Why Star Wars: The Last Jedi's diversity is only surface deep
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Since 2015, the Star Wars sequels have been receiving a lot of praise for the diversity of their main cast.
Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are undeniably a step in the right direction towards diversifying popular culture. The announcement last year that Kelly Marie Tran had been cast as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi brought new hope to fans who were overjoyed that Star Wars would finally include a woman of colour in a prominent role.
Though there were a lot of fun moments in The Last Jedi, and a lot of great homages to Luke and Leia and the Original Trilogy, it was a disappointment for a lot of fans of colour.
Following the Empire Strikes Back model of separating the Jedi from their friends whilst they undergo training, Rey had one storyline whilst Finn, Poe, and the Resistance had another. The tonal dissonance and discrepancies between the two was one of the biggest issues.
Rey’s storyline is wholly focussed on attempting to redeem Kylo Ren, who we are told time and time again by the narrative is a victim rather than a villain. While Star Wars has always given us complex villains, there’s something about Kylo Ren that leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. We are presented with a grown man who, though conflicted, chooses time and time again to cause suffering, side with fascists, torture our heroes, and kill innocents. Despite this, the audience is expected to, like Rey, sense the “good” in him, and therefore give him the benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, The Force Awakens introduced us to Finn, who was kidnapped at birth and brainwashed, raised within the First Order to have no independent thought and to simply follow orders. The second he is placed into a combat situation, his innate goodness and strength prevails over a lifetime of conditioning, and he immediately rebels.
Between those two characters: a black man who chooses good despite how he was raised, and a white man who chooses evil despite how he was raised, why is it that The Last Jedi wants audiences to focus on redeeming Kylo Ren?
While Finn is painted as a coward and a deserter, and used time and time again as the butt of the joke, Kylo Ren is consistently absolved of accountability for his actions, with the blame laid at the feet of Snoke, or Luke, or absent parents, but never his own. This reeks of the trend in media to report white male mass shooters as “troubled young men with a history of mental illness,” while innocent black children like Tamir Rice are shot by police because they were considered a threat. Though it might seem extreme to make such comparisons, it’s the same institutionalised racism, and to see Star Wars perpetuating it after purporting to be championing diversity is incredibly disheartening.
Beyond this direct comparison, characters of colour are constantly mocked and belittled throughout the film. Experienced resistance pilot and leader Poe Dameron, who had no trouble handling diplomatic, combat, and captive situations in The Force Awakens, is all of a sudden reduced to a hothead with no apparent understanding of the situation at all. Not only does that play into a harmful Latino stereotype, it’s disrespectful to reduce a well-loved and heroic character to the role of an idiot who needs to be taught a lesson.
Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo is a white feminist’s wet dream: a white female character who comes in out of nowhere and sets up an antagonistic relationship with a male character, only to be proven right in the end. What’s frustrating here is that there’s absolutely nothing progressive about having a white woman condescend to and patronise a man of colour, yet Star Wars seems to be asking for feminist brownie points, at the cost of a man of colour’s dignity.
This trend is hugely apparent in last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story too, which saw (the frankly boring as hell) Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) constantly condescending to and belittling the men of colour around her that carried the entire plot, especially Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), but then getting ultimate credit for all their hard work and sacrifices.
Back to The Last Jedi, the entire plot put together and executed by Poe, Finn, and Rose is rendered utterly useless by the wider storyline. Everything that these characters go through in this film is all for nothing, and worse than that, is condemned as a stupid idea and a waste of time by Leia, Holdo, and the narrative itself. The powerful moment where Rose and Finn destroy the casino symbolic of the war-profiteering bourgeoisie? Totally belittled by the wider narrative.
Oh, at least they got to show us a scene of our black hero on his knees being slapped by a literal Nazi though, right? Not for any particular plot reason, just to further humiliate our black hero, whose entire presence in this film was rendered useless. Because that’s exactly what the world needs at the end of 2017, right?
On top of all of that, we saw Paige Tico (Ngô Thanh Vân) die right at the beginning of the film, and Rose’s character pushed into a horribly forced and awkward kiss with Finn for no reason other than to dissuade LGBTQ+ fans from hoping that Finn and Poe’s chemistry might develop into something on screen. Benicio del Toro was utterly wasted in what was hardly more than a cameo, but hey, at least we got time to see some pointless footage of shirtless Kylo Ren, right?
Honestly, what Star Wars needs more than anything is diverse creators given the power to shape the content they’re putting out. Diverse faces are only half the solution, but Star Wars seems to think they’ve done all they need to do when it comes to representation.
Check out the hashtag #StarWarsHatesPoC and this Twitter Moment, and add your voice! The louder we talk about these problems, the more chance that someone who has the power to do something about it might hear.