We already knew Star Wars was evolving when Disney and Lucasfilm announced the main cast for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Alongside returning favorites Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, and Anthony Daniels, director J.J. Abrams introduced Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac, and Adam Driver as leads. That cast later expanded with Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong'o, and Domhnall Gleeson. It's a great cast and most importantly, it's a diverse one.
Disney is doubling down on that with the first cast photo and cast list for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (formerly Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One). Academy Award nominee Felicity Jones was previously announced as the lead of the film, which is about a small team of Rebels trying to acquire the plans for the Death Star. Today at D23, Disney announced that Jones will be joined onscreen by Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, and Riz Ahmed.
I'm holding back my excitement, but that is an amazing cast.
Rogue One is allowed to play with a different tone than its mainstream siblings. Disney is taking a tentpole feature approach with Star Wars. For every major film that captures what Star Wars is supposed to be, there will be an alternating spin-off with a different tone or focus. The current schedule is below:
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens by J.J. Abrams - December 18, 2015
- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Gareth Edwards - December 16, 2016
- Star Wars Episode VIII by Rian Johnson - May 26, 2017
- Untitled Han Solo Film: A Star Wars Story by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller - May 25, 2018
- Star Wars Episode IX by Colin Trevorrow - 2019
This shift allows Rogue One to be a darker film, much like the novel Expanded Universe that Disney left behind when it acquired Star Wars. Diversity doesn't have to be just skin color or gender, it can also be tone and storytelling. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards is trying to create a gritty war film, as evidenced by his choice of Greig Fraser ("Zero Dark Thirty," "Foxcatcher") to be his director of photography and Neil Corbould ("Black Hawk Down," "Gladiator," "Saving Private Ryan") to be his special effects supervisor. Star Wars can be more than its pulp roots.
While George Lucas is a rather progressive person, his Star Wars movies didn't stray too far from the pulp serials that inspired them. Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were products of an older era, meaning their casts were largely white. No harm in that and the 1980 Flash Gordon movie remains one of my favorites. The first Star Wars not only drew from a lot of that iconography, but it was also made in the late 70's. African-America actors were trending out of the blaxploitation-era of filmmaking and actors of other minorities had little chance to make a mark.
I've always loved Star Wars. My mother used to put the film on when I was a kid because it was the only thing that kept my quiet. Every film is amazing, but Billy Dee Williams walking onscreen as Lando changed my perception of Star Wars completely. It wasa like a switch was flipped in my young brain.
"I was asked to play Lando and I said, 'Yeah, great, fantastic.' [Director] Irv Kershner came to my house, we sat and talked and got to know each other and that was that," Williams said in an interview with the Canadian press. "I think I was the first little brown-skinned boy to go into space in the movies."
That latter statement made by Williams is important. In my imagination, I could always be the one fighting along Obi-Wan, but Empire Strikes Back reinforced that idea. That's the key with representation. I can watch a film or play a game with an all-white, all-Maori, all-female, or all-Asian cast and be perfectly fine. But there's something very cool and very inviting that happens when your entertainment says, "You can be here, too. Look, you belong." That's why people ask for characters of different races, genders, religious creeds, or sexual orientations; seeing someone that reflects you onscreen is special.
When John Boyega's Finn is on the cover of the new Force Awakens poster holding a lightsaber and Daisy Ridley's Rey is front-and-center, I get excited. Gwen Christie looks great as the fearsome Chrometrooper, Captain Phasma. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen are great Chinese actors; to see them starring in a new Star Wars film brings a big smile to my face. Felicity Jones is English, Diego Luna is Mexican, Ben Mendelsohn is Australian, Mads Mikkelsen is Danish, and Riz Ahmed is English of Pakistani heritage. Forest Whitaker is an Academy Award-winning African-American actor and Alan Tudyk is an amazing comedic and dramatic actor.
Disney Star Wars films are drawing from actors and actresses around the world and that's a great thing. Sure, Star Wars is part of the big Disney machine now, but everything is looking great so far. At the very least, Disney is willing to say, "Hey, everyone can come to this galaxy far, far away." It's a great start and I hope to see the idea expand in the future.