9:30 am EST, December 22, 2017

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ failed its characters of color

The Last Jedi deserves praise for its inclusion of characters of color in major roles. The stories it chooses to tell about those characters do not.

Who we choose to tell stories about matters, and the fact that The Last Jedi chooses to tell stories which include people of color — especially women of color — is worth admiring and is absolutely deserving of praise. There is some alternate universe out there in which Finn, Poe and Rose are all played by white actors, in which another generation of Black, Latinx and Asian-American kids find themselves locked out of Star Wars yet again.

Instead, The Last Jedi gives all those kids the opportunity to be a part of the universe, to be heroes against the rising forces of cruelty and fascism.

But it’s not enough to just populate stories with people of color. The type of stories we choose to tell about people of color matter too.

It is not — and never has been — enough to be merely represented. What we should demand is good representation. Representation that reflects just how heroic and important and interesting and complex people of color are.

The Last Jedi does not give us this. It opens up the universe to people of color, only to then sideline them into purposeless narratives and fall victim to one-dimensional characterization and poor plotting.

Poe Dameron and the triumph of white feminism

I’m grateful that this movie showed, time again, women in charge. I’m glad that women were shown to be brave and heroic and in control.

I only wish that it hadn’t come at the expense of the characters of color.

Poe spends much of the movie in conflict with Laura Dern’s Amilyn Holdo, who assumes command of the fleet once General Leia falls into a coma. The conflict stems from the fact that the Resistance is being pursued by the First Order and Holdo seemingly has no real plan to save the fleet, which rankles Poe to no end.

We find out later that she and Leia had a plan after all — one that Poe would have likely supported had he known about it.

Except that he didn’t. Despite the fact that Poe has been described as Leia’s most trusted pilot, and despite the increasingly dire circumstances of the fleet, Holdo chooses not to tell Poe of this plan. Even when a full-on mutiny occurs, Holdo still does not reveal any details.

This story arc between Holdo and Poe is frustrating for a variety of reasons.

For narrative purposes, I generally find miscommunication as a plot point a poor storytelling choice. Yes, it functions as a way to build tension and set other plot points (Rose and Finn’s adventure) into motion, but I’m never really in favor of plot being in service to plot irrespective of character.

In terms of in-universe reasons, it can — and has — been argued that Amilyn Holdo owes nothing to Poe Dameron, that she isn’t obligated to tell him anything she doesn’t want to. That’s a fine narrative to tell I suppose, but what it points to is something altogether more pernicious and troubling — that Poe, a man of color, needed to learn to trust his white female superiors implicitly despite the outward-seeming incompetence of their choices and the fact that they apparently think very little of him.

This storytelling choice is neither interesting nor subversive. The narrative that white women do not care about how their choices affect people of color is a tiring reflection of reality, one that we’ve seen play out painfully time and again here in the U.S. as we’ve watched 53% of white women vote for Donald Trump and 68% of white women vote for Roy Moore.

Peg this storyline as a victory for feminism if you wish, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it’s anything except for white feminism.

Rose and Finn’s fruitless, meaningless and unnecessary side quest

Again, credit where credit is due — whatever the POC equivalent of the Bechdel Test is, The Last Jedi passes with flying colors.

There are entire scenes in The Last Jedi that focus solely on its characters of color. In which Rose and Poe and Finn and Benicio Del Toro’s character DJ are speaking to one another, about topics and storylines that have nothing to do with white characters. That in itself is certainly laudable.

But it’s also important to remember that movies that pass The Bechdel Test and tests like it set a bar so low you could trip over it. It’s worth noting since it is unfortunately rare, but it’s also a little bit like awarding a participation trophy.

If we were to apply another commonly used narrative test such as writer Kelly Sue Deconnick’s “Sexy Lamp Test” — or maybe “Screaming Droid Test” to make it more Star Wars friendly — which posits that a story needs to be reworked if “you can replace your character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works,” then The Last Jedi fails miserably.

If you were to replace both Finn and Rose with a screaming droid at any point in their adventures on Canto Bight, the movie would still be the same. In fact, if you were to take out the entire Canto Bight sequence completely, the movie would basically be the same.

