Well, we know have an official primary cast for the next Star Wars film. As of this morning, when J.J. Abrams and company leaked out a cast list and a photo of said actors sitting around a table for the first read-through of the apparently completed script, we now have a pretty good idea of who will be in Walt Disney Studio’s Star Wars Episode VII, which is due for release on December 18th, 2015. As you look around that room at cast members, both new and returning, you will notice something perhaps expected but nonetheless unfortunate. The new cast of Star Wars Episode VII is very white and very male.
Of the thirteen names officially announced for the new Star Wars film, there is one African-American actor (John Boyega) and one male actor from Guatemala (Oscar Issacs) who technically doesn’t fit the lily-white standard. Looking at the thirteen names announced for the new Star Wars film, you’ll notice just two females. One of course is Carrie Fisher, the only major female in the original Star Wars trilogy, joining Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker. The other is an unknown named Daisy Ridley. She is not Maisie Richardson-Sellers, who was rumored to be in contention for a major role. It is not even Lupita Nyong’o, who was allegedly in the running for a major role and who just won an Oscar for Twelve Years A Slave. She is a white female, and just as importantly she is the only new female in the cast.
After teasing us for months over the notion that the new Star Wars film would go against the grain in terms of casting, we still ended up with a bunch of white males with a couple token women and a couple actors of color. It’s a difficult thing to talk about, this pattern of predominantly white male casting in blockbusters. In a cast with only “X” number of roles, saying that one person representing a certain skin color or gender technically means saying someone else should have been tossed out. Without saying that the new actors who did get picked (among them Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Adam Driver) are undeserving or unworthy of the high profile work, it is still worth noting that what again got a cast filled with white males even as Star Wars presented a unique opportunity to buck that trend.
The Star Wars franchise is so much its own biggest selling point that you could cast a dozen paper bags with smiley faces on them and the film would flirt with $1 billion worldwide. Abrams and company had a chance to buck the standard blockbuster casting, the mentality that sees Jake Gyleenhaal cast as the lead in Prince Of Persia and sees Emma Stone get rewarded for her breakout success in Easy A by playing a superhero’s girlfriend, but it would appear that they went with the status quo. Walt Disney and Lucasfilm could have used the safety of the Star Wars franchise to offer major roles for women of all colors and men of often underrepresented colors (it’s ironic that a series so influenced by Japanese samurai mythology has basically no Japanese or Asian actors). But they didn’t, and that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Women make up 50% of the population and around 50% of the ticket-buying public. Yet in nearly every franchise of note, the cast is made up of a bunch of guys with one main female (who is “strong-willed and feisty”) and perhaps one sidekick female. White male breakout stars get their own vehicles. White female stars get to be the girlfriend or suffering wife. Women of color more-or-less get the scraps. We live in a film industry that saw The Hunger Games and gave Liam Hemsworth his own starring vehicle. We live in a film industry that saw the success of Titanic and responded by amping up the romantic quotients of their male-centric genre films. We live in an industry that was baffled by the success of Twilight without noticing that the romantic horror series was the rare franchise with several major female characters.
We now live in an industry where two Star Wars trilogies with a single major female character apiece is now succeeded by a Star Wars trilogy starting out with (at best) two major female characters. Now to be fair, we don’t know who is playing who (well, I’m presuming Harrison Ford is playing Han Solo and I’m guessing Max Von Sydow is not playing Luke’s plucky young son). We may well see a first film where John Boyega and Oscar Issacs are the co-leads among the newbies, or a situation where Daisy Ridley is the primary heroic figure. But the more likely scenario is one where the white males are the main heroes, the actors of color are the sidekicks, and the lone female is the girlfriend to one of the main heroes. If I end up wrong on that score, you’ll hear it here first and I will happily scream to the heavens that I was wrong.
While acknowledging that Abrams and company have the right to cast whomever they please, the new Star Wars franchise had a chance to fill its cast with people representing a true worldwide audience, free from the theoretical fear that a diverse cast would somehow harm the worldwide box office. This casting arguably won’t impact the artistic quality of the new Star Wars films. Oscar Isaacs is terrific in pretty much everything, Adam Driver will make an interesting villain, and one can only wonder who or what Andy Serkis is playing. Boyega is a big win, as he got the kind of “well-liked indie leads to major blockbuster breakout” role that usually only goes to the likes of Michael Fassbender. But Abrams and company had a chance to do with Star Wars what Gene Roddenberry did for Star Trek fifty years ago, filling his main cast with actors from a variety of nationalities to showcase the melting pot that is our planet.
Star Wars was arguably the best chance we had at countering conventional wisdom and adding more diversity to our blockbuster franchises. In terms of how blockbusters are cast and in terms of who gets what kind of mainstream opportunities, J.J. Abrams, Walt Disney, and Lucasfilm had the chance to unlearn what we have learned. But they didn’t, and, that darn-well matters.
Okay, your turn to sound off! What do you think of the new Star Wars cast? Who were you rooting for that got a part, who were you pining for that got left out? Who would you like to see join future installments?