Can Hollywood franchise reboots drive social change as they also usher bucketloads of money into movie studio heads’ pockets? If the idea sounds a tad Pollyanna-esque, it’s currently being test-driven by the new batch of Disney Star Wars films, whose first two installments have starred a woman and an actor of color (Star Wars Episode VII:The Force Awakens); and a woman, a Latino, a British-Pakistani, and two Chinese actors (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) in movies with major global box-office expectations.
So far, the strategy’s paid off. Last year, The Force Awakens made a record-breaking $528 million in worldwide ticket sales on opening weekend; Rogue One made $290 million worldwide on opening weekend after a major marketing push focused on the diversity of its cast, telegraphing to Hollywood loud and clear that Disney has confidence the conventional wisdom about films with minority leads not doing well overseas will prove false. In recent weeks, director Gareth Edwards and actors Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, and Donnie Yen have all given interviews about diversity. Critics have singled its colorful cast out as the reason why it’s the movie “we need” right now (according to Nerdist).
That marks a major pivot for a series that doesn’t have the best track record on race. The previous trilogies’ central protagonists have always been played by white actors. Critics have long noted that side characters like Jar Jar Binks, Nute Gunray, Watto, and the Sandpeople perpetuate nasty racial stereotypes, while some of the film’s props and costumes flirt with the hot-button topic of cultural appropriation (among The Phantom Menace’s many mysteries: Why was the greedy Boss Nass wearing what appeared to be a West African robe?).
But how progressive is Rogue One’s take on race, really? To answer that question, we turned to Kevin Wetmore, a professor at Loyola Marymount University and the author of The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. In his book, Wetmore argues that the two original series either depicted people of color as aliens, or erased them from the film entirely by whitewashing their roles. And though the films have always sided with the Rebellion—the more diverse group that battles the evil, white supremacist-like Empire—the Empire’s “conservative values still dominate, sometimes insidiously in these narratives,” Wetmore says. “There is this sort of preservation within the films of the dominance of Euro-American culture.”
Pacific Standard talked to Wetmore about whether Disney’s latest addition to the series disrupts that dominance, or continues to feature some of the original’s trappings. And readers be warned: There are spoilers ahead.
What made you first start studying Star Wars through a postcolonial framework?
It had to do with the fact that I was studying Asian and African theater in graduate school. I would go see something like The Phantom Menace and [begin to notice that] the things that I was studying relating to colonialism and imperialism are writ large in Star Wars.
Star Wars is always about “the Empire” and “the Rebellion”—so I started to think of how religion and ethnicity in religion were being constructed in their narratives.
One of the things that you have to learn to do, particularly as a scholar, is to think critically about the things you love. And I saw some things in Star Wars that troubled me in terms of how ethnicity was constructed, when items and objects from real-world cultures were put into the films as “alien.” Trisha Biggar, who is the costume designer for The Phantom Menace, for instance, talks about a lot of influence of Chinese court culture in Naboo, and Caribbean culture in the the Gungan world. I thought, what does it mean that you have this underwater race that is more Caribbean, in terms of the way that that group of aliens is portrayed in the films—which tends to be very simple and backward, with them speaking in this sort of Patois?
Is colonialism still a major motif in Rogue One?
There are two things going on: On the macro level, the film is really about imperialism—it is about how empires use their military might, along with their assets on the ground, to maintain control. But on the micro level, it’s also about a small group of people who say we don’t want to live under this, we’re going to do what we can to make a difference, and change our lives. In this new film, we’re seeing [the story] from the point of view of the Rebellion but we also get to see the power struggles going on within the Empire: guys who are competing for the favor of the emperor, and the Empire ruling through military might, and threatening to blow stuff up with a new weapon.
The funny thing about Star Wars is that I think most Americans see ourselves as the Rebellion, fighting for our freedom, when we’re actually now the Empire. The good guys in the original trilogies are European actors with Asian names [such as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui Gon Jinn] fighting against the bad guys, who are either ethnic minorities made into aliens, or have European names—Darth Vader, which is Dutch for “dark father”; Emperor Palpatine, whose name is Roman. Europe is [often] the bad guys in these films.
That’s why I find it fascinating that the No. 1 musical in the past year has been Hamilton. It’s this complete re-envisioning of American history, in a sense, in the Star Wars mold: It’s a musical about a group of ragtag colonials fighting back against a global superpower, but all of the founding fathers are played by ethnic minorities. We’re the Rebellion again. We’re the guys with the jackets that don’t match going up against the shiniest thing in the universe.
It also seems that another theme of the movie is that the Rebellion can be just as violent and cruel as the Empire. Could that complicate the way Americans perceive themselves as Rebels?
Yes, and one of the reasons I celebrate Rogue One is because I think it’s more honest in a way. Star Wars is really a film made for children, we can sometimes forget that: The two saddest things that happened in the original film are the death of Ben Kenobi and the explosion of the planet Alderaan, but the death of Ben Kenobi hits us far more because we’ve gotten to know him as a person. Hundreds of Stormtroopers die during the battles of that film, too, but we don’t feel that so much, and George Lucas does that again with Phantom Menace—who cares if a droid gets shot? Star Wars is war without the casualties, war without the massive onslaught of death.
