Why Diversity In Star Wars VII Is Such a Big Deal

December 4th 2015

The new "Star Wars" movie, "The Force Awakens," hits screens next week, featuring a woman, a Black man and a Latino in lead roles for the first time in the saga's history.

For some, the thought of such diversity in the "Star Wars" universe was too much to handle, creating a call to #BoycottStarWarsVII on Twitter earlier this fall.

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But the racist response to Black actor John Boyega, who plays a mysterious Stormtrooper named Finn, didn't stop early ticket sales from breaking the internet: Fandango and other online ticket sellers crashed during the initial sales rush, and advance sales achieved record levels.

That's good news for "Star Wars" fans. Not only has "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" generated immense excitement on its own, it's also being hailed by fans as a long-awaited move toward a more representative, less white-dude-centric galaxy. And it's about (damn) time.

A not-so-long time ago, in a very white, white galaxy

As of last year, only eight of the top 100 U.S. sci-fi or fantasy movies featured a protagonist of color, according to an analysis on the Lee & Low Books "The Open Book" blog. Of those eight, six featured characters played by a single Black actor — Will Smith — and another featured a cartoon character.

Gender parity hasn't fared much better. Only 14 of 100 top movies in the genre featured a female protagonist, the blog found. (For those keeping score, none included an LGBTQ lead, and only two had a protagonist with a disability.)

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 lack of diversity in sci-fi and fantasy moviesLee and Low Books - leeandlow.com

Although "Star Wars" has been more inclusive than many of its sci-fi brethren, there are only three important women — Princess Leia, Queen Amidala, and Shmi — in all six movies to date. Two are present mainly to develop Anakin Skywalker's character. And Princess Leia, badass as she is, is depicted enduring a heavy dose of sexism and sexual harassment in "Return of the Jedi." She remains virtually the only woman in the original trilogy of films.

Race is an even more fraught subject in the "Star Wars" movies. Only two important human characters of color exist in the six movies so far: Mace Windu, played by Samuel L. Jackson in the prequels, and Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams in the original trilogy. (That's not counting Darth Vader, who is voiced by Black actor James Earl Jones but portrayed by white actors, including David Prowse in the original trilogy and Hayden Christensen in the prequels.)

Speaking of the prequels, plot spoiler: They were terrible and also made use of what some felt were horrible racial stereotypes in characters such as Jar Jar Binks and the Trade Federation aliens.

And that's why the diversity we've seen in the trailers for "The Force Awakens" is so important.

What we know about "The Force Awakens"

Most of "The Force Awakens" details are shrouded in mystery. But recent trailers have revealed that the new installment brings us at least two actors of color — one British-Nigerian (Boyega as Finn) and one Guatemalan-American (Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron) — and one woman (white British actor Daisy Ridley as Rey). These are all major roles.

We'll also hear, but not see, Mexican-Kenyan actor Lupita Nyong'o as the alien pirate Maz Kanata, and enjoy white British actor Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma.

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The social media response — both #BoycottStarWarsVII and #BlackStormtrooper — makes it clear why the ethnic diversity in the new film is big news. It's an equally big deal to have so many female characters: Look no further than this short New York Magazine video that contains every line of dialogue from a female character who's not Princess Leia from the original trilogy. It's only a minute and 23 seconds long.

Asked about the diverse cast of the film, Boyega told The Verge:

"[I]t’s not something that you go, 'Gosh, leading female and black male.' It feels like an ensemble of people that work [cohesively]. Obviously everybody’s been chosen based on their skills and based on their ability. But the fact that also, we’re reflective of the world we live in today is fantastic."

It is fantastic, and a welcome departure from the unabashed white maleness of the previous movies. But it's also a shame that Boyega still has to respond by justifying the presence of a multicultural, gender-diverse cast in the first place.

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