Star Wars: The Force Awakens was undeniably a large landmark for diversity in Hollywood when it released back in 2015, introducing the first black lead character and first female led Star Wars film in the entire franchise. As an effort to pass down the torch from the past generations to a more colorful millennial generation, it was a huge step, but there was and still is so much more ground to cover in diversity. Naturally, director Rian Johnson had a lot on his shoulders when writing and directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi– he had to make a film that would please both original trilogy lovers and build off of The Force Awakens in a very satisfying way. On December 10th, 2017 The Last Jedi officially premiered in Hollywood, the review embargoes lifted on the same night and soon the internet was flooded by out of context spoilers. Twitter and Tumblr got hold of these spoilers and the movie was met with lots of negative response.
Simply put, Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been the most divisive Star Wars movie yet, which was to be expected for a film with its own goal set out to subvert audience expectations and change the Star Wars brand thematically and artistically. LOTS of fans feel alienated by the course this movie has taken, and a general sense of negativity was inflicted upon the fandom as a whole, some of those fans felt like the way minorities were portrayed in the film was especially disappointing.
The #StarWarsHatesPOC hashtag was just one ways social mediausers voiced their critiques of the film’s treatment of its non-white characters. While it is always encouraged for people to speak out and criticize movies for their portrayal of minorities, there were many flaws and fallacies brought into this specific discussion. It is completely fair to point out where writers go wrong in writing non-white characters, it is completely fair to criticize how movies treat their white characters versus their characters of color. However, many people on the #StarWarsHatesPOC hashtag made their stances way before even watching the movie, their arguments built on out of context spoilers and false impressions on what the film was about.
Quickly, tweets started coming out claiming that The Last Jedi is a racist film because it sidelines its characters of color in favor of sympathizing with a fascist character in Kylo Ren. That Finn was being cruelly treated as a joke by the script with no real character arc of his own. That Poe Dameron fulfills the “hot-headed latino trope” and had to give into his white superiors as a conclusion to his arc. These takes are bold critiques to make against the film, and for a productive conversation they should have been made after the film was released so that the public could watch the film and form their own opinions on the film. To make matters worse, users would actively @ the actors and Rian Johnson demanding them to do better, or making very bold accusations for Johnson advocating fascism.
The Last Jedi of course isn’t a flawless example of representation in a studio film, but it does a whole lot better than most big budget blockbusters Hollywood puts out. In the past few years alone we’ve gotten movies such as Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange which directly erase and appropriate Asian characters and culture, or large team-up films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (a personal favorite of mine) or X-Men Apocalypse which drastically sideline their characters of color in favor for the white male leads. Even my personal favorite film of 2017, Blade Runner 2049 is guilty of appropriating different cultures for aesthetic with no characters of color to back it up. After seeing the film myself, as a Cambodian/Chinese-American man who has read and listened to the perspectives of other users on twitter, I don’t personally agree with a lot of these criticisms that the minorities in The Last Jedi were sidelined or mistreated. I believe the film is doing the exact opposite of “promoting fascism”, but dissecting my reasonings as to why is a different article for another time. I want to focus less on debunking each criticism thrown at The Last Jedi, and like the film does with the messages of Star Wars, I want to change and refocus the conversation on something much more productive.
Fans should still feel free to criticize The Last Jedi for its writing, but should do so objectively and respectfully. Using the phrase “promoting nazism/fascism” when talking about vague narrative metaphors in narrative discourse is only doing more harm by minimizing the urgency of real life nazis who have killed their way the year of 2017, and whose presence is still a threat to our safety. By doing so, one creates a bias/one-sided argument that should be reserved when talking about real life issues instead of fiction. See the movie first and look at the context of the scenes in question before making judgements and especially before directly tweeting at the cast and crew of The Last Jedi, if you still dislike it you can still talk about it without being harmful or abusive to the creators of the story or speak over people who do enjoy it. Especially if you are white and you criticize the race issues in the film, you have made the choice to speak over and dictate what is right or wrong FOR people of color, and that is not your place to do so. It would be more helpful as a white ally to listen to multiple perspectives and share the viewpoints of non-white fans before actively condemning the film.
Seeing the film first is crucial before participating in discourse about this topic where it is crucial to maintain objectivity. This makes for more intelligent criticism, which we can then expand to serious discussions about social justice in movie franchises such as Star Wars. When we preserve objectivity in our advocacy for diversity in media, we are going to be taken more seriously in the eyes of Hollywood. The ultimate effect of the #StarWarsHatesPOC hashtag is that it gave the Star Wars fans who want to keep pushing diversity a bad look, between the harassing and the sheer disrespect to those who were involved in the film. When we fail to be objective, we fail to come off as credible to those we want to persuade. It hurts us and our movement as a whole. For the sake of a better future, lets try to be less reactionary when carrying discussions about diversity in film.
Perhaps the conversation to be had about Star Wars and its treatment of people of color should not just be directed towards The Last Jedi, #StarWarsHatesPOC ultimately focused too much on this current installment instead of looking back and being critical of past films in the franchise. As much as we all love the original trilogy, they are anything but diverse. Maybe we should shift the conversation to how Lando was treated in The Empire Strikes Back, or how culturally appropriative the prequels were of Asian cultures? It is fine to criticize newer movies, but claiming The Last Jedi is scathingly racist when there are bigger issues with race in other installments in the franchise definitely comes off as performative activism.
In The Last Jedi, our heroes are challenged and have to accept that the past should not be glorified in order to make meaningful changes for the future. That is not unlike what we as fans do with the original Star Wars films. As a culture we view them as infallible and full of wisdom, but in reality they suffer from just as many race issues and toxic ideas on masculinity, which the sequel trilogy is actively attempting to address. Luke Skywalker knows and sees the Jedi way is deeply flawed, then he guides Rey to shift the force away from the old teachings. He doesn’t glorify the past, he and Rey move on to encourage change for the future. It’s about time we, as fans of the franchise, do the same.
Editor: Ricardo Biramontes