With the excitement of the first official cast list for Episode VII still buzzing around the Internet, for some it’s already worn off and been replaced with a sort of disappointment. The problem isn’t that the majority of the actors announced are unknowns (most every nerd/geek should know who Andy Serkis is by now), but the continuing trend of non-diversity that was prevalent in the original trilogy and carried on to the prequels.
As of this writing, eleven men have been confirmed for Episode VII, only two men of color/non-white descent (Oscar Isaac is half Cuban, half Guatemalan, both considered to be “white”), and two women, both white. One of the biggest criticisms of the Star Wars franchise in general has been the lack of ethnic and gender diversity throughout all six movies.
In the original trilogy, the only prominent person of color was Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian. Carrie Fisher’s Leia was the only prominent female (Beru and Mon Mothma were indeed given lines and screentime, but neither held any real distinction on-screen or were given nearly as much presence as Leia).
In the prequels, Mace Windu and Jango Fett became the only prominent people of color (one of whom didn’t even last an entire movie before being killed), and Padme the only female in the spotlight (Queen Jamillia was portrayed by Ayesha Dharker in Attack of the Clones with few speaking lines).
For roughly thirteen and a half hours, that’s a grand total of three non-white men and two white women (four if you include Beru and Mon Mothma). Any other people of color were relegated to non-speaking background roles and/or hidden beneath layers of makeup and prosthetics.
Do you see the problem here? In a universe where one can’t walk down a street without tripping over a Hutt or a Nautolan or a Twi’lek, there remains a severe lack of minority representation. The beauty of fantasy and art is that it’s not bound by our own cultural geography. There are humans and humanoids running around on pretty much every planet in the SW-verse without the slightest bit of scientific explanation. Why? Because it’s not needed. Sure, there are some who enjoy figuring out how and why that saturation happens in fictional settings, but the most basic thing to remember is this: IT’S FICTION.
If there can be a seven-foot tall “walking carpet” that only communicates in growls and grunts in a place of prominence in these movies , why can’t there be more women in leading roles? Why can’t there be more non-heterosexual beings given screentime? Why can’t there be more minority ethnicities and races in the forefront? Trying to explain the lack of non-white, non-male actors and characters because “it’s just the way it is” harkens back to the exact same thinking when women and blacks were fighting to be recognized as human beings, let alone given the same rights as white men.
Oh, and no fair hiring minority actors only to shove them in the background, kill them off within moments of introducing them, or covering them up with their costume to disguise their skin color or body shape.
While I do have faith in Abrams’s decisions (most of the time) and the trust he’s placing in these relative unknowns, I do have to wonder about this cast list. He’s responded to this criticism by saying there is still “another substantial role to fill — and it’s a female part”, and with the hype around his meeting with Lupita Nyong’o, it’s certainly possible that there may be a woman of color joining these names very soon. But it’s still too early to tell, especially since this new trilogy will be almost completely original with no ties to the EU (another point of contention for many fans since the EU gave rise to such favorites as Mara Jade, Thrawn, Sith Lords Malgus, Bane, and Revan, and the Skywalker and Solo kids). There’s just no way for anyone not on the inside to even begin speculating what roles are still open and what kinds of actors may be picked for them.
I sincerely hope that this list is just an initial one and that a more complete and diverse one will be released for May the Fourth. We’ll just have to wait and see as the days go on.