A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two straight white dudes, a straight white girl, two robots, an elderly (white) wizard and a walking dog came together to save the galaxy from an evil empire.
And so, Star Wars was born; the first film in a media franchise that would transcend generations, becoming something beloved by those young and old, and in some cases, even followed as a religion. But while it’s hard not to be a fan of original recipe Star Wars, there was one glaring problem, one that spoke to the time in which it was conceived and created: a distinct lack of diversity.
That isn’t to say that Star Wars was a wholly white endeavour. There was one prominent black actor featured, as James Earl Jones provided the voice for the menacing dark lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. But for fans of A New Hope — fans of different colours, races and sexualities — the heroes and villains of Star Wars weren’t outwardly reflective of the society that it was birthed into.
The seeds of change were planted in the hit follow-up The Empire Strikes Back, where audiences were introduced to the charismatic Lando Calrissian, an icon who now stands high amongst the pantheon of great Star Wars characters.
Recently, the character of Lando has proven himself to be a gift that keeps on giving, as, during the press tour for the latest Star Wars blockbuster, Solo: A Star Wars Story, writer Jonathan Kasdan outed Lando as pansexual. This revelation is leaps and bounds ahead of anything we could have possibly seen in the nineteen seventies, but on reflection, shouldn’t we have arrived here sooner? For a galaxy home to a whole swathe of different characters, races and planets – one has to wonder, where’s all that diversity at?
Due to the time of its release, it’s unsurprising that when Star Wars debuted, it featured a predominantly white male cast. However, that all changed when Billy Dee Williams was cast as Lando Calrissian. Lando, an old friend of Han Solo and the previous owner of the Millennium Falcon, instantly proved himself a fan favourite, with his charm, colourful wardrobe and more complex relationship with good and evil than you would see from the likes of Princess Leia or Luke Skywalker. Quickly stepping in to the role of Rebel General in Empire’s sequel, Return of the Jedi, Lando got his moment of glory as one of the two heroes responsible for destroying the second Death Star.
Unfortunately, outside of Lando, the original trilogy remained quite lacking when it came to diversity. Sure, the films sported a colourful and eclectic cast of background characters from different races, but at the forefront – the characters with speaking roles were mostly limited to white male and female characters, Lando, and only the occasional member from those various races (such as Chewbacca, Nien Nunb and the meme-inspiring Admiral Ackbar).
Star Wars was very much taking baby-steps in terms of diversity during its original run. It had offered up one black character, but denied audiences central characters of other races, creeds and sexualities than straight, white, and predominantly western.
When Star Wars returned in the late nineties, it returned to a new era; one where many actors from different ethnicities were just as popular as some of their white co-stars. As such, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith featured tons of non-white characters. The Jedi Council alone was highly diverse, with only two white males present among their number during 1999’s Phantom Menace, with both of them being aliens.
Key among these characters was of course Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). To many who grew up with the prequel trilogy like myself, Mace Windu instantly stood out as a cool character; calm, composed and immensely efficient with his distinctive purple lightsaber, Windu was a welcome addition to the Star Wars pantheon.
However, on reflection, Windu didn’t get up to all that much in The Phantom Menace, and from an older, more critical perspective, offered very little in the way of interesting characteristics in his 1999 outing. This was especially a shame, because out of his fellow, more diverse characters, he was the one at the forefront, and so others like the two female councilmembers Adi Gallia and Depa Billaba, will probably not be remembered by the more casual Star Wars fan.
In fact, a more memorable facet of The Phantom Menace in regard to diversity would be the unfortunate racial stereotypes present in characters like Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans, Watto and the Toydarians or Nute Gunray and the Nemoidians, who some have classed as offensive Jamaican, Jewish and Japanese caricatures, respectively.
Fortunately, George Lucas took a step away from that with Attack of the Clones. Although it is regarded by some as the worst of the prequel trilogy, one thing that Clones does well is make its diverse characters more memorable. It was here that we saw Windu finally light up that aforementioned purple lightsaber, and prove himself as a capable swordsman. However, the true highlight of the film was no doubt Temuera Morrison, an actor of Māori descent, who wowed audiences as Jango Fett, the father and precursor to fan-favourite original trilogy character Boba Fett. Through Morrison’s performance, Jango became one of the coolest villains in Star Wars history, easily surpassing his son due to the fact that while Boba affected a tough, no-nonsense appearance, Jango actually followed through and delivered. It’s just unfortunate that perhaps the best, diverse character of the prequel trilogy had to be killed by one of his peers (Mace Windu). What ever happened to showing a united front?
