“You can judge a nation, and how successful it will be, by how it treats its women and its girls.”
There goes Obama again tapping into one of life’s basic principles. You can always tell how good or successful something is going to be by how it treats the “least of these” in its respective industry, genre or profession. You can tell how successful a business will be by how it treats its interns; how good a magazine will be by how it treats freelancers; how good a restaurant will be by how it treats waiters.
This is true in movies, too. You can definitely tell how good and successful a movie will be by how it treats blacks, especially in sci-fi and fantasy. The Matrix franchise, where black folks are heroes and generals? It became one of the highest-grossing and most influential franchises in Hollywood at the time. The Walking Dead, which in the last three years has killed off almost every person of color and turned the rest into concubines and cuckolds? The show is now trash (literally). So, by the transitive principle of good black folks equals good movies, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a very good movie, mostly because of what happens with Finn, played by teen-geek heartthrob John Boyega.
In case you forgot, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Finn was essentially a joke. Despite being an escaped soldier from the First Order, Finn basically served as an intergalactic janitor (seriously)—he got beat up by everybody and, despite real chemistry between Finn and Rey (played by perpetually bland Daisy Ridley), Hollywood and fanboy racism made sure she curved him by the end of the movie.
Let’s be honest—that girl had spent her whole life seeing nothing but aliens and digging through dumpsters on planet Jakku. If it weren’t for white Hollywood writers, I promise you, if she saw this body sweating across the desert, her first order of business would not have been finding her parents.
All of this sets up why The Last Jedi was such a great film. Finn, along with more women, people of color and just about everyone else in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is freed up to act believably, organically and realistically. The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like it’s trying to keep fans of the original films or appease a mainstream audience; it’s a movie unto itself, and the viewer benefits from director-writer Rian Johnson’s honesty.
Taking one of the few positive beats from The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi shows conflict within the rebellion and its cost in lives and precious time. Poe Dameron’s (played by Oscar Isaac) cocky-space-fighter-pilot trope is turned on its head as he repeatedly makes daring moves that don’t quite work and older, wiser women in command are forced to correct and sometimes just out and out restrain him.
Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) is clearly too old for this shit and has developed fantastic comic timing and acerbic wit while hanging out alone on an island for 20 years. He delivers his lines to Rey with the knowing wink of a comic-book-convention Will Shatner while still staying in character. Most important, Finn finally gets his own story arc that has failure, courage, redemption, action and, believe it or not, unexpected romance. Boyega is such a gifted actor that even amid crazed gun battles, his steely glare shines through.
Boyega isn’t the only one doing it for the culture in The Last Jedi. Kelly Marie Tran’s character, Rose Tico, is amazing, funny, smart and valuable throughout the film. There are guest appearances by famous black folks who aren’t covered in face paint or computer-generated imagery (see if you can spot Michaela Coel from Chewing Gum or Danny Sapani from Penny Dreadful), and I’m pretty sure that the majority of the rich, high-rolling, dark-skinned aliens on the casino planet were played by actors of color.
Is the movie perfect? Of course not. Despite some excellent special effects for native animals and the opening space battles, Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) remain the biggest drawbacks of the film. They’re both flat actors trying to put passion into roles they’re not suited for. Worse, they clearly need more combat training because their light-saber battle scenes look like a fifth-grade community ballet practice.
Moreover, while Finn himself is a much stronger, more courageous character in The Last Jedi, the filmmakers still can’t give a brother full agency—most of his plans fail as well, and his most heroic moment is ... complicated, to say the least. Also, at some point, Hollywood needs to end its embargo on interracial romance when the lead isn’t a white man, because it’s abundantly clear by the end of the film that Rey feels some kind of way about Finn, and there should be a love quadrangle centered on the two of them that’s being assiduously avoided.
You’re going to go out and spend money to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and you’ll enjoy it immensely. After almost 10 movies and who knows how many cartoons and specials, the franchise has finally learned how to treat people of color better than magical space wizards or gambling pimps and scoundrels. Now, if we could just get some women or people of color to direct one of these movies, there truly would be a new hope.