The announcement of a new Star Wars trilogy led by Rian Johnson caught fans by surprise just a few weeks before the release of The Last Jedi. Disney’s seemingly blanket approval of Johnson’s work felt tone-deaf to fans who had been hoping for a woman or a person of color to contribute to the saga. This has recently been called into question again with the hiring of Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for a new series of Star Wars films. Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy has certainly ushered in the era of female protagonists Rey and Jyn Erso, as well as the diverse cast of Rogue One. However, the high-profile creators in the rarified air of the Star Wars films remain white and male.
With the addition of Johnson as creative lead but not necessarily director of all three movies in the new trilogy (he could direct the first installment), Lucasfilm has the option to bring in more diverse writers and directors — or to double down on the idea that only white men get to call “Action!” for Star Wars. Many fans who want the former have rallied under the Twitter hashtag #SWRepMatters, founded by Swara Salih, Klaudia Amenábar, and others*. Since it began it has become a reguarly scheduled event with themed conversations, the latest on disability. The hastag has gathered tens of thousands of tweets about existing representation in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation as well as fans’ hopes for the future of the franchise.
Kennedy has spoken on the topic before, saying that Lucasfilm and Disney are looking for directors in the early stage of their careers who have experience with large studios. Johnson himself counts as part of this group only with a stretch — his previously most well known film, Looper, had a budget of just $30 million.
Kennedy told Variety, “We want to really start to focus in on people we would love to work with and see what kinds of things they’re doing to progress up that ladder now, and then pull them in when the time is right.”
There’s an argument to be made that, since mentorship is the key to creating professional contacts in Hollywood, the more people of color and women who succeed, the more they can pull up alongside them. A second argument says that systematic sexism and racism are too entrenched for underrepresented people to succeed in this way. White men could do a lot more to pull diverse filmmakers up to positions where they can be considered for major blockbusters. These are things that Johnson and Kennedy should consider if they truly want to represent their audience behind the scenes.
Kennedy later clarified her earlier statement to Variety in an interview with Screen Crush, saying, “This gentleman [points to Gareth] did Godzilla before we hired him to direct the movie. And that quote was taken out of context. And I, as you can imagine, have every intention of giving somebody an opportunity. So, if somebody actually moves through the process of making movies and wants to make a Star Wars movie, and shows that they have actually stepped into the role on that level, of course we’re going to consider a woman. That goes without saying.”
When asked whether any women had potential to direct a Star Wars film, she did not specify to whom she had spoken but said, “There are many. And I’ve talked to most of them. There are many out there.”
The Handmaid’s Tale director Reed Morano, who revealed she met with Kennedy a while back for an undisclosed reason (but probably Star Wars), is one of the female filmmakers Lucasfilm seems interested in hiring, but has yet to pull the trigger on.
Kennedy touches on the idea of a more calculated mentorship in an interview with Variety, in which she said, “We want to make sure that when we bring a female director in to do Star Wars, they’re set up for success. They’re gigantic films, and you can’t come into them with essentially no experience.” It makes sense that Disney wouldn’t want to set any director up to fail, but with all the chances they’ve taken on white male directors, why not someone else?
Den of Geek spoke to Rachel Talalay, who has directed three of the high-profile finales for Doctor Who as well as episodes of Sherlock, Supergirl, The Flash, and other genre television shows, about possibly transitioning to blockbuster films. Talalay said that she wants to do a big-budget film like The Force Awakens, but that a support structure for women to rise in the ranks behind the camera isn’t there.
“Dialogue isn’t action. What has tended to happen is a series of initiatives that include ‘training programs’ and ‘shadowing.’ These mostly end up diverting attention from the need for actual hiring,” she said.
“It’s particularly hard for women crew members. Name a female composer. I can’t. I can name a few cinematographers, but that’s because I’ve been looking. Location Sound Mixer? I can go location scouting and be the only woman on the bus.”
Of course, it’s difficult to mobilize social change on any level — we see this on larger scales than Hollywood. Star Wars, though, has been a cultural force for decades and is in a prime position to make those changes. Disney can afford to take risks – if they even have a reason to perceive diverse directors and unique creative styles as risks with their tentpole franchises anymore. Case in point, Thor: Ragnarok, which was helmed by New Zealand director Taika Waititi and was lauded by critics and earned $853 million at the box office. Diverse creators also helmed some of Disney’s genre darlings for 2018, such as Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, and Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. The former has already shattered quite a few box office records, with a $427 million four-day opening weekend, and received great reviews.
These directors bring their own cultural sensibilities to their films. In Thor: Ragnarok, Taika Waititi made sure to hire Aboriginal Australian and Maori actors and production interns.
He told Screen Australia, “I just said to [Marvel producer Brad Winderbaum], whenever I do my films I make sure we try to get any locals who might be interested in the film industry to come in and get some work experience, or just to sit around on set and see how it’s done. Because I never had that opportunity when I was a kid.”
Patty Jenkins, director of Wonder Woman, made sure to keep the No Man’s Land scene in the film despite concerns from the crew because she saw it as a necessary focus on Wonder Woman herself. For her upcoming film, DuVernay cast the characters of A Wrinkle in Time as a biracial family and brought on actors such as Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling. Choices like these show that the job of fighting the entropic forces of evil in the movie isn’t limited to white people.
Both Coogler and DuVernay spoke about their films at Vulture Festival LA, emphasizing that they wanted young children to be able to see heroes who look like them. Coogler also noted the power Black Panther’s African-inspired roots brought to the film: “Realizing that we were going to have this film where a father and son talk to each other in this native African language in a superhero movie — it hit me for a moment. It was emotionally moving.”
The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy has broken some barriers in terms of its actors, helped along by J.J. Abrams. John Boyega has used his role in Star Wars to kick-start his career and continue with big-budget genre movies like Pacific Rim: Uprising. But for each step forward, there is a step back: Lando Calrissian did not appear in The Last Jedi despite his addition in the second act of the previous trilogy. Johnson said, “It was never really something that came up…it’s just not something that ever really had a place in the story.”
In preparation for his role as Lando in the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story, Donald Glover turned to Billy Dee Williams for advice about the character. He also noted in an interview that the lack of people of color behind the scenes made him feel like “you have to make people feel comfortable.”
“You have to make them understand that you speak their language — that you speak old white man,” he told THR. The added need to strategize about fitting in is at odds with the effortless abdication of responsibility in Johnson’s “it’s just not something that ever really had a place.”
Kelly Marie Tran notes that she was a beneficiary of casting for The Last Jedi in which the ethnicity of her character was not specified. Abrams changed the face of Star Wars with casting for The Force Awakens, but the saga still lacks black female leads. Lupita Nyong’o has appeared briefly in both Sequels, but she’s replaced by a digital figure instead of showing her face.
As George Lucas chose Kennedy and Kennedy chose Johnson, Johnson also has a chance to bring in compelling diverse talent to work on his new trilogy. Right now, no one really knows what’s coming next for Star Wars. The Disney Era has already seen some contention between the chosen few and Disney, with directors and writers slotted in and out of movies like Solo: A Star Wars Story and Episode IX. Fans will still turn up, drawn in by the universal story of a fight against injustice. But that story means less when marginalized people, those historically most severely affected by despotic regimes, aren’t provided with the resources to tell it.
With a bit more conscious choice behind the scenes, more fans will get the chance to see themselves as heroes, not as stereotypes or as characters quickly shuffled away as soon as they arrive on screen. The next trilogy is a chance to continue to make things right.
*For more updates on #SWRepMatters, you can find the founders on Twitter: