For the first time in decades, Star Wars will finally have a black woman as a major character. In this month's Solo: A Star Wars Story, Thandie Newton plays the mysterious Val, a member of the ragtag crew that Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) assembles. It’s not lost on Newton how momentous her character is to fans, particularly women of color.
“I'm the first woman of color to have a prominent role in the Star Wars legacy," she told Radio Times. "There have been others with one line and Lupita Nyong'o was a computer-generated character [in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi], but you didn't get to see the color of her skin. I'm the first... I'm going to have a toy and everything."
Science fiction hasn’t been especially kind to black women. For years, there have been only a few major characters people can name—Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Guinan, characters from Octavia Butler’s books such as Kindred protagonist Dana, Firefly’s Zoë Washburne, and a smattering of others. In the Star Wars film franchise, there have been zero.
Despite the franchise’s new focus, Star Wars didn’t start out with diversity as its chief priority. The original film, A New Hope, was white—the sole black voice belonged to James Earl Jones as Darth Vader (David Prowse played his physical form onscreen). It was only after complaints from fans that other characters were added or cast to give diversity, such as the Asian resistance pilot Telsij (Eiji Kusuhara) in Return of the Jedi, and of course, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) in The Empire Strikes Back. But blackness in Star Wars has often been used as a defining character factor and, more often than not, showcased a character’s moral flaws.
As cool as Lando is, he's tied to a Hollywood that was barely out of the blaxploitation age, in which black characters were typecast as violent, sexualized archetypes—one being the pimp, a word that’s occasionally tied to Lando by fans due to his style of dress, hair, and slick demeanor. As a character rooted in that archetype, Lando is someone who skirts the law even while trying to be legitimate. Similarly, while we never see Jones onscreen, his voice gives Darth Vader space in the conversation about how blackness is weaponized in popular media. Darth Vader is the big bad guy. He’s menacing and will kill anyone who stands in his way. Yet when the character is ready for his redemption, the face we see is a white one.
After Lando, the films no longer invest in black characters, leaving black fans with just two characters, both of whom are on the spectrum of deceitfulness. Comparing that to the various white characters who range the gamut from heroic to evil, the representation for black characters is just above the bare minimum. For other fans of color, the representation is virtually non-existent.
Nowadays, Star Wars is finally righting some of their wrongs when it comes to diversity. Latinx representation has finally been included with the introduction of Poe Dameron, a character the franchise was actually close to writing out until Oscar Isaac convinced J.J. Abrams to keep him. Asian representation has increased with Jessika Pava (Jessica Henwick) a character who was first introduced in the written canon and made her way to the big screen, Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), and her sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the first Asian woman to have a central, pivotal role in the main storyline. Black characterization was given a boost thanks to the reluctant hero Finn, cementing John Boyega as one of the main players in the Star Wars film canon. The crowning glory is the moment black female Star Wars fans have been waiting decades for. We now have Newton’s Val, an answer to the question of why Star Wars has seemingly avoided black women.
Why has it taken so long for Star Wars to rectify such a huge oversight? Maybe the answer lies behind the scenes, where those involved were usually not black women.
If we take a macro look at the main Star Wars characters before The Force Awakens, a theme is clear: this story is centered around white characters and their concerns. The film franchise began in the late 1970s when it was still uncommon for black stars to be in, much less headline, what could be considered a “mainstream” film. All that Hollywood knew was whiteness, therefore many of the white directors coming of age, so to speak, worked within that framework.
George Lucas was no different. The film that firmly established him as a talented director, 1973’s American Graffiti, is all about the nostalgia of a white time gone by—the early '60s. The entire film is centered around a quintessential white suburban experience, one that is marketed as “universal” but actually wasn’t, not if you consider what black people during the same time period were having to deal with. None of this is to say American Graffiti is a bad film. The point is that Lucas never had much practice in centering narratives around points of view other than his own. Just take a look at how he bungled the Star Wars prequels. While they were rough enough on their own, he compounded the issue by relying on racial and cultural stereotypes, including Jewish, Asian, and African-American people, with the inclusion of characters like Watto, Nute Gunray, and Jar-Jar Binks. Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu, the only major non-white character in the prequels—and more pointedly, the prequels’ only black character—isn’t enough to balance the scales.
The team behind Star Wars reflects Hollywood’s focus on whiteness. As we know now, from movements like Time’s Up and from scores of actors of color speaking out, Hollywood has been a white-centric industry where only a handful of people of color can ascend the ranks. If we take a look at the crew on the first Star Wars, for example, we see that most of them were white. Most importantly, all of the writing credits for both the originals and the prequels go to white writers, and only one of the writers from the original films, Leigh Brackett, was a woman.
The lack of diverse opinion led to many of Star Wars' failures in both gender and racial representation. For years, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was the only notable female face of Star Wars, and for many of those years, the character was haunted by the time she was forced to wear a slave bikini costume, making her an exaggerated sexual object. Throughout the prequels, women like Padmé (Natalie Portman) and Anakin’s mother Shmi (Pernilla August), were fridged to propel Anakin’s story. Racial stereotypes were used as “humor.” Many of Queen Amidala’s costumes lifted elements from cultural groups, despite few, if any, of those cultural groups being represented in the actual films.
That lack of differing opinion is also why so many black female characters have gone underdeveloped in the film franchise. Characters from the written canon, like Imperial Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, could easily fit in Star Wars films if Lucasfilm so chose. Korr Sela (Maisie Richardson-Sellers), a supporting character in Bloodline, appeared briefly in The Force Awakens, a short role shortened even further after a scene featuring her and Leia was deleted. Original film characters get small screen time, such as Rogue One’s Senator Tynnra Pamlo (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). Other times, black women are exoticized, as in the trailer for Solo in which a black woman dressed in gold is performing like an interstellar go-go dancer in a club, or in scenes from Return of the Jedi where black and Asian actresses are outfitted like Twi’leks, aliens who are often enslaved as sex objects for the wealthy.
As Newton herself addresses, Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata is another point of consternation for black female fans longing to see images of themselves on screen for longer than two seconds. Despite being a part of the cast as a woman of color, Nyong’o doesn’t get to showcase herself onscreen. Instead, she’s a disembodied voice for a CG character. It’s another moment in which Star Wars unintentionally harkens back to its past. Like with Darth Vader, blackness is being used to differentiate a character from their surroundings.
It’s sad that this is the backdrop Val must use as her entrance into the world of Star Wars. But while there are plenty of mistakes Lucasfilm must still atone for, it’s great to see that the studio is finally beginning to address the oversights of its past. First of all, the new era of Star Wars films and television shows focuses more heavily on women’s stories as a whole. This is most apparent in The Last Jedi, where not only is Rey’s story gaining more significance, but Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) also command a military team by themselves. Rose, inspired by her sister Paige’s sacrifice, becomes a new hero in the resistance, challenging Finn and saving him from himself.
Lucasfilm is also changing behind the scenes. The idea generator for the new batch of films is, as the New York Times reports, a story team made up of four women and seven men, with five of those members being people of color. Lucasfilm has also hired its first black female director for Star Wars: Episode IX, with Victoria Mahoney working alongside J.J. Abrams as second unit director.
All of this is great news. The only downside is that it has had to come at the expense of time. Did it really have to take so long for this kind of progress to be made? In an ideal world, it wouldn’t have. But, as we are often reminded, we don’t live in an ideal world.
Regardless of the battles marginalized people are often up against, somehow justice still comes out on top, and thankfully, black women are finally getting their moment in the sun as part of the Star Wars pantheon.