George Lucas, Star Wars, and Race

It is more difficult than it might seem to make a coherent and consistent statement about George Lucas’s views on race. This is, in part, because those views appear to be rather complicated, if not fully developed, and rather confused/confusing.

After the release of The Phantom Menace, there was of course some (often quite reasonable but sometimes hyperbolically pearl-clutching or bizarrely wrong) backlash to the minstrelsy evidenced in the hijinks and accent of Jar Jar Binks, the anti-Semitic stereotyping of Watto the Toydarian junk dealer, and the Asian caricatures imbued in the greedy Neimoidians like Nute Gunray (examples here, here, and here). But The Phantom Menace also brought us competent black heroes in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jedi Master Mace Windu and Hugh Quarshie‘s Naboo Royal Guard Captain Panaka. The later prequel films broadened the previously limited (human) racial mix of Star Wars with the addition of prominent characters like Captain Typho, Queen Jamillia, and Jango Fett (played by Maori actor Temuera Morrison, who would also be the face of the clone troopers), as well as background parts like Bultar Swan and Depa Billaba. Thus Star Wars looked a little less white, with a range of characters with different ethnic backgrounds who could be heroes and villains, and yet that change came about along with some loaded ethnic stereotyping that hadn’t really been present in the films beforehand.

Of course, it’s easy to avoid ethnic stereotyping when the only humans in the room are white people (mostly men) speaking with American or British accents. In the classic trilogy, there was only Lando (Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker, though voiced by James Earl Jones when the mask was on, was of course portrayed, over the course of the films and their various editions, by David Prowse, Sebastian Shaw, and Hayden Christensen). There may have been people of color hidden as background actors in the streets of Cloud City, and there are a couple of black and Asian pilots who appear just long enough to blow up in the Battle of Endor, but Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is the only prominent person of color in the entirety of the visible Star Wars galaxy throughout the original three movies.

Overall, this suggests growth on the part of George Lucas. Maybe he realized that representation of people from non-white ethnic backgrounds was important. Maybe he was just responding to critical and consumer complaints. I’m not sure if he really knows. One of the most awkward passages in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays comes from an excerpt of an interview with George Lucas. Lucas says:

At one point in the original Star Wars, Han Solo was going to be black. I was in the casting, and one of the finalists was a black actor, and I just decided that I liked Harrison the best. It didn’t have to do with race at all. I had a lot of different ideas. At one point Luke, Leia, and Ben were all going to be little people, and we did screen tests to see if I could do that. At one point Luke and Leia were going to be Oriental. I played with various ethnic groups, but when there are four main characters, it seemed better to have them all be the same race. But I had been interested right from the very beginning to get ethnic diversity into the project. So when I got to adding the Lando character, who was not originally written as a black man, there was a chance to put in variety. You know, at the time Star Wars came out, a lot of critics attacked the film for not having one of the characters be a black person. They also said that it was a chauvinistic movie. And I thought, Wait a minute, Leia is not a man, she is tough and independent, how can that be chauvinistic? The film got attacked for everything.

I don’t exactly have graceful oratory ability, and I put my foot in my mouth rather often, so I’m sympathetic to the possibility that Lucas just did a really poor job of conveying what he meant. But I’m not quoting out of context–that’s the entirety of the excerpt provided. He reads as defensive to me. It certainly seems like any addition of diversity was specifically a response to criticism. And remember, The Annotated Screenplays were published in 1997, so Lucas had these thoughts as he was preparing for the prequel trilogy.

I also think those comments feel misguidedly progressive. I think George Lucas probably wanted (and wants) to do the right thing, but for some reason does not quite know how or know whom to ask for guidance. Ethnic backgrounds seem almost like tokenistic check-boxes to him. Lucas claims he always wanted diversity, but somehow he could only find room for one significant non-white role in the entirety of the original trilogy? And why, exactly, did it “seem better” to have all the protagonists of the same race? Again, I think he wants to do the right thing, but it really feels like he misses the point of the criticism and rather belligerently dismisses the idea that there could have been anything that could have been improved with his creative choices or casting decisions.

Look, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Lucas (even though I know it might be hard to believe, especially if you could see everything I said about the prequel trilogy as an adolescent). He created a fantasy world that means so much to me and millions of others. He’s a talented visionary, but he has flaws. Some of those flaws–for instance, as a writer–he has openly acknowledged. But it can be very hard for people to admit to flaws regarding race and sex because it is really an ugly, yucky feeling to admit that something you did is racist or sexist. Racist or sexist is coded, correctly, to mean bad, but the reality is that we can all do bad things and think bad thoughts. We have to strive to be better people; none of us is born perfect. I certainly struggle with the reality that sometimes I do things that are racist or sexist. It can be easier just to defend yourself, to deny, rather than to recognize the flaw and work to improve. I think because George Lucas appears to have been so defensive, he set himself up for other failings even as he made improvements–as evidenced by the presence of a Jar Jar and a Watto next to a Mace and a Panaka.

In that light, Disney’s new ownership of Star Wars is positive. It seems like Kathleen Kennedy and crew have given real thought to those flaws, even while having a great history with and intimate understanding of the intellectual property. And so we continue to see more people of color and more women (and sometimes, though sadly still rarely, women of color) in new installments; we even have actual Hispanic actors in Star Wars, something surprisingly lacking for decades now. The Star Wars universe continues to feel truly more diverse, and not just with the inclusion of more exotic aliens.

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