It is one hundred percent okay to discuss how the imagery of a film affects how people might perceive – and conversely treat – another group of people. When we do so correctly we counteract all sorts of historically abhorrent things that go on to inform how people are actually treated in the real world. The Birth of a Nation (1915) informed white perception of both Black savagery and docility for generations when it wasn’t shoring up America’s already brutal antagonism toward Blacks by spinning a Marvel-worthy Ku Klux Klan origin story. Those perceptions literally got people killed, and America still labors under the seeds planted by The Birth of a Nation as a film and an institution. It was the Star Wars of its day: a blockbuster that changed the film industry, was a technological marvel, influenced cultural behavior and lexicon, and was the highest grossing film ever until Gone with the Wind (1939) came out 24 years later. It was the first film screened at the White House. Its influence was total, and sadly remains culturally ubiquitous. In 2015 it has a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That statistic alone forced me to stop typing this paragraph and go hug my dog.
By the same token, it is at least fifty percent not okay to make that imagery argument as if all observations are equally informed, equally valid, or equal in weight. Star Wars as a series, in its worst moments, is not fucking The Birth of a fucking Nation. If you disagree with that statement you either haven’t bothered looking up what The Birth of a Nation is yet, or you loathe facts.
You eventually have to draw a line between the fiction and the politic. Yeah, all fiction is political. I read Toni Morrison too. But you still have to differentiate your arguments in a political debate, especially if you’re trying to draw up social action plans out of it and not just drop bomb-ass Facebook posts. You don’t get to bounce back and forth over the lines of, say, American political reality and reality on Endor like a Harlem Double Dutch team. You can do that for a while, but at some point we have to agree when we’re using Star Wars canon as our metric as opposed to when we’re addressing the actual consequences of living while Black in America (which, if we’re honest, a majority of Star Wars fans probably don’t get enough speed bag work with).
Case in point: I had the misfortune of buzzing across a discussion about whether or not there was something derogatory about a white man (Poe) assigning a Black man his name (Finn) in the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Trust me when I say, with a wave of my hand from the front seat of my landspeeder, that these are not the arguments you’re looking for. In fact, let’s deconstruct this example as a stand-in for 90% of the race-based discussions about Star Wars at large, since they largely suffer from the same problems.
There’s a thin line between staying woke and over-hoteping. Staying woke looks like noting that this transaction occurred in a movie, then investigating if this is really an issue. For instance, the actor who plays Poe is actually Guatemalan. Does that change things? What if he passes through the world perceived as a white male? (Like he did in the original observation!) Does that change things? Should we consider that while there has been no shortage of speciesism in the series, no one has yet to make a color-specific slur in the Star Wars cinematic universe between perceptibly white and Black characters, even back in the 1970s? Is one of the moral tenets of Star Wars that racism can be defeated by engaging beings who are beyond racial construct and graduating our –isms into intergalactic prejudice? Has Star Wars been pulling a Watchmen on us all these years? At what point do I insert actual cinematic considerations here? Or Billie Dee Williams? Admittedly it takes some intellectual capital to even get to the starting gate on some of those points, but that’s what it looks like when you process potential racism as opposed to conflating every instance in which a person of color appears – or doesn’t – with an apocalyptic death knell of That’s Racist.
When you hotep that same transaction out it simply becomes “Why the Black man have to get his name from a white man?” which is a rhetorically vapid question and seeks no genuine answer, but whose larger crime is getting off on the right foot as an argument. For example, it’s clear that we’re about to engage in a cinematically historical argument (images of Black people in deference to whites), but are we only having that argument? And are we only having it in aid of how white people might perceive that scene? Are we going to dismiss the sum total of Finn’s involvement in the propulsion of the film’s narrative? Am I meant to discount the significant amount of screen time Finn has in this film? Are we going to ignore John Boyega’s presence in not only the film, but the advertising leading up to this film, which initially was particularly overwhelming? So much so that upon discovering that the film was not in fact solely a Campbellian hero’s Journey of a Black man but that he would be sharing it with a white woman, we implode? Are we going to dismiss all of the thousands of scenes in all of the hundreds of movies around Star Wars that show Black agency, essentially lifting this film completely out of social and political context? Are you really hitting me with a 1980 argument in 2015? How about I see your hotep and raise you a habari-gani, pointing out that it was far more insidious and unto like slavery to have the same brother called a number all of his life FN-2187 as if he were cattle, and how he was ripped from whatever family he had in a distant land that he’ll likely never know and can’t relate to, and that he was indoctrinated so completely that he could not find the strength within himself to conjure a name on his own behalf, such was the weight of his imperialistic slavery? Do you see how much more powerful it was to cast a Black man in a role like that to begin with, to subconsciously relay how bad what the First Order is by casting a Black man literally as a runaway slave? Doesn’t that make him, in fact, more Black? Undeniably Black?
Do you see how all of that is so much worse – or better, once you do the math – than a guy that just saved his life giving him a nickname?
People drag hard in 2015. We love being right. As a society we are quick to jump on anything perceived as a political and cultural slight with the same force they would apply to someone burning a cross in their yard. But if it took actual gasoline to fuel the act of dragging someone through the mud, we would have collectively run out of gas before we all had a chance to do our annual drag of Alabama for celebrating Confederate general Robert E. Lee Day on the same day as Martin Luther King’s birthday. And most of your Star Wars race debate isn’t new, informed or correct. It’s basic, it’s fanboarding, and worst of all, it’s non-productive. Star Wars may have problems with racism. Historically you can certainly make a case or two along the line if you’re so inclined. I am not. I’ve been there, done that, and my new t-shirt says “The Force Done Awakened Some Bullshit.” I thought the new film took brave choices with diversity and is wisely treating it like a norm, not an after school special. The filmmakers had a blank check to make this film; it could have gone in any direction they wanted. To their credit, they didn’t just switch out ethnicities to be diverse. They didn’t just create a woman to lead the film who could just as easily have been a guy. It simply opted to BE diverse. Everything else is mostly people navigating what they brought to the film, not what the film actually has to say about race relations in 2015.
What will likely be the largest blockbuster of all time will have one of the most diverse ensembles of any film, they didn’t rely on alien costumes to make the point, and we have two films to go. That stat alone should be shutting down half of the arguments that look like this. I’m not saying it’s a perfect film. I’m saying you’re going to have to come harder than you’ve been coming because I don’t think most of you really want to come for diversity in Star Wars in 2015.