A couple of minutes into the midnight opening screening of Star Wars: The Clone WarsinCincinnati this month, I took a moment to survey the other members of the audience.
The four or five dozen people occupying the theatre came from all over the geek spectrum, from the hopelessly anti-social to the more lovable (like Eric Foreman from That '70s Show) who managed to bring dates along. I think I even spotted a few of the sophisticated geeks of the Tina Fey variety.
I could only spot one other black guy in the theatre that night, though.
Luke Skywalker may live in a galaxy where the color of your lightsaber matters more than the color of your skin, but I don't. Growing up in the '90s in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester, Ohio, my peers made it clear that Star Wars wasn't one of the things that black kids were "supposed" to enjoy.
Still, despite the thin showing of black fans at the recent Clone Wars screening, as more minority characters populate George Lucas' imaginary universe, more African Americans are acknowledging an affinity for Star Wars.
Rappers like MF Doom, the Wu-Tang Clan and hip-hop group Jedi Mind Trick aren't shy about the occasional reference to the Force in their albums. Gnarls Barkley even donned Star Wars costumes for their performance of "Crazy" at the 2006 MTV Movie Awards. Aaron McGruder—the man behind the nationally syndicated comic strip "The Boondocks" and the TV show by the same name—has become a true poster boy of black fandom.
Despite the way we sometimes pigeonhole each other, the answer should be obvious. Yes, sometimes we are.
But stereotypes weren't the only thing discouraging black folk from joining the ranks of Star Wars aficionados when I was a kid. The cast of the original Star Wars films wasn't exactly abounding in racial diversity. Unless you count the booming voice of Darth Vader, which was provided by James Earl Jones, the only black character fans could find in the whole trilogy was Han Solo's old buddy, Lando Calrissian.
Billy Dee Williams' performance as a lovable rogue in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi thrilled me before I could read his name on the credits. I still remember how I felt when my older brother lost his Lando Calrissian action figure in the late '80s. The whole family grieved the loss of that toy; it was almost as if a pet had died.
As I got older, though, I became a little uncomfortable with some of the clichéd, blaxploitation-ish elements of the character. Even though he was the "administrator" of Cloud City, he was still a "gambler," a "card player" and a "scoundrel." And why did the one black character in the saga also have to be the one to betray his friend to the Empire? Plus, Williams' Colt 45 commercials linked Lando to malt liquor forever.
In high school, I identified with The Boondocks' main character, Huey Freeman, more than any other person I'd ever seen in mass media. Like me, Huey complained about the Sambo-like stereotypes he saw in Jar Jar Binks' character in Episode I. Huey even had make-believe lightsaber duels with his brother, Riley, just like I did with my brother, Ken.
Years ago, when we darker hued fans learned that Samuel L. Jackson would be playing a skilled, venerable Jedi Master named Mace Windu in the Star Wars series, it was cause for celebration. The "King of Cool" was bound to portray the sort of commanding and capable Jedi Master that Star Wars fans of all ages and ethnicities could easily respect. But a mass black fan following did not follow.
As a black fanboy, Revenge of the Sith rekindled my affection for the franchise. I was especially relieved that Sam Jackson's character Mace Windu did not go out like a punk. I've also enjoyed seeing Jackson's character—along with other characters of color—have prominent roles in many of the "Expanded Universe" stories that have unfolded in Star Wars novels, comics, video games and animated shorts produced in connection to the prequel trilogy.
The animated movie does not reach the heights of the original trilogy, but it had enough humor and light-hearted adventure to make me look forward to the TV show airing on TNT and Cartoon Network this fall. Mace Windu only delivered a few forgettable lines in Clone Wars, which was disappointing. (I'm hoping Sam Jackson's character plays a larger role in the TV series.) But I doubt too many of the other Psycho Star Wars Guys out there care as much as I do.
As a longtime devotee, I will always come back to Star Wars. The franchise has not truly embraced diversity, but it has made strides since I became hooked in a Cincinnati suburb long, long ago. And perhaps Star Wars' baby steps toward a multi-ethnic universe may pave the way for the coloring of other favorite franchises.
Geoffrey Dobbins is a writer based in Cincinnati.