This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi
This same time two years ago, I criticized the first Disney-produced Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, in a series of three articles for being a definitive example of what I called ‘hyper-tokenism’ concerning the Finn (John Boyega), Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) characters respectively. I defined ‘hyper-tokenism’ as different from usual Hollywood tokenism because there is a "…marked increase in screen time, dramatic involvement and promotional images of a black character in a white film, while simultaneously reserving full dramatic agency as the providence of white characters by the end of the film.”(1)
I was immediately taken to task by readers, Star Wars zealots and fanboys as being too soon in my criticism. The pushback concerning my negative assessment of the use of the minority characters in The Force Awakens was based on the idea that no one knew how these characters would be used in subsequent installments of the beloved franchise, and therefore what might appear as token roles in this installment could be enlarged to greater roles in the next installment, and therefore my criticism was considered ill-conceived and premature.
Well, after Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), which detailed events that happened before Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope (1977), and now the release of Star Wars: Episode VIII, The Last Jedi (2017), which picks up where The Force Awakens left off, I not only stand firmly by my original assessment of the first Disney installment, but I charge Disney with exercising a false sense of racial inclusion in its productions of the Star Wars franchise. That is to say, while one can see the reappearance of Finn, Poe Dameron, and (very briefly) Maz Kanata in The Last Jedi, Star Wars remains a white film franchise with whites exercising the highest authoritative degree of dramatic agency and the narrative resolving itself upon the emotions and well being of its primary white characters.
This is contrary to critic Angela Watercutter’s claim that The Last Jedi has "…a more inclusive cast of characters (that) actually talk about what it means to “resist” (aka to be in the Resistance) and how to achieve those goals.”(2) But from my critical standpoint, talk is qualitatively different than action. Although there are different races represented within Star Wars, the race that is in charge of the actions, the race that has the most spectacular fight scenes and modifies and most often survives the circumstances that happen within the fictional world of Star Wars are white. All the other races (real or imagined) serve either higher ranking, more powerful whites or they serve at the behest of their white leaders as represented in,” a galaxy far, far away, a long time ago,” that is a white controlled universe not much different from our own once you drop the fantasy components (e.g., lightsabers, spaceships, Death Stars, etc). This false inclusion of characters of different races is primarily a financial decision and not an artistic decision that is consonant with the universal worldview the franchise intends to represent. The inclusion of a character of Asian descent named, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) in The Last Jedi which complements the doubled Asian representation in Rogue One of Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen of the IP Man films) and Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus are really not so well disguised attempts to ensure that the franchise plays well in East Asian markets. This is made all the more obvious by the lack of dramatic agency embodied in these minority characters vis-à-vis the white characters.
One has to ask whether or not Rose crashing into Finn before he tried to sacrifice himself during the climactic scene in The Last Jedi had any real effect upon the outcome of the story. And just to add insult to injury, the Rose character is incapacitated almost at the exact same moment before a final battle scene as the Finn character was incapacitated in The Force Awakens two years ago. The false inclusion of characters of different races in the Star Wars saga is more about franchise profit than it is about the themes imbued within the franchise by an artistic worldview. Yet, this is not really a groundbreaking observation. Star Wars has always been a white film franchise, but what has often complicated this fact is the effort within all the other subsequent installments since the original 1977 film to make Star Wars a more racially inclusive intergalactic representation. Whether it is Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) from Star Wars: Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI, Return of the Jedi (1983), Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) from Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II, Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III, Revenge of the Sith (2005), Oola (Femi Taylor) as Jabba the Hutt’s slave dancer in Episode VI, or even the voice of black actor James Earl Jones as Darth Vader- along with the three aforementioned characters in these new Disney installments, all of these attempts to make the franchise appear to be racially inclusive fail because the saga itself revolves around the central white characters upon which the initial installment of Episode 4 began (e.g., Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo). Where there are many who will point out the different fictional species represented within the franchise who are non-white and those who would point out the fact that there are many, many whites who have perished in their attempts to gain power within the fictional world of the franchise- such counter-arguments are more apologies to the whiteness of the films than they are observations that disprove the white-dominated racial hierarchy that I assert is within the films.
And so what is it that can now be said about Star Wars: Episode VIII, The Last Jedi?
