'Star Wars' series rumored diversity a sign of Hollywood's evolution

If recent press reports are to be believed, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan may very well be the droids we’re looking for.

The rising stars are just two of several names being mentioned in the same breath as the Star Wars revival being helmed by J.J. Abrams. Fresh off the heels of her Oscar win, Ms. Nyong’o is in talks with the man who single-handedly resurrected the Star Trek franchise for an as-yet-unnamed role.

Meanwhile, Mr. Jordan is among a growing list of black actors being weighed for a plum role in one of Hollywood’s most storied science-fiction franchises. Throw in the reappearance of original cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, and mutatis mutandis, the Star Wars revival gives many reasons for excitement.

Yet given the man at the helm, a compelling and racially-balanced cast is perhaps to be expected. The mooting of Nyong’o, Jordan and David Oyelowo is very much in keeping with Abrams’ history of diverse and unusual casting decisions. Save to mention his penchant for curveball plot twists, which have become the hallmark of works on both the small and large screens.

Alias was a television cult hit for its five-year run, successfully turning a number of secret-agent genre tropes on their ears. While fan buzz far exceeded its viewership, Abrams’ deft writing and casting decisions launched the career of the (moderately talented) Jennifer Garner and helped turn the (very multi-talented) Bradley Cooper into an A-list star.

In its heyday, Abrams did for some of his stars what George Lucas did for Ford, Fisher and Hamill. In addition, Alias had an admirable track record of casting unsung black actresses in prominent (though largely villainous) roles. The show’s casting carousel included Gina Torres, Merrin Dungey and Vivica A. Fox.

Its status as a global cultural juggernaut notwithstanding, one of the few longstanding critiques that Star Wars has confronted was a perceived lack of diversity. Given the franchise’s legions of diverse fans, and a palpable appeal that cuts across all races and ethnicities, this criticism seems unfair at best.

In the six Star Wars “episodes,” some point out that the number of black actors featured therein can be counted on one hand, yet still have fingers to spare. An astute observation perhaps, but your writer’s response is: so what?

When Star Wars was released in 1977, the reality of the sci-fi genre—indeed, movies in general—was that casting decisions were not made with black audiences in mind. The recent awards cycle, and the insertion of names like Nyong’o, Jordan and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the conversation, proves how much societal mores on race have changed. With that in mind, the early post-civil rights cultural era was defined by two realities: blacks weren’t the prime demographic of most movie makers, and there was already a flourishing oeuvre of African-American cinema.

The decade launched the movie and television careers of a number of black actresses, and could arguably be viewed as the Halcyon days of black film. In any event, space-themed movies, with their themes of alienation (literal and figurative) and fantasy, were a natural draw for black moviegoers, most of whom could relate to the various characters and plots.

Either by accident or design, the few black Star Wars characters offered up some of Hollywood’s most enduring characters. Billy Dee Williams’ swashbuckling and suave Lando Calrissian (here’s to hoping his character will be part of the new generation) gave young blerds a model to emulate. Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu was less iconic than Calrissian, but who can forget the way he wielded a light saber with the best Jedi around?

And lest we forget, Star Wars used one of the most famous black actors ever –and his Stentorian voice – as the immortal Darth Vader, the most iconic movie villain of all time. By the time Episodes 1 – 3 appeared, the ground for black sci-fi heroes had already been sown by Will Smith and Laurence Fishburne. Star Wars may have faltered in checking the necessary boxes, but truthfully, did anyone really notice or care?

Past and future casting decisions notwithstanding, the shaping of Star Wars is entirely consistent with the fact that outer space—at least as represented in comic books and movies –has almost always been a welcome place for people of color. In space, and among super-powered human beings, multiracial harmony has always thrived.

From Star Trek’s groundbreaking Lt. Nyota Uhura (both the incarnation of Nichelle Nichols and the Zoe Saldana) to Fishburne’s Morpheus and Geordi LaForge, black actors have a distinguished history of playing well-rounded characters in deep space. If the recent speculation about Star Wars proves true, Ms. Nyong’o and Mr. Jordan are just continuing that tradition.

It may be the height of naïveté to say aloud, but perhaps Ms. Nyong’o and Mr. Jordan are in the running not because of their race, but because they are proven talent who can draw in movie watchers of all stripes.