New Star Wars films offer more speaking roles to women and POC actors

Contributed by
Dec 8, 2017

Can you hear me now? If you're a woman or person of color in a Star Wars movie these days, chances are the answer is "we're starting to." According to a report from the University of Southern California, the new installments in the popular film franchise are offering huge increases in the number of lines spoken by actors other than white men. 

The report, which was compiled by students and faculty working on the Media Informatics and Content Analysis project (MIKA) at the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL), found that Star Wars: The Force Awakens featured nearly 28% of lines spoken by women. That's nearly four times the number of lines spoken by female characters in 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope, which featured only 6.8% of its lines spoken by female characters. In fact, due to the casting of characters in the original Star Wars film, nearly every single line of that movie is actually spoken by a white person. The only exception is James Earl Jones, who voiced Darth Vader, a character who is actually white under his mask. It wasn't until Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back that an actor of color even appeared on screen when the film introduced us to Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). 

Compare that to a film like The Force Awakens, which includes nearly 38% of all dialogue spoken by characters of color. Or even, perhaps, Rogue One, whose diverse cast of characters helped bring the number of lines spoken by non-white actors up to 45%. Of course, this is because these films are now making a concerted effort to cast women and people of color in roles that had historically only ever been played by white men. Rogue One alone featured more diverse casting than in any Star Wars film previous. 

The students and faculty working on the program assembled this data using a new computer program they've been developing, which analyzes scripts to identify speaking parts and even identify the gender and race of an actor assigned to that role from a database. The system was previously used in a study that analyzed more than 1,000 scripts and discovered that films with at least one woman on the writing staff included 50% more female representation.

Shri Narayanan heads up the project, and while he admits it is still very much a work in progress, he's hoping the software will help promote more diversity in casting in the future, especially in franchises with the reach of something like Star Wars

“The global reach of this media talks to people around the world, for years to come, for generations to come,” he said, speaking with Variety. “People still go back and see the first movies from the original trilogy. These movies also capture a snapshot of society as we are.”

That progress may very well continue into next week's release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In addition to returning stars like Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Gwendoline Christie, and the late Carrie Fisher, The Last Jedi also features the debut of Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, the first Asian-American lead in a Star Wars film. With the final film in the new trilogy still due out, along with the upcoming Han Solo anthology film, and a brand-new trilogy set to be helmed by The Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson, there are plenty more opportunities to increase that representation further.

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