whom he’s literally looking to trash. This version gets bonus points for being able to handle more than one woman in a position in power.
In this continuation of the Star Wars universe, there are plenty of parallels between the new and old stories and new and old characters, but there are twists. Princess Leia was introduced as a damsel in distress. She did end up knowing how to kick butt, but by Return of the Jedi, she managed to get enslaved and wind up in a gold bikini, which gets her some demerits. (The princess did bounce back.) Rey, on the other hand, is able to independently escape predicaments from the get-go and correctly notes, “I think I can handle myself.” When she tells Finn to stop taking her by the hand, it’s a command, not a request. Attempts to stick her in a sex-slave outfit probably wouldn’t end well.
The trailer taglines for The Force Awakens promise that “the world has awakened” and “the wait is finally over,” and with this latest sequel bringing better-developed roles to a more diverse cast, there’s a good chance the rest of the series will live up to those words.
Elaine G. Flores is a New York writer, editor and bon vivant. She’s a hard-core shipper and excommunicated soap opera reviewer. Her fictional dinner-party guests include Omar Little, Buffy Summers, Abigail Mills and Ichabod Crane. You can visit her site, TV Recappers Delight.