It’s a storyline that not only ends up being fruitless, it’s one that is literally the very definition of unnecessary since the only reason it even happened was because Amilyn Holdo made the inexplicable decision to not disclose that the Resistance had a plan.

So while I appreciate the fact that Finn and Rose got to go off and have their own space adventure, that appreciation is undercut by the fact that their adventure had no purpose except to sideline them.

This might all be excusable had the adventure delivered any emotional payoff or character building moments. It did not. Finn is essentially the same at the end of it. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about this film is that Finn gets very little development at all.

For as interesting a character as he is — a child soldier who rejects all his programming and embraces a new way of life — we know almost nothing about him and learn basically nothing more in The Last Jedi. We hear endlessly about the inner conflicts and long history of many of the white characters in this movie, but don’t have the same attention paid to Finn, who was essentially one of the two protagonists from The Force Awakens.

As for Rose, she comes out of this movie with even less development than either of the male characters of color. While she gets a hero moment of saving Finn at the end, the only thing we know about her is that her sister died. The narrative never lets her avenge her sister or show her formidable mechanic skills because it kneecaps the mission before she is able to prove herself; she functions as essentially a third leg of a love triangle between Finn and Rey.

This is especially heartbreaking for me since not only was Finn my favorite character coming out of The Force Awakens, but because I fully went into this movie ready to come out stanning Rose Tico.

It’s been an absolute joy watching Kelly Marie Tran on the promotional tour. She’s someone I’d want to give a hug to, get a beer with and also marathon all of Hallmark’s Christmas movies with (I just feel like she’d be so much fun to watch them with). I was also beyond thrilled to see an Asian-American woman as a major part of the story — which is something that, after this movie, I’m still waiting to see.

The failures of characters of color vs. the failures of white characters

The Last Jedi

One of the major ideas that the The Last Jedi attempts to tackle is that of failure — the idea that everyone fails, sometimes spectacularly, but that it is often the failures which have the most to teach us.

It’s a fine idea — a great one, even.

But one that’s inequitably applied among the characters. In many ways, it seems as though the narrative allows characters of color to fail so that the white characters can save them and be the heroes.

Poe fails to save the Resistance, so that he and the Resistance can be saved by Holdo and Leia’s plan of evacuation.

Finn and Rose fail to complete their mission against the First Order, so that they can be saved from execution by Holdo’s sacrifice.

Fine, Rose and Poe fail to dismantle the battering laser gun, so that they can be saved by Luke and Rey.

And while some might point to the fact that Empire Strikes Back likewise had all its characters fail, the failures led directly to some sort of major development — Luke learns Vader is his father, Leia learns to love and Han learns to own his flaws and how to belong to something bigger than himself.

In The Last Jedi, Poe learns that white women are always right, then inherits the right to lead after being allowed to by those same white women. Finn learns the exact same lessons he already learned in The Force Awakens, and I’m still not sure what Rose learned.

And yes, the white characters fail in this film, too. But they also get to save themselves. Holdo makes the choice that — initially, at least — saves the Resistance, Rey rejects Kylo’s offer to turn to the Dark Side, while Luke redeems himself in his final showdown with Kylo Ren.

There’s been a lot of talk about how The Last Jedi subverts expectations and takes risks. And maybe in terms of the mythology of Star Wars, the wider universe, and the history of characters, it does. As someone who first watched the original trilogy all the way through a mere two years ago after watching The Force Awakens, I don’t feel like I can really accurately and properly attest to that.

But in terms of how it portrays its characters of color, it falls back on using narratives that are uninteresting, unambitious and ultimately unsatisfying.

It’s a movie that starts with the death of Paige Tico, a woman of color, and ends with a close-up of a force-sensitive white little boy who’s meant to represent the future of the Resistance. It’s a movie that sidelines its characters of color and ignores any nuance or complexity in their characterization.

The stories that The Last Jedi chooses to tell about its characters of color are neither risky nor a subversion of expectations. They are simply the uninteresting, unfortunate status quo when it comes to storytelling in Hollywood.

These characters deserved better. And so did we.

What did you think about the representation in ‘The Last Jedi’?

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