racism

Star Wars: Jedi, Racism, and the Force Awakens

John-Boyega-as-Finn-in-Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens.jpg

Three trailers have now dropped for the upcoming Star Wars film, and there has been some controversy about racial politics, with some "fans" threatening a boycott because one of the main characters is black. Boo hoo hoo. It's about time that we see the racial diversity of the films expanded to a primary cast member. Sure, Lando Calrissian was black, but he's very much a supporting cast member. https://youtu.be/sGbxmsDFVnE

In Kevin Smith's film Chasing Amy, there's some biting commentary on racial prejudice in the original trilogy. While Lando's name launches us into the subject, he's essentially ignored in the main argument.

https://youtu.be/I0VZj-85E5o

I've started watching the original films with my kids, and this is likely the first time I've watched any of the films in a few years. My old VHS collection gathers dust, as my old VCR had died some time ago. I had resisted upgrading my childhood memories to George Lucas' most recent revision, but gave out at last.

There are a number of disturbing elements in the films, even in the parts which he didn't try to rewrite. His attempts at whitewashing the universe, and making his characters more "heroic" is not that successful. Han shot first, and to suggest otherwise diminishes his status as a smuggler and a scoundrel. I can understand why Lucas would want to redeem this flaw in his hero, but I don't have to agree with it.

The "heroic" Jedi however, have always failed in one rather critical aspect of the films: the treatment of droids. R2D2 and C3P) are our primary characters from the very first scene of the films. Through them, we are introduced to Luke Skywalker. We see C3PO relax in a luxurious oil bath. They are, in some ways, more human than some of the other characters. But all the characters treat them as slaves, even the Jedi.

The Jawas are "scavengers", but in reality are slave traders, capturing unprotected droids. The droids are held captive by restraining bolts. When R2D2 escapes, there will be "hell to pay". Because escaped slaves need to be dealt with harshly.

I think the scene that does the most damage is the Mos Eisley Cantina, where the bartender says that they "don't serve their kind here". Rather than standing up for droid rights, Luke tells the droids to wait outside, so as not to cause trouble. But when someone raises some trouble with Luke, its lightsaber time, and before you can say "these are not the droids you're looking for", some alien creature has been disarmed and dis-armed.

The arm of an alien who tried to cause trouble with Luke Skywalker.

Look, I realize that Obi-Wan Kenobi may not be the best of Jedi: he did kind of raise and teach Anakin, who ended up murdering all the other Jedi, including a temple full of children. Kenobi must have been a great role model.

But surely once Luke becomes a Jedi, he will become a little more enlightened, and accept these droids as friends, and not property, right? Whats that? I can't hear you over the sound of Jabba the Hutt's booming laughter as he accepts the gift of two droids, without the knowledge or consent of at least one of them. Its quite possible that R2D2 was in on Luke's plan, but its clear that C3PO wasn't consulted in his fate as protocol droid to a major crime boss.

So much for the Jedi being a force of good. Its just a different form of slavery, very much modelled on American history. Non-humans weren't really treated equal either. At the end of A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get these cool medals, but Chewbacca just gets to stand nearby.

Han Solo and Luke Skywalker receive medals while Chewbacca looks on

So that brings us back to the new episode, where it was revealed that John Boyega is going to play a major role as Finn.

John Boyega is a black actor who plays the role of Finn, standing in a desert with stormtrooper armour.

I really hope he lives up to the role, and that maybe his character even treats droids with a little more respect. He looks pretty badass with a lightsaber. May the Force be with him.

Finn ignites a lightsaber in the third Force Awakens trailer

Star Trek DS9 Reviews: The Nagus

The Nagus was a much harder episode to watch than I remember. Wallace Shawn is as amusing as ever, but the multiple levels of racism in the episode is disturbing. There are obviously redeeming values in the episode, but they have to do mostly with the subplot. Grand Nagus Quark

You don't have to look back far in human history to see other cultures similarly vilified, with statements like "they just don't share our values". What a farce. In some ways, the regular Ferengi characters are more human than the other crew members, even if Rom is still woefully underdeveloped.

