The ‘Star Wars’ saga may take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” but much of it reflects our own planet Earth’s social issues of the eras each film was made in. Race issues are no exception. Lucasfilm (now under Disney ownership) announced Wednesday its consideration of Maisie Richardson-Sellers, an Oxford actress, to fill the role of a black or mixed race character in the upcoming film, Episode 7. Whether Richardson-Sellers or another actress of color gets the part, both the character and its actress will make the film a culminating example of how society is including more women and people of color in major roles both in film and reality.
Real world social issues have been reflected in the “Star Wars” films ever since the original movie in 1977 and will probably continue reflecting contemporary issues in the upcoming films. The first movie, “A New Hope”, consisted of an all-white cast as far as major characters go. (Although James Earl Jones, a black actor, spoke the voice for Darth Vader, the character is white as is revealed in the sequels). But even so, it still reflected the social issues of the time, particularly issues of social change. The movie’s heroes’, mostly young rebels and so members of the Rebel Alliance, battle with the Empire reflects the ‘60s/early ‘70s youth rebellion against the status quo. In addition to this, an element of the ‘70s women’s liberation movement can also be seen in the movie. Princess Leia is a stronger, more active female character than those of most other science fiction movies of the time and before. She doesn’t allow the male chauvinistic Han Solo to talk her down which is exemplified in the Death Star scene when she grabs his blaster and starts firing at the Stormtroopers. Let alone she is on an ambassadorial mission.
In 1980, “The Empire Strikes Back” introduced the series’ first black character, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who is administrator of Cloud City and becomes part of the Rebel Alliance. He goes on to take part in full battle in the next film, 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”, even to the point of making a major contribution to defeating the Empire in the end. Also in “Empire”, we see our first handicapped heroes of the saga. Yoda has to get around using a cane, although this is somewhat typical of the old sage type character that he is. But the young Luke Skywalker loses one of his hands in his duel with Darth Vader (who himself has been handicapped since the first movie). Luke continues battling the empire in “Jedi” regardless of his handicap, which is accommodated by a robotic arm.
Also in “Jedi”, besides Princess Leia’s continuous strong character, another female character of a major occupational role is introduced, as small as the part is: Mon Mothma. Mothma is one of the founders and the leader of the Rebel Alliance.
In 1999’s “The Phantom Menace”, the first installment of the prequel trilogy, a black actor (Samuel L. Jackson) plays the role of another major character: Mace Windu, a Jedi Master. Also in “Menace”, Queen Amidala/Padme is a strong female character who takes an active role in battle and political advocacy like her daughter Leia does in the original trilogy. These roles continue through the final episode of the prequel trilogy, “Revenge of the Sith”.
Now with the upcoming Episode 7, set 30 years after the period of “Return of the Jedi”, Lucasfilm is in the process of filling a role of “a young black or mixed-race woman who may be a descendent of Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi,” speculates “The Hollywood Reporter”. Even though “The Reporter” claims that the role has not been disclosed, it also speculates that it may be a major one. If the role turns out to be that of a mixed race character, that would reflect contemporary racial integration even more than the other films, since mixed races have become more common today than in 1977.
Even though “Star Wars” has primarily been an escapist fantasy series of movies, on a certain level it reflects our own reality’s social issues. All films do this since they are shaped by the societies and time periods they are made in. However, because of its creators’, particularly George Lucas’ (and now Abrams’), open minds that grew out of the ‘60s/early ‘70s film revolution, “Star Wars” does this more in the area of social change while yet appealing to audiences on a mythical and fantastical level. Even though its genre has been debated (even Lucas himself has denied it being science fiction), “Star Wars” is, even if just in the slightest, an example of what great science fiction is supposed to do: point to needed social change for a better society even if it doesn’t do so on utopian or fairy tale happy ending terms.
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