I am sure there are a thousand reviews of STAR WARS Episode VII out there with and without spoiler alerts, opinions, debates, and rants, but I want to go DEEPER. Let's begin.
I have been a fan of the franchise since the 1970s and as an Independent Filmmaker continue to be a student of the business and admirer of George Lucas and his empire, Lucas Arts. For this new trilogy I had completely blocked out all media outlets reviewing the film—EVEN THE TRAILER—because I wanted to experience J.J. Abrams' vision and story as I did in the 1970's: as a child full of wonder, guessing what it might be like just from a poster, taking a risk on a film I knew nothing about at first blush. And speaking of the blushing child, I grew up Catholic, with parents who are feminist and civil-rights minded. When I grew up, the mission of my first film production company was to "improve the image of the African-American male in the Cinema through nontraditional casting and compelling roles.” As I grow still, I enjoy analyzing pop culture, religion, politics, and the influences they have on film.
Act 1: The Film Itself
I saw the movie in 3D and then again in 2D—why? Because the 3D was done as an afterthought and kept pulling me out of the story each time I expected a big 3D gag and was robbed. This can be a debate for another blog, to 3D or NOT to 3D, coming to a theatre near you. If you want to debate story, timing, FX, who should have written it/directed it, I wish you happy exploration on other feeds, then come back—we’re going DEEPER. I have 39 years of experience with Star Wars fandom and study. I have read the religious theories and parallels, tried to use the Force to levitate (as a kid), and was among the betrayed with Episodes I, II, and III. As I watched this movie (twice), I could almost feel J.J.Abrams sitting next to me, just as excited, hoping to see if he saved the franchise. My eyes leaked tears three times (which rarely happens in public): opening crawl, the reveal of Leia, and when Rae closes her eyes to harness the strength of the Force. It's decidedly saved, but my only question now is how are we going to have Star Wars vs. Star Trek rivalries with J.J Abrams at the helm of BOTH? The franchises are starting to look the same.
Act 2: The Femi-verse
Lucas' films have given female characters strong—“ish” attributes before and J.J. Abrams continued the tradition by really bringing it home—“ish.” This article digs deeper into the failed roles of Princess Leia and Padmé and has high hopes for Rae. What people fail to realize or fail to remember is that Leia and Padmé are both very strong female leads in their introductions, but by the time we get to the third picture of each series, their characters are sidelined, subverted, and sexualized. Let's face it, our society loves the "Slave Leia" as popularized in cosplay (Leia wore other stuff too, guys). And Padmé dies in childbirth—even though they can replace bodies with robot & bionic parts (#notbuyingit). Now we have Rae, a kick-ass all-around athlete who also knows a ton about piloting and salvaging spaceships. As excited as I was to finally see the light saber wielded by a woman finally listening to her own intuition, I was disgusted at the notion she was abandoned by her parents to serve as a slave for a thieving salvager on a "junk-yard" planet (because it is widely accepted that a girl is disposable and has to work her way up from manual labor to Jedi). Recently I heard a man say, "It is so unbelievable that she is instantly good at the light saber" (and Luke's performance and progression is??). First of all, she demonstrated that the Force was strong in her already. Second, she rocks the staff—a saber is a laser-staff. Third, she demonstrates that she's NOT so good with it at first. It's not until the Force is brought up again that she uses her inner strength to gain advantage. What I am hearing from the men is this: "She's supposed to fight like a girl." Really? Not like a Jedi?? Then we get to the toys...ahhhh the REAL money behind the franchise. I really want Hasbro to explain to me WHY Rae isn't EVERYWHERE. Just Google "star wars toys Rae" and see what happens. Are you really saying boys won't play with girl toys? Are you really saying girls and women don't want to buy positive role model toys? I thought the point of merchandising was to make money. Why leave all of that feminine money on the table?? I desperately hope that by the time the second picture comes out in this trilogy the toy situation has been fixed and Rae continues to grow as a character and not have her own needs subverted in the practice of pandering to Patriarchy. In the '70s & '80s I owned tons of Star Wars action figures and two Princess Leia dolls, but honestly, my favorite toys were the light saber, R2D2, Yoda, and the X-wing fighter because they came with better options and had many examples of extended role play. I was angered & confused as a girl because I had the unfortunate plight of looking like a young Carrie Fisher and everyone wanted me to play the role of Leia, especially at Halloween (which I only did once). When I tried to say I was more interested in being Luke, Chewbaccca, Han solo, or Darth Vader, the kids I played with said I could be an Ewok if I wanted to be included. If only there was a female character who could hold a light saber or fly a space ship (and not just co-pilot)!! Oh wait—we have that now—just no toys to reinforce that.