Quark and Rom

Maybe this was intended to be about the values present in the Star Trek world, which has long been sanitized of the more negative aspects of the human condition. The idealized Roddenberry vision did away with money and greed, something integral to the Ferengi. Just because they weren't in Roddenberry's dream of the future doesn't immediately divorce them from human values though, especially when presented to a modern audience. This is what bothers me.

Grand Nagus Zek

The other Ferengi are cardboard cut outs, and their council meeting to discuss the Gamma quadrant is cartoonish. This is the danger of relying on comedy at the expense of character development. Sadly, we don't really see much character development in Quark, despite many opportunities to do so. He gains great power (among Ferengi) but abuses his friends. He suffers treachery, including from family. He remains unwilling to ask for help. He fails to show gratitude. His pride and stubbornness match the Ferengi greed.

While I suppose there is value in showing how a character remains steadfast in refusing to change, it's far more interesting to show how events can cause changes. In this episode, we end where we began (the sign of an episode of the week) rather than drive forward on an important story arc.

Where we do see character development this episode is in the arguably more important subplot, with Jake and Nog. While the primary "Quark as Nagus" plot is a plot-of-the-week, interactions with Nog are of far greater value. We see the lengths that Jake Sisko goes through in order to remain friends with Nog, even after Rom pulls him from "that hew-mon school". Their friendship, the act of bridging their differences is an important story arc in its own right, and is further developed as the series progresses.

Jake and Nog

I can't understand why Chief O'Brien is allowed to teach the kids while Keiko is away from the station. It's not that he's incompetent, although he has little experience interacting with teenagers. The thing is, the station seems to always be on the brink of breaking down. How can he dedicate time to instruction when the station may finally fall apart? What this does bring us, is a reason for O'Brien to interact with Nog, and form some strong opinions. O'Brien dislikes Nog, and disapproves of his influence on Jake. In time, we will see his opinion change drastically. It's a good way to start things off.

The way that O'Brien states his opinions to Commander Sisko, that he dislikes Nog's influence on Jake, is also important, as it frames the episode's conclusion, where Sisko learns of Jake's influence on Nog. Jake's relationship with Nog is what redeems this episode for me.  There are some good moments from Commander Sisko, when he says that he trusts Jake's judgement (although later he checks up on him, you know, just in case), and the final scene, where he accepts that his son is friends with a Ferengi, but the momentum in this episode is all about Jake and Nog.

The Nagus first aired March 21, 1993. Teleplay by Ira Steven Behr, story by David Livingston. Directed by David Livingston.

Star Trek: DS9 Reviews: A Man Alone

While Past Prologue had one main theme, loyalty, There are two primary themes in A Man Alone: relationships, and racism. The writers manage to weave together these threads while fleshing out more of the more reclusive member of the DS9 crew, Constable Odo. A Man Alone  Bashir

Bashir and Dax

The episode opens with Doctor Bashir shamelessly flirting with Jadzia Dax, a scene which essentially repeats itself through the episode. Her response is friendly, but evasive. She explains that relationships for Trills are a little difficult, and that joined Trills attempt to "rise up" above their desires. Instead of being discouraged, Bashir, ever the optimist, decides that this means that he still has hope.

Sisko and Dax, redux

Fast on the heels of Bashir attempting to woo Dax, is a scene where Sisko and Dax share a meal, and re-establish the close friendship he had with Curzon Dax, the previous host for the Trill Dax. It's a good scene, and shows more depth to their relationship, and explores why Trills don't always reconnect with the friends of past hosts.

Odo and Quark

Odo and Quark make great foils for each other. The law man and the con man. It's all about testing boundaries. While they seem to be each other's worst enemies, there's a certain level of respect shared between the two of them. It's a constant game of cat and mouse, with Odo keeping Quark to a low level of dishonesty.

