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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

May 24, 2017: Star Wars Studying: Rogue One, Diversity, and War

[May 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars film (it wasn’t titled A New Hope at that point!). So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. Share your own different points of view for a force-full crowd-sourced weekend post, my fellow padawan learners!]
On two ways the newest Star Wars film pushed the envelope for the series.
In many ways, the diverse characters and casting for last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) seem to parallel and extend what I said in yesterday’s post about The Force Awakens (2015). Both films feature a strong female protagonist, with Rogue’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) helping Force’s Rey (Daisy Ridley) bring the series into a new millennium of equal opportunity gender heroism. Both surround that lead actor with impressively multi-national and –ethnic supporting casts, with Rogue spotlighting Pakistani British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, Mexican actor and director Diego Luna, Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen, and Chinese actor and director Wen Jiang. And both have inspired similarly aggrieved reactions from sexist and white supremacist Star Wars “fans,” although it seems to me that the critiques of Rogue One were less prominent or loud than the prior year’s had been; perhaps the bigots have resigned themselves to the fact that this 21st century version of Star Wars is going to reflect the diverse global society in and for which it’s being created (although we’ll see how they handle an Asian American actress playing The Last Jedi’s “biggest new part”).
Yet I would argue that in one important respect Rogue One’s diversity differed from, or at the very least significantly deepened, that of Force Awakens. For whatever reason, both of the main actors in Force Awakens (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) didn’t use their natural English accents in the film, rendering their characters somewhat less diverse (or at least more ethnically neutral, let’s say) than the actors behind them. Whereas in Rogue One, Luna, Yen, and Jiang all speak English with their natural accents, opening up a window into a Star Wars universe where characters don’t just look ethnically different (although even there Rogue presents fuller diversity than any Star Wars film before it), they also sound it, at least suggesting a multi-lingual side to that universe. That might sound like a small or insignificant change, but to argue otherwise I would highlight this amazing story, shared by Luna himself on his Twitter account, of a Mexican American young woman who brought her Mexican immigrant father to see the film and then wrote about the experience on tumblr. Or I could share Luna’s own perspective on why it was important to keep his accent for the character, as a critical element to the diverse identity and universe he reflects. For those and other reasons, the accents in Rogue One represent a new side to the series, and they matter.
[SERIOUS SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] In a different but not unrelated way, I believe that Rogue One’s shifts in genre and tone from all other Star Wars films also matter. Of course “war” has been a part of the series all along, but one modified by “star,” producing a space opera or Flash Gordon serial version of war. Of course major characters/heroes have died throughout the films, but generally those deaths were of older characters whose time had come (Obi Wan, Yoda, Darth Vader/Anakin, Qui Gon), and whose deaths were thus not particularly traumatic for young audiences (Padmé being a definite exception, and Mace Windu at least a partial one; Revenge of the Sith is a pretty bleak film). Rogue One is a much grittier kind of war film, however—from the “suicide mission” sub-genre of war films, no less—and the uniformly tragic fates of all of its major heroic characters reflects that distinct genre and tone. I don’t mean to suggest that the other Star Wars films don’t have sad or dark elements, but I think it’s also telling that their young protagonists all survive; that none of Rogue One’s do is, to my mind, the precise reason why my sons have said that they love the film but “it’s really sad” (not something they’ve ever sad of any other Star Wars film, even Sith). As a result, Rogue One has brought the Star Wars universe and its audiences, perhaps especially its youthful audiences, into a very different universe and vision of war, just one more way this newest film has profoundly changed the series.
Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

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