On May 20, 2017, geeks around the world will be celebrating the 40th birthday of Star Wars. In those four decades since we were first introduced to that galaxy far, far away, so much has happened: aside from the three movie trilogies, Star Wars has spawned books, comics, TV shows, computer and video games, a Disney theme park ride, and, of course, countless fan communities.
One thing that the franchise hasn't quite achieved, though, is racial diversity. Aliens with funky hammerheads and bat faces? Sure. A huge bearlike guy who only communicates in growls? Makes perfect sense. People of color?
...Um, Star Wars will get back to you on that.
Before the "BUT LANDO CALRISSIAN" comments come in, rest assured, I would never neglect the suavest mofo in the galaxy. His inclusion in the original trilogy was definitely positive, since he was introduced as the man who ran Cloud City (although what the hell does a "Baron-Administrator" do, exactly?) and later became a general in the Rebel Alliance. Unfortunately, one guy does not a diverse cast list make.
The whiteness of Star Wars is at least partially rooted in the original trilogy debuting at a time when putting protagonists of color in a blockbuster movie was even more unthinkable than it is now. The prequels couldn't fix this, either; since they dealt with the earlier lives of these characters and their ancestors, it was time for yet another round of white heroism.
When the new movies came out, however, the ground began to shift. The Force Awakens starred black and Latino heroes alongside its main Caucasian actors, which was awesome, and quite frankly overdue in the year 2015. Diversity sorted! That is, if you didn't count the world's largest continent and its global diaspora. Asian actors were still almost nowhere to be seen in the foreground. (We did get a glimpse of half-Chinese actor Jessica Henwick as an X-Wing pilot, but that wasn't really enough.)
Things improved when Rogue One exploded into theaters, making Asian actors into major heroes of the Rebellion for the very first time. Actors, plural: Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, and Riz Ahmed kicked stormtrooper butt, cracked jokes, and stole our hearts as freedom fighters and members of the official filmic Star Wars story. Not only was this a huge plus for Asian representation, it also took the first much-needed step in remedying Star Wars' history of Asian erasure and cultural appropriation.
From the outset, Star Wars was built on "borrowing" Asian stories and aesthetics to advance white narratives. George Lucas was famously inspired to create the first Star Wars movie by Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, a movie that, as the A.V. Club puts it, revolves around "a princess whose kingdom has been destroyed, a dashing rogue who’s trying to protect her, and two bumbling idiots—one tall, one short." Elements of Taoism and Buddhism were remixed into the Force. Traditional Japanese clothing (as worn by Toshiro Mifune below) heavily influenced the robes of the Jedi:
By the time the prequels rolled around, these influences were more apparent. Jedi robes looked even more like costumes from a Japanese period movie, while Queen Amidala's elaborate wardrobe drew from the royal courts of China and Mongolia, as well as Korean bridal dress and makeup.
Yet one glaring absence remained among all these Asian influences: actual Asians. From A New Hope in 1977 to Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Star Wars persisted in populating its galaxy far, far away with overwhelmingly white actors. The closest we got to Asians on screen were the Neimoidians, racist caricatures of East Asian-ness who a) wore long robes and headdresses reminiscent of Imperial Chinese court fashion, b) sought galactic control through leveraging commercial power, and c) talked like Long Duk Dong in space. It was so bad one almost expected an "Ah-so, honorable sir!" to slip from Nute Gunray's nonexistent lips.
For a fan like myself--East/Southeast Asian, introduced to the magic of Star Wars by my East Asian mother--that was a slap in the face. After borrowing so much for so long from Asian culture, couldn't Star Wars treat us better than this? We were curiosities at best, evil at worst. Our clothes and the surface scratchings of our philosophies were acceptable because they could be employed to make white people look heroic/beautiful/powerful/wise, but when it came to our faces, we were unworthy.
Without any live-action follow-ups to the prequels to help dispel the racism, that "yellow peril" miasma hung over Star Wars for another decade. The Clone Wars TV series offered some relief via its somewhat racially diverse voice acting cast and characters with Asian-sounding names who weren't stereotypes, such as government leader Chi Cho, pirate Hondo Ohnaka, politician Riyo Chuchi, and bounty hunter Sugi. Of course, these were all non-human characters; although Star Wars has always had the capacity for hints at Asianness, visible Asianness, even in animated form, would presumably have been too much.
Then the sequels came, and with them the stirrings of positive change. Eventually, anyway. For a while it seemed like Jessica Henwick's fleeting moment of glory in The Force Awakens was all we were going to get. Rogue One soothed those fears by giving us multiple Asian stars who portrayed complex characters instead of being limited to reductive stereotypes. While Donnie Yen's blind Zatoichi-esque warrior monk Chirrut Îmwe sounded on paper like almost every East Asian stereotype rolled into one, his confident sass and ability to tread the fine line between nonchalant and reckless moved him into well-rounded characterization.
Jiang Wen, who played Baze Malbus, got a film archetype rarely offered to Asian men in Western movies: the pragmatic, scruffy veteran who loves big guns and has seen too many good soldiers die. (The mere existence of Chirrut and Baze's double act was a big deal, too. When was the last time you saw two Asian guys playing off each other like that?) And of course, we can't forget Riz Ahmed as the plucky, endearingly nervous yet highly skilled Imperial defector Bodhi Rook, who turned his back on the life he once knew to join the Rebels.
But because we live in an imperfect world, these nuanced, three-dimensional individuals were all dead by the end of the movie. Asians can be heroes, as long as they're willing to be martyrs afterwards.
Still, Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi's impact in Rogue One shouldn't be underestimated. Their visibility in a franchise that was once content to make money from Asian culture while keeping Asians out of sight bodes well for future Star Wars productions. With Kelly Marie Tran on board as mechanic/reluctant hero Rose in The Last Jedi, it looks like the franchise's Asian representation is continuing to move forward. Maybe we're finally living in a time when the new generation of moviegoers' first experience of Star Wars involves seeing Asians as champions of freedom.
So here's a tip for Lucasfilm: stop adhering to the one-and-done rule. A lone Asian character is good, but doesn't even begin to redress the imbalance caused by decades of cultural appropriation. Start treating us like people rather than stereotypes or boxes on a diversity quota form; i.e. be ready to acknowledge that more than one of us might have a stake in the fate of the galaxy. You found huge success when you broke away from it in Rogue One, so surely you can do it again. If you want us to buy into your stories, to believe anything is possible, let us see ourselves reflected in them--for real this time. As a wise little guy who talked like a mistranslated book of Zen koans once said, "Do or do not. There is no try."
Is this rumored The Last Jedi scene too weird for Star Wars?