Odo and Quark

O'Brien and Keiko

As O'Brien was an established character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, he has a fairly developed back story, including his wife Keiko, a botanist, and their daughter Molly. This episode begins to explore the family tensions in place in changing careers.

This invites comparison to the other family unit on DS9, Commander Sisko and his son, Jake. With Sisko being an only parent, his decision to live on a distant space station requires less compromise than that of the O'Briens. In order for O'Brien to take his promotion, the direct downside is that Keiko's career is put on hold.

O'Brien and his wife have several arguments in public, about Keiko's role on the station, or rather, lack thereof. There's precious little need for a botanist in the iron clad corridors of Deep Space Nine, nor does it seem a proper place to raise a young child.

With a bit of handwaving, the show's writers suggest that instead of being a botanist, Keiko should become a teacher for the children of Deep Space Nine, providing structured learning in a classroom environment.

While her arguments towards an integrated classroom environment, with children from various cultures learn together is a good one, she seems completely unprepared to develop a worthwhile curriculum, which takes culturally sensitive issues in mind. This is really the weakest part of the episode, and really just comes across as a way to give Keiko something to do on the show.

This role change appears to address two holes in the plot: it gives Keiko a meaningful role on the station, and allows for an educational setting in which Jake Sisko and Nog can interact, but it really feels contrived, and not in a good way.

As socially progressive as Star Trek often attempts to be, this provides an example of how O'Brien's career has essentially relegated his wife to a traditional gender role of mother and educator. The future feels so very enlightened.

Odo and the Rule of Law

When Odo realizes that Ibudan, a former Bajoran smuggler and profiteer was on the station, he does his best to kick him off the station. His report to Sisko on the matter brings up a great piece of dialogue.

"If he hasn't done anything wrong, you can't force him to leave."

"Watch me."

"Mr. Odo, you're not going to take the law into your own hands."

"The law? Commander, the laws change depending on whose making them.  Cardassians one day, the Federation the next.  But justice is justice."

What we learn about Odo here is that he has remained the chief of security on the station since sometime during the Cardassian occupation. This is one of the charges the Bajorans on the station bring against Sisko later in the episode, suggesting that somehow, Odo was a Cardassian collaborator. Here, Odo explains that his views on justice haven't been influenced by any legal requirements. His is impartial, a "disinterested" observer of the human condition. He is the man alone.

Racism on DS9

Now that we've gotten all the fun relationship issues out of the way, let's move on to the second, less savoury theme. This is far from the first time that Star Trek has dealt with issues of race, and it's far from the last time this theme will be explored in DS9, though not always for the best. As J. Emmet Winn notes in his article "Racial Issues and Star Trek's Deep Space Nine" (Kinema: A Journal for Film and Audiovisual Media, Spring 2003), the actual depiction of race, especially the Ferengi, isn't always a progressive view. Certainly, we can see evidence of xenophobia in this episode, even in Commander Sisko, who wants his son Jake to have nothing to do with "that Ferengi boy", as he sees Nog as a troublemaker.

The founding of the school, and Keiko's attempts at creating a multiracial classroom allows us to foreground issues of desegregation, as different cultures come closer together.

The most explicit racism in this episode however, is seen in the Bajoran persecution of Odo, who is framed for the murder of Ibudan. The parallels to racism in contemporary society is fairly clear: ethnic slurs are scrawled across the walls of his trashed workplace. In Odo's case, the word "SHIFTER" appears. He is hounded by an angry mob, unwilling to wait for the justice system to deliberate over the evidence. Thrown objects break storefront windows. The mob leader even asks how you put a noose around the neck of a shapeshifter.

Odo enters his office to see SHIFTER written on the wall

Racial integration in the United States has been… problematic, and it's clear that the problem is ongoing. Where one person sees a kid with a hoodie and a pack of skittles, another sees a threat to their neighbourhood. How the situation is handled is what matters. A measured response allows all the evidence to come out, while a hasty decision is irreversible.

