‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Still Struggles With Race

John_Boyega_97807Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the movie everyone is talking about. It’s breaking records with each subsequent day it is in theaters. And after successfully avoiding spoilers before seeing the film for myself, I can say that the actual content of the film was overwhelmingly successful by staying true to the spirit of the franchise. But the Star Wars film franchise was born way back in 1977, and that classic sentiment could use an upgrade.

In the fantasy world of Star Wars, poverty still exists, but the “haves vs. the have-nots” trope is largely absent. Sexism remains an obstacle. But in almost every instance where it presents itself, that sexism is either beaten to a pulp or has the life choked out of it. And in a galactic war setting with a mixed bag of aliens apt to show up at any time, race doesn’t even seem like a reasonable discussion to have. Still, it is odd that the Star Wars films deliberately steer clear of any talk of race but have no qualms about forcefully dealing with other areas of marginalization, even empowering those within those marginalized groups.

Ignoring these subjects can have inadvertent effects on viewers. The inhabitants of a galaxy “far, far away” might understand that different skin color doesn’t make one’s humanity different from another, but that’s not how we see things playing out everyday in our world. Even as we see the new character “Finn” portrayed by “confident, Nigerian, Black, chocolate man” John Boyega and #1 Resistance pilot “Poe Dameron” being portrayed by Latino actor Oscar Isaac (Hernández), the roles they play don’t feel nearly as empowering for minorities as their castings do because there is no concept of race in the Star Wars universe to begin with.

This isn’t abject racism or discrimination. I’m not accusing the filmmakers of some half-baked “hyper-tokenism” theory either. But, it is symptomatic of the squeamishness Hollywood has around race. Too often, minority characters are stereotypes, stand-ins, or simply absent. And in Star Wars: The Force Awakens where there are two major minority characters, we barely even scratch the surface of their origins. They do the work of casting diverse actors and actresses only to gloss over the significance of these roles in the actual film itself.

I won’t even touch the fact that the iconic Lupita Nyong’o was cast as a small, red-skinned alien with bifocals rather than as the gorgeous Black woman that she is.

As viewers that don’t live in a colorblind world, it is silly to think that we won’t see race in the characters that appear on screen. We know how genetics work, and we know that Finn probably doesn’t come from two ivory skinned parents. And to continually ignore this fact is to treat us as if we’re flat out stupid. Maybe this is all a part of the plan, and as we get to know Finn and Poe better, we’ll also learn more of where they came from. But judging by over 30 years of canon, we have no reason to expect anything.

And that is what is saddest of all. Sci-fi properties have a history of progressive views. Looking into the future or into different realities, sci-fi is able to explore what things could look like if our ways changed. And comparing two of the most beloved sci-fi universes, Star Wars and Star Trek,  this is one area where Star Trek is the clear winner.

Where Star Wars is about action and broad swaths or universal emotion, Star Trek is about exploration, understanding, and progress, and through this lens, difficult or uncomfortable issues can always be discussed as a means for achieving enlightenment. Unfortunately for Star Wars, it’s idyllic, colorblind notion of race being a non-factor is a glaring failure.

None of this takes away from the film’s entertainment factor. I still plan on buying the ridiculously large box set of all Star Wars films once this new trilogy is complete. I’m sure I’ll watch this again On Demand once I can stream it at home. But I still hope that the next two films in the trilogy move away from racial erasure and become true champions for real diversity, rectifying decades of silence on race in mainstream entertainment and news media.


Photo credit: YouTube

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Daren W. Jackson

Daren is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. He's a writer, music connoisseur, and comic book geek who spends his free time working on his novel and other short stories.

5 Responses

  1. Shawna says:

    Well stated. What you describe would be a great addition to the film’s character development and back story. I thought this movie was very good and I loved the ‘good’ characters. I don’t typically follow Sci-fi films so I was drawn by the action and special effects I anticipated. I also like the tangled web of relations between the dark side and the good side. Now, I have to view the previous films in the series to see what I missed or otherwise, completely forgot about.

  2. D Jackson says:

    Thanks. It will be interesting to see how deep the next films dive into their origins.

  3. Dusty Ayres says:

    Why should they do so at all? Sometimes, an air of mystery is great for a character, black or white, male or female.

  4. D Jackson says:

    The trick is to give us more of their origins and backstory while keeping their characters interesting. Sometimes, learning more about a character allows us to relate more and to be more invested in their success or failure.

  5. Dusty Ayres says:

    Sorry Jackson, but having to know everything about a character does not make a character great. Perhaps we will get something about what Finn is in the next movie, perhaps we will not.For me as a black male, we got a black character front and center in a Star Wars movie holding his own with the white characters, and that’s good enough.

    Also, Lupita being a small alien with glasses takes nothing away from her performance. Perhaps people like yourself should consider writing your own sci-fi stories/scripts with black people in them, and giving it a go in the entertainment industry instead of constantly dissing accomplishments like this at a blog.