SPOILER DISCLAIMER: probably don’t read ahead if you’re a huge Star Wars fan who is nervous about having an unbiased moving-watching experience of pure entertainment. If you’re casually interested in why The Force Awakens is an important film, read on.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not only a wonderful delight of science fiction entertainment, but it is an extremely important development in mainstream cinema. It’s important because it continues the story of a generation and keeps the force alive in all of us, but also The Force Awakens is significant on a more tangible level. Simply put, The Force Awakens is groundbreaking because the main characters are not white men. Historically, mainstream Hollywood has disappointed – and continues to frustrate – viewers and actors alike with its stubborn disregard for diversity in all aspects of movie making. From the writers, directors and producers down to the extras on set, Hollywood is predominately white and overwhelmingly male. When was the last time you saw a black man in a mainstream rom-com? It was a decade ago in Hitch. Can you name three popular films that cast women in the titular roll of an action film? You can only use The Hunger Games once. Did you know Halle Berry is the only woman of color to win an Oscar for leading actress, and of the six black women who have won an Oscar for best supporting actress, three of them played slaves? In cinema, there’s a dangerous myth that viewers don’t want to see films with a leading woman or more than one actor of color. The Force Awakens, while not perfect, blasts this myth to The Outer Rim.
This latest installment of Star Wars had broken the intergalactic ticket-selling record before the movie was even released in theaters and grossed a gazillion dollars in domestic box-office ticket sales in its opening weekend; that’s an incredible platform. The creators of The Force Awakens saw an opportunity to diversify, and they did. There is room for improvement concerning casting People of Color as Lupita Nyong’o’s character is CG and Finn is the only other major roll filled by a PoC. It should also be noted that film’s writers are decidedly very white and very male, nonetheless, The Force Awakens is feminist. With characters like the lead, Rey, and supporting characters Maz Katana and Princess Leia, it is as if the writers of this installment have met and interacted with real human women. Women in The Force Awakens talk to each other about things other than men! (See, Bechdel Test.) Important, plot moving scenes happen between women, without men present! There’s even a villainous female in the form of Storm Trooper Captain Phasma! What a time to be alive: female characters in a block-buster, history-making, movie with speaking lines, motivations, zero nudity and no one in the film gives a single damn that they are women.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) is as unquestioned in her femininity as she is in her heroism. There are no jokes at Rey’s expense because she’s a girl; no one is surprised that a girl is foiling the First Order’s plans. Rey is a fighter, but she’s scared. Rey is extraordinarily clever, but she’s still a child. She’s funny, caring and strong. Rey is a multidimensional lead: the character breaks many single-chord stereotypes for leading heroines in film. Similarly, Princess Leia, or General Organa (Carrie Fisher), commands the Resistance Forces with aplomb and certainty. No one questions her leadership ability. She’s a mother, but that doesn’t stopping her from having a powerful position in the Resistance. Maz Katana (played through CGI by Lupita Nyong’o) is the Yoda-like ex-pirate of Takodana who offers Rey spiritual guidance. The part is small, but extremely integral to plot progression and while it’s disappointing the audience doesn’t see Nyong’o as Maz, it is nonetheless important that she was cast.
Currently, The Force Awakens has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s almost legendary when it comes to Rotten Tomatoes scores, especially for a film that has been hyped for two years with a fan base more devoted to maintaining story-integrity than most religious fanatics. While the script is good, and the storyline is intriguing, it is, after-all, Star Wars. With a predictable hero-cycle and a good verses evil dynamic that’s never going away, paired with recycled themes of family lineage, it can get stale. It is my estimation that Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels so fresh, vivid, and alive with possibility – in part – because Star Wars is no longer the exclusive domain of white men.
I went to The Force Awakens on opening weekend with a mild interest in Star Wars. I left the theater asking every question about the Star Wars universe, contemplating a Rey costume for next Halloween, and eagerly Googling the release date for Episode VIII. The Force Awakens illustrates the audience’s thirst for diversity in mainstream cinema, even if they don’t explicitly realize that’s what they’ve been missing.