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Credit: Lucasfilm

Star Wars has always been political

Contributed by
Dec 20, 2019

Once more, with feeling, for those in the back: Star Wars has always been political.

Star Wars has always been political, because art has always been political. Art has always been political, because art is inherently subjective. There is no such thing as “objective” art, because robots don’t make art.

(... and anyway, then we’d have to get into who programmed those robots and how and I think you caught my point before the roboethics.)

Art, no matter its intended purpose, reflects the creator or creators’ worldviews. Whether it’s as overt and purposeful as The Fountainhead or as seemingly bland as Paul Blart: Mall Cop, all art tells us, subtly or unsubtly, who to root for. Who to hate. Who gets to fall in love. Who gets to be innocent. Who we’re not supposed to be.

Art only feels unpolitical when you’ve never had the dawning realization that you’re being asked to hate yourself. The kernel of truth at the center of “Well, now it’s all political!” is “Well, I never realized it was political!”

And, to be clear, it’s okay to realize that for the first time. For people with privileges along any axis, there is going to be a first time, often a lot of first times, that you have this realization about something. Growth is a journey. The way you grow from realizations like this is to take a seat, have a think, and interrogate your privileges. Sometimes you just have to accept that some art is not meant for you.

It’s just a little easier to do when you’ve had to accept that your whole life because of who you are.

So of course Star Wars is political. All art is.

Credit: Lucasfilm

Oh, and it’s also political because it’s about Vietnam.

Remember: George Lucas was in college during the '60s. He was a politically active young man, and the Vietnam War (from which he received a medical excuse due to his diabetes) had a profound effect on him. Lucas was slated to direct Apocalypse Now and spent four years developing the film with screenwriter John Milius before moving on to other projects. Even American Graffiti, a seemingly “unpolitical” film about early-'60s white teen culture, ends with one character permanently relocating to Canada, likely to dodge the draft, and another reported missing in action in Vietnam.

So it’s little wonder that Star Wars, Lucas’ love letter to his niche interests, also reflected those politics. In a 2005 article promoting the newly released Revenge of the Sith, Lucas told the Chicago Tribune, “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away.” Nixon was, in fact, one of Palpatine’s direct models, according to J.W. Rinzler's The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

The reason this doesn’t feel more obvious is twofold. As John Seavey pointed out in 2012 (in the post that introduced me to Star Wars’ politics lo those many years ago), Star Wars was written in the Nixon administration and released in the Carter administration, diffusing its immediacy. And as Enjolras at the Poli-Sci Jedi pointed out in 2014, Star Wars delivered its radical messages using conservative visuals. The Empire can’t be a stand-in for America if it looks like a bunch of Nazis, duh.

Credit: Lucasfilm

But the prequel trilogy didn’t fall prey to timing: The latter two were produced and released during the George W. Bush presidency, the war on terror, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Lucas has said that he wrote much of the screenplay for Revenge of the Sith, including Padmé’s iconic “So this is how democracy dies … with thunderous applause” line, before the events of 9/11. But the parallels between the president, Palpatine, and young Vader were impossible to ignore. Producer Rick McCallum told the Chicago Tribune that "... we never thought of Bush ever becoming president, or then 9/11, the Patriot Act, war, weapons of mass destruction. Then suddenly you realize, 'Oh, my God, there's something happening that looks like we're almost prescient.'” Lucas even drew a direct connection between his original inspiration, Vietnam, and the Iraq War at a Cannes news conference while promoting Revenge of the Sith.

And when it comes to the sequel trilogy, saying that it’s political now because it features women and men of color in the lead heroic roles is missing the larger picture. The sequel trilogy continues the politics of the original trilogy, featuring a small band of Resistance fighters fighting against the neofascist First Order. An organization that is, I might add, led (at least at first) by Snoke, a mysterious, moneyed man who may or may not adhere to the ideology of the First Order himself but benefits greatly from it (at least at first). As Jacob Knight goes into in great detail in his editorial on The Last Jedi, there are definite parallels to be found between Snoke and Trump.

It’ll be interesting to see how The Rise of Skywalker continues this political exploration. The assured return of Palpatine in The Last Jedi gives it a new direction to go in: Why has this cycle persisted, despite Luke’s efforts, both galactically (the overthrow of the Empire) and personally (the radicalization of Ben Solo into Kylo Ren)?

Star Wars is political because art is political. Star Wars is also political because politics has been at the core of the franchise since 1977; it’s not like it’s even particularly hidden. You just have to open your eyes and be willing to see it, even if it makes you uncomfortable.

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