In the latest batch of images from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, one group shot stands out from the rest, especially given the history of the franchise. At first blush, it's relatively mundane picture of Finn, Poe Dameron and Rose Tico meeting some other Resistance members.
However, the image stands out because everyone in it is a person of color. For a franchise that, for much of its history, was dominated by white, male characters, with few prominent women or people of color and with some aliens amounting to little more than offensive caricatures of blacks and Asians, this is quite extraordinary.
The backlash accusing the franchise of racism started before A New Hope premiered in 1977. Although George Lucas had wanted to include a diverse Galactic population, he ran into trouble with the British unions, as fellow director John Landis recalled, the unions ultimately relented and several people of color were cast as faces in the crowd.
This was one of the decisive factors that determined the conception of the suave, dashing Lando Calrissian and the casting of Billy Dee Williams in the role in The Empire Strikes Back. As described in Dale Pollock's Skywalking: The Life And Films of George Lucas, Williams was Lucas' first choice for the role, but he was initially hesitant when he thought it was a "token" part. However, he embraced the role when he realized that Lando's race wasn't his defining characteristic. Williams would come back as an established hero of the Resistance in The Return of the Jedi, cementing his position as a key player of the franchise.
Another black actor, James Earl Jones, was another defining part of the original trilogy, but he never appeared on-screen, since he was the iconic voice of Darth Vader.
With the prequels, Lucas expanded the Galaxy by casting Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, the sternest Master of the Jedi Council, casting Ahmed Best as the motion-capture and voice actor for Jar Jar Binks and by increasing the representation of the background crowds.
A few other key players were also people of color, including Bail Organa, played by Jimmi Smits, Captain Panaka, played by Hugh Quarsie, as well as Jango Fett (Temuera Robinson) and Boba Fett (Daniel Logan). However, these characters were still eclipsed by a white main cast and supporting
However, even in 1999 Star Wars' main characters and most of their entourage were still portrayed by white actors. This point was explicitly brought up in a Saturday Night Live sketch by Donald Glover, who portrayed a young Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Director J.J. Abrams took a different approach to casting the ongoing trilogy: the casting calls for the movie were colorblind, and the concept art of The Force Awakens shows multiracial versions of Rey (who was then called "Kira") Finn and Poe. For legacy reasons, the only new character that had to be white was Kylo Ren. Accordingly, two people of color, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, were cast as two members of the new trilogy's core trio.
When speaking to Entertainment Weekly about the racist backlash to his casting, Boyega said, "We see through the eyes of children that they’re not talking about race the way we grown folks are. They’re not talking about color or how much melanin is in someone’s skin. That should teach us something. We’ve been having a continuous struggle with idiots, and now we should just force them to understand — and I love the way I just used Force there, by the way — just force people to see this is the new world."
Another change in the sequel trilogy was that a few POC evil characters could be seen working as officers in First Order bridges, while the on-screen Empire's high command in the prequels and the original trilogy had previously been composed exclusively of white men. Writer Chuck Wending, in his Aftermath trilogy of novels that takes place after Palpatine's death, also set a precedent for evolution for this by introducing Imperial Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and ex-loyalty official Sinjir Rath Velus.
The next Star Wars movies continued with this positive trend: Rogue One's heroes included a well-received, multicultural cast of characters portrayed by Diego Luna, Riz Ahmed, Donnie Yen, Wen Yiang, and Forest Whitaker. Likewise, Solo: A Star Wars Story revisited Lando (Donald Glover) and introduced Val (Thandie Newton) and Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman).
The Last Jedi incorporated Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, an Asian character with a rich backstory with a clear arc in the film. However, Tran, like Boyega, was the target of vitriolic racist attacks on social media that pushed her to close down her accounts, an experience she recounted in a widely circulated New York Times op-ed in 2018. Tran and her character have both persevered in the franchise, and she's set to return as a Resistance general in Rise of Skywalker.
Outside of the movies, even cartoon shows like Rebels and Resistance feature a very diverse cast of characters in the canonical expanded universe. In Jedi: Fallen Order, Debra Wilson, and Elizabeth Grullon play Cere and the Second Sister respectively, and both of them are featured prominently in the marketing and promotional material.
Similarly, in the Star Wars comic book universe, Doctor Aphra stars a charismatic trickster protagonist, Chelli Aphra, who is an Asian woman. And in the live-action Disney+ series The Mandalorian, Pedro Pascal plays the titular character, as Giancarlo Esposito, Omid Abtahi, Carl Weathers and Taika Waititi round out the cast.
For a franchise that has historically struggled with diversity, the future is looking brighter than ever. In that initial picture of the Resistance alone, half of the human characters in the image are woman of many different ethnicities and ages.
While the name of the extra who portrayed Willrow Hood -- the semi-iconic character seen running from Cloud City with what looks like an ice cream maker -- has been lost to time, that fate won't befall the new generation of Star Wars actors. Having a role, even a minor one, in a franchise as iconic as Star Wars is an instant resume-booster that could open up untold opportunities for these actors. Even though Star Wars takes place a long time ago in a far away galaxy, the franchise's newfound emphasis on multicultural characters has a very real and very positive effect on today's world.
Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker stars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Billie Lourd, Keri Russell, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, and Carrie Fisher, with Naomi Ackie and Richard E. Grant. The film arrives on Dec. 20.