This article contains spoilers for Rogue One…
When science fiction author Samuel Delany first reviewed Star Wars(now known as A New Hope) back in a 1977 issue of Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy, his review was overwhelmingly positive, save for one, major caveat: the lack of diversity in George Lucas’ vision of this faraway, long ago galaxy. He wrote:
When you travel across three whole worlds and all the humans you see are so scrupulously caucasian male, Lucas’ future begins to seem a little dull. And the variation and invention suddenly turn out to be only the province of the set director and special effects crew.
How does one put in some variety, some human variety? The same way you put in your barrage of allusions to other films, i.e., you just do it and don’t make a big thing.
For Delany, and many other Star Warsfans, the franchise’s lack of diversity represents not only a failure to include many fans’ identities in this fictional world, but also a lack of imagination in a genre that prides itself on pushing social boundaries and serving as a reflection of our real world.
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However you may feel about the plot, characters, and visuals of Rogue One— based on both critical appraisal and word of mouth, you probably feel pretty good about your latest Star Warscinematic experience — this movie is a triumph for finally portraying the big-screen Star Wars universe with an inherent diversity that has been missing since its inception.
Recognizing the Diversity of Rogue One
Not only does Rogue One have a woman in the lead role (and paid her the most money in reflection of that fact) in Felicity Jones, but its secondary lead, Cassian Andor, is played by Mexican actor Diego Luna. Rounding out the main cast of heroes are Chinese martial artist Donnie Yen, British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, and Chinese actor Jiang Wen. Rogue Oneis the first Star Warsfilm that has Asian main characters.
This continues a trend that began with The Force Awakens,which, like Rogue One,has a woman and a man of color as its central protagonist-team. Rogue Onetakes this diversity one step further, including zero white male characters in its ragtag team of hero protagonists (though Alan Tudyk does voice droid K-2SO), a choice that it so rarely seen in a Hollywood movie of this size, budget, and cultural influence that I cannot come up with another example of it.
Furthermore, pretty much every white male character in this movie (with a few exceptions) is a villain and/or works for the Empire (in Galen Erso’s complicated case). This not only works on a narrative level as something different in a sea of movies about white male heroes, but also on a thematic level. Rogue One is a movie about rebellion. In our world (and in most of the movies we make) white men have power. Therefore, it makes sense that the rebels challenging that power structure would fall into different demographics.
The diversity in this movie not only happens in its main characters, but in its supporting characters, as well, something recognized by Silicon Valley(and X-Filessuperfan) Kumali Nanjiani in a recent Twitter reaction to seeing Rogue One:— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) December 16, 2016— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) December 16, 2016— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) December 16, 2016
Our story is obviously set before the original Star Wars film, and the Rebellion is fractured and dysfunctional and broken up into little parts all over the galaxy. Those white, male British X-Wing pilots and Americans you see in the original Star Wars, they make it into the movie, but we have soldiers who don’t go beyond this film and we wanted to represent new parts of the world.
Star Wars is so rich and it seems crazy that everyone’s, like, a white male guy. That’s due to the 1970s and the fact that it was shot in Britain, but I was very lucky: I’m British, I grew up in England, and I got to see myself represented in a film. I think it’s about time that we represented the rest of the world. We were all in agreement that not just because of the story, but because it’s 2016, it’s great to have such a diverse cast.
The Problem with the Chosen One
The original Star Warsis often used as an example of the monomythic Chosen One narrative, a redundant storytelling structure in Hollywood stories that relies on the individualist logic that there is only one person (usually a man) who can save the day.
As a franchise blockbuster, Rogue Oneis refreshing in so many ways, but perhaps most of all because of the way it subverts the idea that there is a specific person who must save the day. This narrative framework is grounded in patriarchal, racist subtext because it reinforces our real-world simplistic historical narrative that it was a series of white men who shaped our world and country, erasing the considerable contributions of the marginalized groups who played a huge part.
Rogue Oneis very cool for the ways in which it makes A New Hopeinto a better movie. This is most obviously seen in its explanation of why the Death Star had a single, fatal flaw, which doesn’t make much sense, unless it was put there purposefully. We find out in Rogue Onethat it was.
However, the broader way it makes A New Hopeinto a better film is that it gives context to Luke’s heroic deeds. When Luke shot his torpedoes into that exhaust vent, he destroyed the Death Star, but it wasn’t just his victory. It belonged to Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor and the countless others who made that moment possible.
The Smurfette Principle Strikes Again
Side note: Though Rogue Oneis refreshingly diverse when it comes to casting international actors of color, it is depressingly stagnant when it comes to gender balance. Though we get Jyn as our hero, she is the only female rebel on the surface for the Scarif attack. There are no other women in Rogue One’s crew and, though there are some women scattered into the background during the Rebel meeting scenes (and we get another example of female leadership in Mon Mothma) and one female pilot in the Scarif space battle, the number of women on screen falls far below the realistic level.
This is a classic case of The Smurfette Principle, a common trope that sees a cast of male heroes with exactly one female hero. In our current pop culture era, the Smurfette is often in charge, which is a step in the right direction in terms of representation, but it’s still extremely rare to see on-screen worlds that are 50/50 when it comes to gender breakdown — especially when it comes to big-budget fare.
Frankly, the Bechdel Test is a pathetically low bar for Hollywood movies to step over, and they often still can’t manage even that. I’d like to see more Hollywood films strive to make 50 percent of the on-screen characters (lead, supporting, and background) women. I’ll even give back that one percent that we have in real life (the world has a 51/49 gender split in its population).
Increased Diversity: Social or Financial
So is this increase in Star Wars-ian diversity a social choice or a financial one for LucasFilm and Disney? I’m not sure if the two motivations can be separated. Speaking to Esquire about the subject of diversity in Rogue One, Diego Luna said:
It gives me hope that these gigantic films that reach everywhere are finally representing the planet and not just one market. Today, the market is the world, and the diversity we experience every day is being portrayed [on film]. That is something to celebrate, you know?
My feeling is that audiences are sending a message, and the message isn’t heard. Audiences want to feel represented, want to be able to empathize with the characters and the stories they are seeing on the screen. And this is exactly that.
The casting of two Chinese actors in lead roles in particular seems directly informed by Hollywood’s current goal of appealing to the massive Chinese box office and the millions of dollars it represents, but it still has the same effect, regardless of motivation: The greater diversity in Star Wars means more kids and adults get to see people who look like them in one of our great modern myths. That’s good for Disney’s bottom line and it’s good for humanity.