Why Thandie Newton's Val Deserved Better In 'Solo: A Star Wars Story'

June 08 2018

Caution: Spoilers ahead for Solo: A Star Wars Story

Star Wars giveth, and Star Wars taketh away. We've seen several beloved characters bite the bullet before we were ready to let them go: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, the entire cast of characters in Rogue One, Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu. But at least these deaths can be explained or somehow justified (even Mace Windu's lazy death can be considered a necessity -- otherwise Windu would have gone back to warn the other Jedi of Anakin and Palpatine's team-up).

Solo: A Star Wars Story, however, doesn't give us the luxury of explanation when it comes to the deaths in its story, particularly the demise of the first prominent black woman in Star Wars, Thandie Newton's Val. Even though there wasn't any real story or character development paid to Val, she still ended up sacrificing herself for what ends up being a moot point. Watching what could have been a game-changing character needlessly die is not how I, as a black woman, wanted to spend the first 20 minutes of Solo.

Star Wars is currently going through a fandom crisis. As we speak, fans are rallying around Kelly Marie Tran, who has quit Instagram thanks to hordes of so-called "fans," who are just racists and sexists angry that a woman of color had the gall to be in their beloved space opera. Tran isn't the only woman who has faced the wrath of these fake fans; Daisy Ridley also removed herself from social media after being relentlessly accosted because her character is, in fact, Force-sensitive and is now a Jedi, probably the most important Jedi since Luke. Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy herself has been bullied by these "fans," who accuse her of mismanaging their beloved property. John Boyega has also had to deal with these bullies who resented Finn, a black male character, being the lead in a Star Wars movie.

Solo-cast

Amid all of this are the bizarre gender and racial politics at play in Solo. Somehow, only women die or suffer. Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra is made out to be a femme fatale, even though she's a victim of circumstance; born into a life of petty crime just like Han, Qi'ra is forced to adapt when she's separated from Han during their escape from their homeworld Corellia. While Han sets out to become a pilot to rescue her, Qi'ra is forced to adapt to her situation and ends up as an associate of gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). It's also alluded that she also has to provide sexual favors, as well, making her not just a well-dressed slave, but a sexual abuse victim, too. However, the film never wants us to feel too sorry for her; in some ways, Beckett's (Woody Harrelson) assertion of Qi'ra as a "survivor" seems to want us in the audience to believe that Qi'ra brought some of this bad luck on herself.

Lando Calrissian's (Donald Glover) droid companion, L3-37, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is the most sentient droid we've seen in the Star Wars franchise. She's so aware that she actively fights for droid rights. However, her characterization is cut short after she blasted apart during a skirmish after Han (Alden Ehrenreich), Qi'ra and Beckett's heist goes awry. Somehow, everyone else gets to survive except for her, and instead of trying to fix her, which happens to almost every other droid in the Star Wars universe, like C-3PO, who has been disassembled and reassembled several times over, she's committed to death so the characters can later mine her for her navigational system.

And then we come to Val, a history-making character for the franchise. Val is Beckett's girlfriend, and for a while, that's all that defines her, which is a shame, since Thandie Newton, a talented actress with a real knack for the sci-fi genre as Westworld suggests, portrays her. A character like Val asks for more characterization--heck, she begs to headline her movie--because Newton played her with such openness and groundedness that I hoped she'd be around for longer than just Solo. If anything, I expected her to play a much more prominent role in the film than she does, since Lucasfilm and Disney sought fit to use Newton heavy-handedly in their marketing.

The bait-and-switch Disney and Lucasfilm pulled to pique interest knowing the whole time Val would be killed minutes after she was properly introduced is what makes Val's death the most irritating. Disney and Lucasfilm are well aware at this point that diversity is one of the most influential plays in their new Star Wars franchise. The main reason fake fans are mad, in fact, is because the franchise is catering more toward fans who lie outside of the typical Star Wars fan stereotype. People at various intersections of identity love Star Wars, so it only makes sense for the franchise to do their best to welcome new blood into the fold.

Black women, in particular, have been left out of the Star Wars conversation--while there have been plenty of black female characters in Star Wars' written canon, none have ever made it to the big screen. Even though Val isn't from the written canon, her presence was seen by many black women (including myself) as the first step toward the franchise finally recognizing black women as a part of the conversation. Val was supposed to be the first of many black female characters to grace the Star Wars stage.

Solo-Thandie-Val

However, her death undercuts any forward thinking Disney and Lucasfilm might have thought they were exhibiting by including Val. Her death, a sacrifice so Beckett, Han and Chewbacca could escape from a botched heist with their lives, was only done in service to the plot and to give the male characters something to act against. It wasn't an earned death; it was a cheap one. On the larger scale, it also reinforces the notion that black women (especially black female characters in action, sci-fi and fantasy stories) are disposable, that we don't deserve to see ourselves in long-lasting heroic positions onscreen.

Black women already have a tough time getting their humanity recognized in other films, but it's particularly egregious in Star Wars. Black women are either used to fill the background or given minor speaking parts, such as Crystal Clarke, who plays a Resistance transport pilot in Star Wars: The Last Jedi or Sharon Duncan-Brewster, who plays Senator Pamlo in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Other times, black women are a stand-in for aliens, such as the case with Lupita Nyong'o's voiceover and motion-capture work for Maz Kanata; Femi Taylor, who plays Oola, one of Jabba the Hutt's Twi'lek sex slaves in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi; and Sema-Tawi Smart, who plays one of the rich aliens at the casino city of Canto Bight in The Last Jedi. A similar type of exoticism is even found in Solo, when Han, Beckett and Chewbacca first come aboard Vos' yacht. One of the live singers is a black woman (once again, played by Smart) who seems to have some type of golden device over her mouth. The device strips some of her humanity away, leaving us to look at (and objectify) a black body on display for Vos, who is white, wealthy and powerful.

Solo-Black-woman-singer

Would it have been too much for screenwriters Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan to let Val live? Why was it necessary that she cast herself off? With so little representation for black women in sci-fi as there is, let alone in Star Wars as a franchise, giving Val a more significant role should have been Lucasfilm and Disney's priority. As it stands, we're down another character who could have been awesome if they were allowed to be.

There is a silver lining to all of this; one of the breakout stars from the film is Erin Kellyman, who plays tribal leader Enfys Nest. She is a woman of color who is in a leadership position and, like Val, could easily headline a film. Solo seemed mostly disinterested in expanding her past what the film deemed necessary. However, if Lucasfilm wants to give women of color strong characters to root for, they would be smart to invest more in Enfys, as well as other characters from their catalog. We deserve more than just another sacrifice scene.

by Monique Jones on June 08 2018

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