Morrison’s role in Star Wars didn’t end there, as he continued to portray the likeness and voices of the various clones through until Revenge of the Sith. Arguably a better film than both its prequels, Revenge of the Sith ultimately turned back the diversity dial. While Mace Windu continued to rise and show his efficiency as both a character and action lead, other characters, of different backgrounds and genders, took a backseat, as Obi-Wan, Anakin, Palpatine and Yoda stole the show in most scenes. Even Natalie Portman’s Padmé was sidelined. Once a fighting force who took after her own daughter, in Revenge of the Sith, Padmé became little more than a damsel in distress and a vehicle to bring Luke and Leia into the world.
In 2012, the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm set the franchise on a new path, and more than made up for the mishandling of Padmé. Now, female heroes were far more prevalent in the franchise, as Rey became the new hero of the sequel trilogy, and was joined by the likes of Rose, Vice Admiral Holdo and a returned Leia Organa. Similarly, Maz Kanata came in to fill the void left by Yoda, while Captain Phasma was in effect a Boba Fett for a new generation.
Under Disney’s reign, the television side of the Star Wars universe also saw an increase in female characters. With Anakin Skywalker’s popular Clone Wars Padawan Ahsoka Tano surviving the events of Revenge of the Sith to return in Star Wars Rebels. There, she was joined by other central female characters Hera Syndulla and Sabine Wren. In fact, the push for more female leads was so powerful that another animated show was greenlit, Forces of Destiny, which exclusively shone a spotlight on Star Wars’ various female characters.
The first film in the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, also introduced us to central black and latino protagonists Finn and Poe, while relegating the prominent white male character, Kylo Ren, to the role of villain.
Where the prequels had bought in various nationalities to the human players of the Star Wars galaxy, and little else, the sequels are largely the same for women. Unfortunately, like the prequels were presented to a new age of society, so too are the sequels; one where people are much more vocal about their disdain for seeing so many powerful women as central figures in the franchise, and as such, much of this hatred has been levelled at the current head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy. These critics of the new films take issue with Rey in particular, who they argue, in contrast to other central characters Anakin and Luke – who are seen honing their skills over the course of years – simply manages to become perfect at everything in the course of a few days.
Still, there is one portion of this new age of Star Wars that seems to be looked upon favourably by the majority of Star Wars fans, and it just so happens to be the section that holds claim to the most diverse characters.
First seen in 2016, the Star Wars anthology films began with Rogue One. Like The Force Awakens the year before, Rogue One also had a female lead in Jyn Erso. However, unlike The Force Awakens, with its limited diverse side characters, Rogue One featured a group made up of British-Pakistani, Chinese and African-American actors.
This trend was continued to a lesser degree, with the more recent Solo: A Star Wars Story introducing us to not one, not two, but three prominent female supporting characters. Two of them get killed off, yes, but their inclusion in the journey is still a much bigger step in the right direction than the prequels or original trilogies ever took.
But the most interesting facet of these anthology films regarding the diversifying of its cast does of course centre around the very character who was the subject of the start of this piece: Lando Calrissian.
Although it may be hard to glean without outside context, Lando (now played by Donald Glover) in Solo: A Star Wars Story is pansexual. You could debate how true this is, what with the fact that many have argued if you don’t show a character’s sexuality in the film, then claiming a character has a certain sexuality in an interview of all things is an ultimately pointless endeavour – but there are moments in the film that could make you buy into his pansexuality as truth. His introduction in the film sees him paired with the brazen droid L3-37, with whom it is hinted he has feelings for. This definitely seems to be the case when she is killed off during her droid rebellion on Kessel, as Lando mourns for her more than Woody Harrelson’s character, Beckett, mourns for his dead lover Val.
Lando’s story is similar to that of Holdo from The Last Jedi, who is hinted in one of the canon novels to be interested in more than just your standard humanoid male – her exact sexuality is unspecified (and also, in some ways, rather annoying in that this facet of her personality is limited to the novel and not shown on film, just like Lando), but it does act as a certain important puzzle piece in Star Wars’ quest to build a diverse roster of characters.
Whereas the original Star Wars was white as the icy plains of Hoth, the various newer Star Wars movies are much more diversified. In the sequel trilogy, Clone Wars and Rebels, we have prominent female characters. In the anthology films, we have actors stemming from a larger variety of races. And from the novels and contextual literature, we have an increasing number of LGBT characters.
Disney’s Star Wars has all the components of a truly diverse universe; all it needs to do is combine the elements seen in the different sections of their property, and we may finally get a Star Wars film that’s as reflective of the people watching it as it should be.
NOTE: an earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Oscar Isaac as caucasian.
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