I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I loved it so much that the first thing I thought about doing when I walked out of the theatre was hash out everything that this Star Wars reboot had done right.
Unfortunately, everyone on the blogosphere had already come to the same conclusion long before I was back from my Christmas break. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the film, or reading articles about it. So I’ve decided to write about one of the few things that bothered me about the film, rather than many aspects of the film that I loved.
If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you probably already know that we at CWR were excited to hear about the diversity of casting in The Force Awakens.
I was especially excited when I heard that Lupita Nyong’o had been cast. Ever since she won best supporting actress for 12 Years a Slave and was declared the most beautiful person of 2014 by People magazine, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for Nyong’o. After witnessing her sudden rise to fame, I was curious to see if she would continue to find roles in major films, or if she would slowly be pushed out of Hollywood because of her dark skin. As Gregg Kilday explains in his article about Nyong’o, few black actresses have ever managed to secure a spot as a permanent Hollywood heavyweight:
While the stage would appear to be set for [Nyong’o] to ascend to the A-list — just as Jennifer Lawrence did after her best actress win for Silver Linings Playbook last year — it’s not that simple. For while there have been a handful of African-American actors, from Sidney Poitier to Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Will Smith, who have reached that status, there’s never been a black actress who has become the equivalent of a Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie. Whoopi Goldberg came closest, following her best actress Oscar nomination for 1985’s The Color Purple and supporting actress win for 1990’s Ghost, but despite an occasional hit like 1992’s Sister Act, she didn’t maintain that momentum. Hollywood also flirted with Angela Bassett, Thandie Newton, Halle Berry and, most recently, Mandela‘s Naomie Harris, without ushering any of them into its very top tier.
It seems like a habit for major blockbuster films to tick off their diversity checklist by casting a white woman and/or a black man. Meanwhile, actors from other minority groups, especially women of colour, get overlooked because all the non-white, male roles have already been taken. As Evan pointed out in his post about the Martian and racebending, this seems to be the impulse, even when it means casting a white women to play a Korean- American character and a black man to play an Asian- Indian character.
I don’t point this out in order to criticize the casting of John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, since I loved them both in their respective roles as Finn and Rey.
Instead, I want to point out how the intersection of being black and female means that talented black actresses still tend to be overlooked.
At this point you might be wondering why I am complaining about this. After all, Nyong’o is in The Force Awakens. Doesn’t that mean that Hollywood is finally offering an opportunity for black actresses to shine in a mainstream film?
Well yes and no.
Yes, it is a huge boost for Nyong’o’s career to win a role in a successful franchise like Star Wars.
But somehow the weight of that success seems less profound when this is how we see her when appears on the screen.
This isn’t the first time big budget sci-fi films have cast women of colour as alien characters. Just take a look at Zoe Saldana. Other than her role as Uhura in the Star Trek reboot, all of her major blockbuster roles have involved playing an alien. Ironically, in both roles the primary difference between the alien character’s body and Saldana’s is the skin colour.
While I certainly do applaud this new Star Wars episode for defying angry white fan-boys with their casting choices, it’s still worth grounding all the praise the film has received in some reality.
I love Rey as a strong female protagonist because it reminds little girls everywhere they can be Jedi. I also love Finn as a multidimensional, black protagonist who inspires little boys of colour to pick up the lightsaber. But in her role, Nyong’o is reduced to a raceless character that a young black girl may not recognize as any kind of role model when watching the film.
As a white women I have many amazing role models in film. I love that I now get to add Rey to my collection of inspiring characters. That said, I can’t act like she is the first multidimensional (white) female character we’ve seen on the big screen. In contrast, blockbuster films with a black female lead are virtually non-existent.
I don’t want to take away from the massive achievement it is to have a major blockbuster without a white male as at least one of the main leads. I’m ecstatic that The Force Awakens did a great job overcoming the racist rhetoric that aimed to undermine its success. However, even an amazing film that has taken great leaps towards diversity could be even better.
While I’m happy to celebrate Rey as a great role model for someone like me, I still have to acknowledge the opportunity that was lost by hiding Nyong’o behind the veil of CGI.