Race, Gender and Cinema: Thank You Star Wars for Getting it Right
Never underestimate the power of cinema to alter the social landscape. In 1915, 50 years after the Civil War, the movie Birth of a Nation was a box-office hit. The film cemented in the popular imagination vicious stereotypes of blacks and celebrated the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It was also the film that President Woodrow Wilson celebrated as an electrifying and accurate portrayal of recent American history, and heralded as one of the greatest American films of all time. Today, we less often have singular films with such dramatic impact, but we do have a steady drip of images that come to us, seep into our consciousness and help images, ideas and possibilities feel more possible, more commonplace, and more normal.
It is in this context that we can pause for a breath of relief and celebrate Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While the film has been lauded for its seamless blend of legacy characters with fresh new ones, and for its steady homage to old storylines while avoiding the feel of a retread, what I find most exciting (and unanticipated), is how the film is just so right on race and gender while not being a film about race and gender.
Not only is director J.J. Abrams’ vision of the Star Wars universe wonderfully diverse (considering all the aliens, the earlier versions were as well), this time they did not as often play to stereotype. Across, gender, race, and umm, planet of origin, you couldn’t predict what a character would be like based upon the physical appearance of the actor. Take Lupita Nyong’o for instance. Given widespread gushing over her beauty and “exotic” look, you might imagine her cast as some sexualized green alien like Oola, the slave who danced for the leering Jabba the Hut in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. (Oola was in fact played by dancer and actor Femi Taylor, who had danced with both the London Contemporary Dance Company and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater). Though appreciative moviegoers would have no way of knowing the back story, at the same time Taylor was rehearsing for Star Wars by day (after having been asked to bring swimwear to her audition), she was performing in the London stage version of Cats by night.
Instead of an emphasis that blends race, gender and beauty to cast to a physical type, Lupita Nyong’o’s character is Maz Kanata, a wise, observant and witty Yoda-like character who is over 1,000 years old. Likewise, it is no big deal that Storm Trooper turned reluctant adventurer Finn is played by John Boyega, a black Londoner. And, of course, it is wonderful to watch Daisy Ridley play a female character who is equal parts befuddled and annoyed that the barely-able-to-care for-himself Finn would be running around early in the movie as if he was there to save her.
The beauty and irony of Star Wars is its reflection of real world diversity. People are not their skin tone, or accent, or height, or weight, or whatever other outward manifestation strikes us. And people’s character attributes do not map to race and gender such that women are seductive and sexual, men are brave, blacks are menacing, and whites are heroic. Instead, people are individual and complex and surprising, and you never can quite know who will embody what characteristics from just a glance.
These days, before going to a movie I scan the cast list. If the movie features, say, 11 people in Egypt, and 10 of them are played by white people, and the 11th is a bald black guy listed as “Guard,” I simply don’t go.
It’s not about dramatic protest, it’s simply disinterest in such unrealistic representations. Given such choices I’ll take a “fantasy” Star Wars any day of the week. It’s not that hard to cast in such a way that reflects the diversity of our world.