History, Reality, and Star Wars

This article was originally published in the University Observer in November 2015, both online and in print. 

In light of comments made about John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars, David Monaghan looks at the importance of history and reality in film, TV, and other popular media.

On October 19th, the trailer for much-anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, and fans worldwide took to social media to express their excitement. Two stars of the film were particularly vocal; John Boyega uploaded an Instagram video of himself jumping over a couch in anticipation and Daisy Ridley had a nice cry. The number of tweets about the film reached 17,000 per minute with the hashtags #TheForceAwakens and #TieFighter trending for hours after its initial airing. Everyone was pleased. Or so it seemed.

A small but vocal minority took issue with Boyega. Not for his performance or his costume or anything to do with the trailer as a whole. No, these people took issue with the fact that he was a black actor in what they considered to be a predominantly white world. Angry white nerds took to social media websites to jumpstart hashtags like #BoycottStarWarsVII. “#BoycottStarWarsVII because it is anti-white propaganda promoting #whitegenocide,” writes one twitter user. “If white people aren’t wanted in Star Wars, then our money must not be either” said another. To these people the inclusion of black actors in Star Wars is ‘social justice gone mad.’ They fear that, by making popular franchises multicultural, they will no longer be represented in the things they love.

These fears are unfounded. Never mind the fact that white actors are privileged in the film industry –many white actors have even been cast in roles originally written for people of colour, such as Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily in Pan – Star Wars has always been multicultural. The original trilogy featured black actors James Earl Jones and Billy Dee Williams as Darth Vader and Lando Calrissian respectively, and the prequels featured Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu.

Of course, it is not only the race of certain characters that these people take issue with. When writer Chuck Wendig released his Star Wars novel ‘Aftermath,’ another small but vocal minority accused him of propagating the ‘gay agenda’ for featuring queer characters.  In response to these critics, Wendig wrote: “You’re not the Rebel Alliance. You’re not the good guys. You’re the fucking Empire, man. You’re the shitty, oppressive, totalitarian Empire. If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars.”

The real world is diverse. Ireland and the USA have both recently legalised same-sex marriage, instilling a new confidence in LGBTQ+ people. In 2014, Ireland became the fourth country in the world to celebrate Black History Month as 1.3 per cent of the population is of African origin. It is only normal that creators want to reflect this reality in popular fiction, as these groups are also consumers. The anti-diversity Twitter brigade will claim that blockbuster cinema should be escapist and reject reality, but what they feel to realise is that history and reality are integral to some of the best-loved franchises.

“THE ANTI-DIVERSITY TWITTER BRIGADE WILL CLAIM THAT BLOCKBUSTER CINEMA SHOULD BE ESCAPIST AND REJECT REALITY, BUT WHAT THEY FEEL TO REALISE IS THAT HISTORY AND REALITY ARE INTEGRAL TO SOME OF THE BEST-LOVED FRANCHISES.”

Dominican American writer and critic Junot Diaz, when speaking about representation, said “without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Colour, nothing about fanboy or fangirl culture would make sense… If it wasn’t for race, X-Men wouldn’t exist… If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense.” Diaz is right.  When writing the X-Men series, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, with Professor X acting as a stand-in for Martin Luther King Jr. and Magneto acting as a sci-fi version of Malcolm X. This metaphor was carried into the X-Men film series by Bryan Singer, who also included vague LGBTQ+ themes. X-Men 2, considered by many to be a high point for the series, includes a ‘coming out’ scene in which a young Bobby Drake has to tell his parents he is a mutant. In the comics, it was recently revealed the Bobby Drake is also gay.

When conceiving the Star Wars, George Lucas wanted the Rebel Alliance, the ‘good guys’ of the original trilogy, to have American accents, while the evil Empire had to have British accents. This immediately draws parallels with real world history. At the height of its influence, the British Empire was the world’s largest global power and had control over American colonies. In the film series, the Galactic Empire also destroys multiple planets and people in order to gain more power. The influence of imperialism that Diaz discusses is at the very surface of the film franchise.

Reality is intrinsically linked to Iron Man’s backstory. When “quintessential capitalist” Tony Stark is injured during the Vietnam War he designs a power suit that will help him survive, and early Iron Man stories saw him fighting the dangers of communism. When the character was adapted for the big screen in 2008’s Iron Man, he was transported to the modern day, receiving his injury against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan.

Real life is integral to the development and success of popular entertainment, and director J.J. Abrams is keenly aware of this. Shortly before the trailer for The Force Awakens aired, he posted an image to his Twitter that read, “We cannot wait to share the trailer with you tonight. I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, Jawa, Wookie, Jedi, or Sith. I just hope you like it.” What Abrams understands, and what some people fail to grasp, is that popular media is exactly that: popular. It is for everyone, not just a select few. It reflects reality and mimics it. Speaking once again about representation for people of colour, Junot Diaz writes: “Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together.”

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