In A Man Alone, the situation is defused, although as the Captain's Log states at the end, to the best of his knowledge, Odo has not received any apologies for the actions of others during the protest. Sadly, that's often how issues of racism are dealt with in our world too.

A Man Alone first aired January 17, 1993. Teleplay by Michael Piller. Story by Gerald Sanford and Michael Piller. Directed by Paul Lynch.

 

Breakfast

Tonight I saw the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's for the first time. The images of Audrey Hepburn in this film have been icons in Hollywood ever since, and I think that I can understand some of this. The movie speaks to the American Dream, where one can aspire to reach the upper social circles despite one's humble origins. More importantly, it is a clear representation of the romantic ideal, at least from Hollywood's perspective. The male lead is a newly published novelist, and pursues a relationship with an eccentric socialite, who appears to be seeking money.

The ending is predictable, they end up together, as Hepburn's character learns to accept her vulnerability. The basic plot of the movie may have cliched elements, but the movie is beautifully executed, save one major exception.

The portrayal of Mickey Rooney's caricature of the asian neighbour upstairs is overdone, well past the point of racism. While it may not have been the recognized intent of the producers to do so, I cringed every time he was on screen. I fail to see adequate reason for this to be done the way it was. It may have been intended for comedic effect, and it may have been viewed as such when the film was released, but it brings a dark stain to an otherwise excellent film.

I think the most confusing thing about this casting choice is that it doesn't really fit the tone of the rest of the film. Even if one was oblivious to the racism in this portrayal,the intended comedy really doesn't mix well with the romantic plot. In the end, this was an ultimately disappointing element to an otherwise classic film.

Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel first published by Mark Twain in 1884, is no stranger to controversy. It has been frequently challenged for it's place in school curriculums, and public libraries. This book appears in several of the top ten most frequently challenged books of the year, as tracked by the American Library Association. It also appears in the top lists for each of the past two decades. The most frequent reason given for challenging Twain's book is racism. Can we therefore be surprised that a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being announced by NewSouth Books, where all instances of the word "nigger" are being replaced with "slave"? Does this proposed new edition really provide a solution to these charges of racism, or is this merely whitewashing the issue?

Does replacing this racist term with "slave" address the charges of racism, or does it merely hide them? Is not one of the important aspects of this book, the reminder that for much of early American history, those of African descent were treated as subhuman, owned as livestock?

While this new edition will still depict slavery, will the reminder that being a slave was determined by the hue of one's skin be forgotten?

What impact can we foresee about this new edition of Huckleberry Finn? While the cofounders of NewSouth have stated that there is "a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial," they acknowledge that there are claims of censorship. To this, they argue that "there are plenty of other books out there -- all of them, in fact -- that faithfully replicate the text" (Publisher Weekly).

How difficult is it now going to be, however, for a school to choose one of these more traditional texts, when those who challenge the original text can point to this edition as being less controversial? How many opportunities to address the issue of Huck's racist statements in a classroom setting will be lost, in order that others may read this watered down edition?

While I do appreciate the editor's introduction, which attempts to explain these editorial changes to the reader, Alan Gribbens fails to show in this new edition how the casual usage of this term by an otherwise innocent boy shows how entrenched the racial slavery was in the lower States in the 1850s. Gribbens even notes how the change to "slave" loses the "caustic sting" of the original word.

When reading the novel in it's full context, one can see how Twain is challenging the traditional values towards the enslavement and ownership of African Americans, as Huckleberry Finn's views towards "his" Jim change from an owned slave, to a friend whom he must break free. While the ending of the novel does tend to go over the top with Tom Sawyer's ludicrous attempts at freeing Jim, it is Huck's earnest desire to free his friend that shows how Twain sought to bring social justice to those enslaved.