star wars

Star Wars: Jedi, Racism, and the Force Awakens


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.

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.

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

Convergence Culture and Fan Fiction

So I've been reading Henry Jenkins' book Convergence Culture, which talks a great deal about new forms of interaction with media. One chapter, Why Heather Can Write: Media Literacy and the Harry Potter Wars caused me a bit of trouble. This chapter practically evangelizes fan fiction as a legitimate form of writing, with the strong implication that it can and will lead to commercial writing contracts. I somewhat understand where Jenkins is going with this. It's exploring areas of a franchise which are otherwise left alone by the original author. Fan fiction allows the audience to participate, to deepen their connection to the works in question.

Let's talk early web media. Back in 1997, a 10 minute short film called Troops effectively accomplished what Jenkins is discussing in this chapter. The  film has Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars out on a domestic disturbance call at the Lars farm seen in A New Hope.

Vader and Stormtroopers at Ad Astra

To my knowledge, Troops really started the whole short films launched on the internet. While fan movies had been made in the past, they were not shared as extensively, and did not have the same capacity for collective enjoyment.

Troops was embraced by the fan community, and was even recognized by Lucasfilm with the Pioneer Award at the 2002 Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Since directing the film, Kevin Rubio has been working as a freelance writer, and has even written an episode of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated TV series.

Is film more receptive to fan participation? Perhaps George Lucas is more receptive to this type of collective intelligence? Lucas did have the foresight to maintain the merchandising rights to Star Wars, so this may be part of his goals for a larger media empire.

There is an ever-growing Star Wars fans who own their own Stormtrooper costumes, such as the above photo which I took at the 2009 Ad-Astra science fiction convention. The 501st Legion epitomizes many of the convergence tactics that Jenkins discusses, and makes numerous appearances at fan conventions, as well as charitable events. From what I can gather, they have a relatively good relationship with Lucasfilm's Fan Relations department.

The 501st testimonal page includes a quote from Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm Content Manager and Head of Fan Relations saying that "e consider the members of the 501st part of the extended Lucasfilm family. They have fun and share a sense of community, while at the same time bringing joy to a lot of people.”

How does this fit in with novel and short story writing? Copyright law is in general fairly unambiguous, in that fan fiction firmly crosses that invisible line that marks out a publisher's rights. While some franchises, such as the Harry Potter universe have a thriving fan community, under the implicit approval of Rowling, most publishers and the authors they represent actively discourage fan fiction. The above link notes that Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey and Raymond Feist have in the past asked to remove derivative works.

How then should fan fiction be judged? Is it a valid attempt at engaging with an author's world, or is it something which has the potential to damage audience perception of a work?