The entire film itself is one long “Jedi mind trick” where the audience is fooled into believing that some exciting mystery concerning the deliberate plot holes of the previous installment will be answered, but lo and behold the answer to one plot hole in this film leads to a series of other plot holes that promise to be answered in later installments. In my last-ever review of an installment of this franchise, it must be said that what George Lucas created in 1977 and what Disney has purchased and intends to continue producing is not a space opera, not a hero’s mythic journey, nor is it a metaphor about the politics of our times, the Star Wars saga is really one enduring and successful narrative Ponzi scheme that promises plot hole answers to one generation of film audiences if they just continue to pay for films that make more plot holes that need to be answered for the next generation of film audiences. And just like a financial Ponzi scheme a narrative Ponzi scheme is one in which no one ever fully gets paid off with a dramatically satisfying ending for their investment in the on-going saga. There are always other plot holes, mysteries, and questions to be asked because the writing is so full of exposition that the story itself is cryptically explained rather than engagingly dramatized. As critic Nicholas Barber recently concluded,” The genius of A New Hope is that it pretends to be one installment in a sprawling saga, and yet it is the only Star Wars film to have a complete and satisfying plot. It is the only one in which the hero’s journey leads from nowhere to galactic glory. Any sequel was always going to be as redundant as a sequel to Cinderella or Casablanca."(3) According to Barber, the Episode IV title was only added to the original 1977 film in 1981 after it was reissued following the release of Empire Strikes Back in 1980, which was an installment that created more plot holes and questions than it answered.
The great mystery plot hole from The Force Awakens concerned who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents with Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) name on the top of a list of guesses. But in this new installment, The Last Jedi, it is revealed to us with gasp-inducing shock that Luke Skywalker is not her father and that her parents were,” Nobody… Filthy junk traders who sold her off for drinking money.” But note here how even this explanation leaves room for what could be a shocking twist in another subsequent episode if it turns out to be a lie or only a partial truth. It is with this evidence of deliberate plot hole planting and explanation spread out over multiple films in non-chronological order that one has to realize with deep sobriety that the Star Wars films play upon the credulity of its die-hard fans. The entire franchise swindles those who want so passionately to believe in its simplified fictional world of good vs. evil as an escape from the messiness of the real world of not all so good vs. not all so evil and thus there appears to be no real crime in this passionate need to be fooled. And just as the franchise consists of what I am describing as a narrative Ponzi scheme with its plot holes, it also consists of a racial Ponzi scheme by casting blacks, Asians, and even women in prominently advertised roles that are diminished in dramatic agency in the final battle scenes of one installment only to be promoted with the promise of greater dramatic agency in a later not-yet-released or planned installment. Consider the casting of young black actor Donald Glover as a young Lando Calrissian in the coming Ron Howard directed, SOLO: A Star Wars Story, due out in 2018. The advance marketing and promotion of this film promises greater dramatic agency for the Lando Calrissian character, but as with all of the Star Wars films, this dramatic agency will be diminished in favor of the white Han Solo character about whom the film is ultimately concerned. The promise of racial inclusion and the diminishment of the dramatic agency regarding minority characters is the key confidence trick in the Star Wars Ponzi scheme of racial inclusion.
But there is a social punishment for those of us casual spectators or incredulous critics who cannot see why so many people willingly want to be fooled by a franchise that will never, ever, ever be able to satisfactorily answer the most important mystery of the entire saga: If the creation of the Star Wars universe was the answer, what, then was the question that started it all? Why is there such a deep-seated, cross-cultural need to believe in these fictional events that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? These questions are of course rhetorical but, perhaps Star Wars strikes a primordial need in humans to simplify the complexities of our interconnected but inequitable, unequal, and conflict-ridden existence without relinquishing white dominance and dramatic agency in its representation of races, fictional or real. But where other critics, reviewers, and die-hard fans believe that the Star Wars saga is a mythic tale, I would disagree by following the conclusion of Claude Levi-Strauss who claims that,“…the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction.”(4) In my humble opinion, the Star Wars saga is not in the business of resolving any of our society’s contradictions regarding race, gender, or power so much as it is exploiting its audiences need for a simplified view of good and evil and cashing in on the gullibility of those audiences that all the mysteries of the saga will one day be cogently explained and all brought to a dramatically satisfying conclusion. But like the great philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli once said,”…one who deceives will always find another who will allow himself to be deceived.”(5) In other words, that definitely ain’t the last jedi, but it’s certainly the last time that I’ll fall for this narrative Ponzi scheme of racial inclusion called Star Wars.
- See the articles: Hyper-Tokenism: The Force Awakens While The Black Man Sleeps. http://www.indiewire.com/2015/12/hyper-tokenism-the-force-awakens-while-the-black-man-sleeps-162287/
Hyper-Tokenism II: The Othering of The Black Female Body in Star Wars The Force Awakens. https://shadowandact.com/hyper-tokenism-ii-othering-the-black-female-body-in-star-wars-the-force-awakens/
Hyper-Tokenism III: Hiding The Hispanic While ‘The Force Awakens’. https://shadowandact.com/hyper-tokenism-iii-hiding-the-hispanic-while-the-force-awakens/
2. See the article: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi Will Bother Some People. Good.” By Angela Watercutter, 15, December, 2017, Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/star-wars-last-jedi-inclusion/
3. See article: Why Star Wars Should Have Stopped At Just One Film by Nicholas Barber. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170522-did-star-wars-ever-need-sequels
4, Pg. 229, Structural Anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss. New York: Basic Books, 1963.
5. Pg. 134, The Portable Machiavelli. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.