Wednesday, May 19, 1999
Special to The Globe and Mail
Toronto — In Kevin Smith’s 1997 film Chasing Amy , a character named Hooper-X delivers his take on the Star Wars trilogy: “Those movies are about how the white man keeps the brother man down, even in a galaxy far, far away,” he rants. “You got cracker farm boy, Luke Skywalker, Nazi poster boy, blond hair, blue eyes — and then you got Darth Vader, blackest brother in the galaxy, Nubian god.”
Hooper-X goes on: “Vader is a spiritual brother, down with the Force . . . and then there’s cracker Skywalker — gets his hands on a lightsaber . . . gets a whole clan of whites together, and they go and bust up Vader’s hood.”
That may be a topsy-turvy reading of George Lucas’s manichean epic, but framing Luke Skywalker as an Aryan warrior does remind us of the serious shortage of racial minorities in the Star Wars universe. You might as well subtitle the new The Phantom Menace “The Token Returns” — Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Mace Windu is so paltry that he didn’t make February’s Star Wars cast spread in Vanity Fair, and the exotically named Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn is not played by, say, hot Asian actor Chow-Yun Fat, but by blue-eyed Liam Neeson.
It’s as if the tenets of colour-blind casting were being applied in reverse. Over 30 years after Star Trek set a multicultural, multi-species standard with characters such as Uhura, Chekhov, Sulu and Spock — an assumption of interstellar diversity taken up by later outings such as the Alien series — Lucas’s fantasy galaxy remains overwhelmingly white.
In the original Star Wars, the spectrum was limited to white actors with American or British accents, golden robots with British accents, and alien species for local colour. Lucas could conceive of Jawas, Wookiees and sandpeople, but no variations on the human theme — 1977 does seem long ago, doesn’t it?
There was, of course, an important exception in employing the off-screen voice of black, veteran actor James Earl Jones for Darth Vader. It was Jones’s captivating voice that summoned up the aura of the Dark Side of the Force (as if Barry White had used his buttery bass in service of hate instead of sweet, sweet love). Despite his malevolence, Vader was taken up as an icon of black youth culture, name-checked on countless rap albums.
Yet when the dying and penitent Vader finally reveals his face to his son, Luke, in The Return of the Jedi , the supposed origin of The Voice is merely a feeble, old white man. For some fans and critics, this was the ultimate betrayal. As academic Daniel Leonard Bernardi puts it, “Once Vader returns to the Force, to the side of good, he literally turns white.” This was colour-drained casting, an actual onscreen whitewash. Yet Jones was so convincing that it’s still going to be hard to accept Vader’s youthful self, Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace ,as a little blond kid.
Someone seems to have taken Lucas aside by the time of The Empire Strikes Back , in which Billy Dee Williams plays Lando Calrissian — a gesture that might have seemed genuine if Lucas had also bothered to integrate the supernumerary forces of both the Empire andthe Rebellion. By Return of the Jedi , critics such as The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott were openly mocking Lucas’s lame efforts at inclusion, referring to Lando “of the black face and the name that is called Tokenism.”
In stark contrast, not only has the Star Trek saga always had inclusive casts, it’s gradually gotten more so — daring to venture beyond the usual black-and-white boundaries of race in America by accommodating characters of various Asian and indigenous backgrounds. Across its several films and TV series, Star Trek has also explored interracial relationships and love between different life forms (though not same-sex ones, to the disappointment of U.S. lobby group the Gaylaxians).
Even the treatment of aliens is different. Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans sometimes oppose humans, but from a position of equality, while Star Wars aliens are predominantly freaks and inferiors — the oversized-dog Chewbacca, the fanged-teddy-bear Ewoks, the gross Jabba the Hutt. It’s not until the third film that the Rebellion’s forces, running short on manpower, finally allow other species a decent crack at the good fight (reportedly the new film moves further in that direction).
But why, over all, does Star Wars fail so completely on race? As Peter Lev notes in Film Literature Quarterly, “the clean-cut, well-spoken, white youths of the film seem to come out of an idealized version of the 1950s.” That world, is much like the small Northern California town where Lucas grew up, which he depicted with a bit more grit in American Grafitti . That nostalgia — combined with the American notion of space as the final frontier, the cosmic equivalent of the Wild West — might explain why Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine, is filled with rugged white settlers and cantinas full of dangerous (illegal?) aliens.
Lucas was also, unfortunately, inspired by writer Joseph Campbell, who reduces the legends of many cultures to a “monomyth” — one universal story, an uber-narrative deracinated and de-contextualized for easy access. This psuedo-intellectual justification licences Lucas to poach and pilfer the trappings of exoticism where he pleases, with no responsibility to their sources. He treats the world as one vast bazaar — appropriately enough for movieland’s biggest franchise, a cultural vacuum where no profit is without honour, and nobody ever asks what kind of name Obi-Wan is, anyway.