Act 3: White Slavers & The Plight of the Black Male Lead
Having successfully avoided all of the chatter around the movie, I decided to go back into the fray and catch up. The first thing I heard about was George Lucas' "Badmouthing Disney.” I went straight to the source for which he felt he had to "apologize,” the PBS interview where he says he handed over his children to a "white Slavers" (read the interview summary/ see video from Entertainment Weekly). Let's get one thing straight: Charlie Rose should have asked a follow up question on this statement. Even as he says it, Lucas knows he's going to catch hell for that analogy, but it's TRUE (in my humble opinion) in this: from the industry perspective, Indie Filmmakers create and breathe life into their films—in essence they are children to their creators. We then sell these children to a company that exploits the film for money. The distributors and big studios expect top dollar for the exploits of these children and make them work around the clock. That's Slavery. The Cotton Industry did it, the Fashion Industry does it, and the Film Industry does it in concept using digital labor. I didn't see anything slanderous in his words. Then there's Lucas' opinion that J.J. Abrams shouldn't have done an homage to the old school style. If you follow Lucas at all, you would know that he is constantly looking to use the latest, greatest technology and experimental techniques. He doesn't want to see a reboot of the 1970s franchise and this is what got him into trouble multiple times between CGI and Jar Jar Binx. Aaaaaannnnd.....if you follow Disney at all, you know that their business model is to take stories already told and re-exploit them. It is no wonder that they discarded the drafts that Lucas gave them before even hiring J.J. Abrams. Lucas and Disney are "big boys"; they know that this is the film business, and sometimes the sale of I.P. Rights at $4BN looks more like a divorce than a successful venture.
This brings us to the plight of the Black Male Lead. I have NO IDEA why we can't just plug-n-play Black men into scripts through alternate casting and call it a day (well, actually I do, but that's ANOTHER BLOG). Of course there are rumblings about racism in STAR WARS and there are still racists out there who do stupid things (#BoycottStarWarsVII), as shown in this article. The part of Finn, is played by British actor John Boyega (of Nigerian descent). His response is, “I just don’t get it. You guys got every single alien in this movie imaginable to man — with tentacles, five eyes. Aliens that, if they existed, we’d definitely have an issue…. Yet what you want to do is fixate on another human being’s color."
Well, I am going to take it a bit further. I would like Disney to explain to me these things:
1. Why does Finn have to work in Sanitation?
2. If he is the "Love Interest,” why can't he kiss Rae?
3. Can you please tell me how, in a Galaxy FAR FAR AWAY, A LONG TIME AGO, a black man has to say, "Robot, please!" in a Y2k Earthling vernacular?
However, I MUST say KUDOS for casting Lupita N'yongo, but there was a hitch in that roll out as the fans expected a Jedi or a Sith, not an altered, transracial appearance. See Black Girl Nerd's review here. This blog on the whole root of the controversy ("othering" the body of a Black Female) is an excellent read—and I consider it a PRIMER for everyone. The Author pulls no punches and boldly states, "The simple answer as to why Lupita Nyong’o was hidden within an Asian caricature in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is because the White filmmakers and the White-controlled studio did not want the beauty and talents of a Black actress who happens to be of Mexican and Kenyan descent to distract and diminish the White heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley), whom they had chosen to be the true hero of this installment of the tale." This really hits my Feminist button too. Why are movies asking women to compete with each other AGAIN?? Seriously—apply this issue to the men in these films. An example we have of this is Ahmed Best playing Jar Jar Binx in Episode II; however, I don't think anyone was worried about a black man competing with Ewan McGregor or Hayden Christensen's beauty or figure. Jar Jar Binx is just an abomination for a myriad of reasons. Samuel L. Jackson also makes an appearance in Episode II, yet Mr. Jackson seems to have made it past the glass ceiling that traps so many black males in the Cinema (and he manages to not diminish the lead roles at all). The bottom line is this: studios will continue to tell stories that support a white-dominated patriarchy as long as we keep spending over $100MM in pre-sales and billions in the Box Office.
Denouement: Will the Space Opera Continue?
Honestly, I love the fun of Star Wars. I personally don't think anyone at Lucas Arts or Disney intends to be insensitive, racist, or sexist (in fact George Lucas' hiring practices and wife are a testament to how he is neither racist nor sexist). Now, with Kennedy overseeing the Lucas Arts brand within Disney, I think we have a chance at real integration of meaningful female roles that last for at least three movies. Frankly, the nostalgia and homage that was infused into Episode VII was a great way to start. I got to feel like a kid again—and watch my daughter get excited about a new trilogy. I want to say THANK YOU to J.J. Abrams and the team at Disney/Lucas Arts for taking on this herculean task of continuing the franchise. You cannot please all of the people all of the time, but If I know one thing about the film industry, I know for certain that you are TRYING! Star Wars Episode VII made me believe in the film industry again. I challenge the filmmakers to BE BOLD: keep casting people of color and women in great roles and let them enjoy the privileges of the roles usually reserved for white males. I will buy tickets and toys!!