Rogue One refuses to sanitize war. Spoiler alert: Everybody dies, even the bad guys. This is also a story that acknowledges the fact that the Rebels are killers by virtue of the fact that they have to be. There’s that wonderful scene toward the middle where a [Rebel] captain says: “We’re not good people. We’ve assassinated, we’ve killed, we’ve had to do things for the Rebellion that are not good. But we’re all doing it for a higher purpose, and we want to do the right thing.”
I think we forget at our peril that the overarching narrative is called Star Wars: They are all war films, and they’re really about the acquisition of what you want through killing and destruction. What we’re seeing now is more of a realpolitik [approach], less of a Joseph Campbell fairy tale that we saw in the first two Star Wars trilogies.
You talk in your book about concrete contemporary influences in the older movies, like the Cold War in the original trilogy and the War on Terror in the prequel series. What are the modern circumstances that Rogue One seemed to be responding to?
Two major things struck me. We’ve always seen in the Star Wars films that the Empire is dominated by older, white men, and the Rebellion is far more diverse than the Empire. What I love about this film is that the divide isn’t just based on ethnicity, but it’s also based on class; if anything, this is film about the elites versus the commoners. Most of the people in the Empire that we see are the elites of the Empire, while the Rebellion are the people from the jails, the folks who are just trying to get by, the people from the Outer Rim—flyover country, if you will—and the ones who have been left behind or even ruined by the Empire. I think that’s very much reflective of our time—even before Donald Trump, after eight years of President Barack Obama, there has been this notion of the elites who are out of touch, and common Americans getting screwed over and feeling they have the right to rebel.
The other thing I found really interesting is that, at one point, Captain Amdor, who’s played by Diego Luna, had some lines where, I was sitting in the theater, thinking, “Is he supposed to be Che Guevara?” I don’t think the casting director was sitting there saying, “Hey, let’s pick a guy who’s going to sound a little bit like Che Guevara.” But when you do pick someone who delivers those lines that way, I think it’s natural to expect the audience to go, “Huh, there’s a little bit of a real-world echo there, isn’t there?”
Also, I think you see within the plot about the Death Star the fear the Empire has of the traitor within. I think that is something that you’re seeing in the United States for the first time in a long time, this sort of internal paranoia, particularly on the right. Like when Newt Gingrich said we need to have a new House of Un-American Activities panel. Personally I find that terrifying, but that’s also because we are an empire—in order to maintain, you’ve got to maintain.
Your book argued that in the original trilogies, people of color were often marginalized — they were cast as aliens, or characters of color were played by white actors. Rogue One’s gotten a lot of attention for its diverse cast — how has the trilogy moved on here?
In a sense, it’s moved on in that women and actors of colors are not only its center, but that ethnicity in some ways has become far less relevant in the Star Wars films. On the one hand, it was a big deal that in The Force Awakens, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega—a woman and a man of color—were the main characters, and this is the second film in a row where the protagonist is a woman. On the other hand, though we’re not “past race,” this movie’s actors were cast because they’re great actors, not because their characters need to be a [a particular race]. This is set in a galaxy far, far away—these people could be anything.
These characters do what they do because of who they are, not because of what they are. And I think that’s a very important thing in transitioning the Star Wars universe. There’s that wonderful scene in Rogue One where the Rebellion debates whether to fight and decides not to—there’s this sense of everyone’s at the table, everyone has a voice. You asked me earlier how does the movie show a real-world reflection—that is something that has arisen since the first trilogy, this notion of social justice and social change, and being the change you want to see in the world. That’s much more of a contemporary idea than it certainly was in the 1970s or ’80s.
Are there still some trappings that exist from the old films’ outdated depictions of race?
There are a few, like the blind martial artist Donnie Yen plays. On the one hand, are we now back to Master Po from Kung Fu, the blind Chinese guy who is wiser than anyone and who can hear a fly? Are we sort of doing that stereotypical character?
On the other hand, one of the things I appreciate about the new Star Wars is the subtlety that goes into creating these characters. Here, the psychology is much more elaborate than it was in the original trilogy, and looking at the motivations of the characters beyond their political perspective. To go back to the character that Yen plays, he would have been a Jedi had the Jedi existed, but he just doesn’t quite connect with the Force—you have this much more interesting character of the guy who wants to be Yoda but who really isn’t, taking what could have been a really stereotypical character, and making him, I think, a little bit more complex and more interesting.
There’s always the danger of running into the stereotype, but I actually give the film a lot of credit: I think the writers and director worked very hard to avoid those trappings. I’m sure someone will come along and point something out, and it will be like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right.” But as I said in the book, I see this stuff, and guess what, I still love it. I still wish lightsabers were real, I still want to hang out with Wookies.
If I had one wish while we’re sitting here, it would be to have the next film directed by a woman or a person of color. Or by a woman of color, because I feel like that would create a really interesting story. The whole #OscarsSoWhite controversy shows that this industry that I work in, that I love so much, is still failing in terms of giving opportunities to women and people of color. It is up to people such as myself to use our privilege to point out the Empire is still triumphant. How can we help the Rebellion?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.