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A history of black actors in the Star Wars universe

Nowhere is media’s influence on social attitudes more evident than among the millions of fans following Star Wars. Decades after the franchise’s creator, George Lucas, made his first iteration of the fictional galaxy filled with aliens, Stormtroopers, and the Force, his vision has captivated fans with countless iconic moments. Few of these moments, however, feature black actors. “George, is everybody in outer space white?” filmmaker John Landis is quoted as saying after seeing the first film. The gradual inclusion of diversity in the series’ latest installments, including its prequels, has been a boon for many fans. From the off-screen performance of James Earl Jones in the original trilogy to John Boyega’s central role in The Force Awakens, black representation in films has evolved over the decades, ultimately coming to play a vital role in the trilogy.

Billy Dee Williams
Character: Lando Calrissian
Appears In: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
The New York-born actor was a household name from movies like Brian’s Song, Mahogany, and Lady Sings The Blues when he was chosen to be the smooth-talking Calrissian, a pseudo-sidekick to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. Critics pointed out his character was on the stereotypical side, with his penchant for gambling and womanizing. Nonetheless, his depiction of the charismatic ladies’ man left a lasting impression on fans as the only black character with a speaking role in the original trilogy.

James Earl Jones
Character: Darth Vader (Voice)
Appears In: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
It wasn’t just the visuals of space that captivated fan imaginations, but the sounds as well. From the light sabers to the battles between The Galactic Empire and rebel forces, no other sound was more iconic than James Earl Jones’ voice as Darth Vader. The actor who played Darth Vader on screen had a strong regional English accent, so Lucas hired Jones to lend his deep, baritone voice to the character, giving Darth Vader authority and menace.

Samuel L. Jackson
Character: Mace Windu
Appears In: Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith
Samuel Jackson was already a star when he lobbied for the role. Though moviegoers already knew the character wouldn’t survive to Episode IV, seeing a black man have one of the highest statuses in the Star Wars universe was still important for many fans. In keeping with his on- and off-screen “badass” persona, Jackson used his influence to negotiate a more “spectacular” death scene.

Ahmed Best

Character: Jar Jar Binks
Appears In: Phantom Menace, Revenge of the Sith
When speaking of African-American characters in the Star Wars universe, this particular entry is often raised as a negative example. Like Andy Serkis provided the movements and voice for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, African-American Stomp actor Ahmed Best was Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. While his character was created as comic relief he was not well received by fans and critics alike, in part due to his stereotypical Jamaican accent.

John Boyega
Character: Finn
Appears In: The Force Awakens
While Landro Calrissian was a major character, Finn is the first protagonist of the series played by a black actor. 38 years after the release of the first film, some fans were upset to learn that the First Order Stormtrooper and eventual hero would be black, prompting a call on social media to boycott the movie using the hashtag #boycottStarWarsVII, with some calling the decision “anti-white propaganda.” The response to this prompted a more positive hashtag, #CelebrateStarWarsVII, that praised the casting decision, as tweeted by Selma director Ava DuVernay.

Lupita Nyong’o
Character: Maz Kanata
Appears In: The Force Awakens
Reports of Nyong’o nabbing the role of an alien pirate who provides refuge for freedom fighters came fresh off her Oscar win for her role in 12 Years A Slave. Like Ahmed Best, the stunning beauty lends her voice rather than her physical likeness to her character. Most notably, while co-star Boyega received much criticism for his role as Finn, not much negativity was lobbed at the actress. Perhaps critics of the imaginary world are more comfortable with black stars in smaller, more morally dubious roles than they are with them at the forefront as heroes.

Hugh Quarshie
Character: Captain Panaka
Appears In: Phantom Menace
Relatively unknown in the United States (unless you’re a Highlander fan), the Ghana-born actor and member of the Royal Shakespeare Company portrayed the loyal Head of the Naboo Security Forces who was in charge of Padmé Amidala. While Captain Panaka is not as significant of a character as Lando Calrissian, Quarshie provided much needed diversity to the supporting cast.

Image Credit: (1) “Stars Sky Night.” Public Domain via PublicDomainPictures.net. // (2) “James Earl Jones” by SJ Mayhew, U.S. Embassy London. CC BY ND 2.0 via Flickr. // (3) “Billy Dee Williams at the Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona” (4) “Samuel L. Jackson” (5), “John Boyega” (6) by Gage Skidmore. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr. // (7) “Ahmed Best at the Big Apple Convention in Manhattan” by Luigi Novi. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. // (8) “Lupita Nyong’o” by Gordon Correll. CC BY SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Alec Kuck

    There was a rebellion pilot in episode six that died while attacking the second Death Star.
    Why did he not make this list?

  2. Dan

    These characters have one of 4 traits: Insignificant, DEAD, unskilled, or outright bad guys. NEVER heroes! This is white supremacy ladies & gentlemen.

  3. […] from Lando Calrissian, the Star Wars cast of characters was remarkably white. The hundreds of planets into the Star Wars universe are host to a diverse array of strange […]

  4. Francesca Clifford

    Starwars main characters are white yes this is true! However this is not that incredible as the main characters staring at the forefront of the original trilogy are in fact a family and are related yet estranged from each other and the story unfolds.. Luke is Layas twin brother separated at birth they are Anakin and padmais children.. both white.. they are also bloodlines of two very different backgrounds, Anakins mother is a slave and padmai is of nobility ..their worlds are both diverse with many species as a direct result of war, scattering species throughout the galaxies some in refuge, some are imprisoned etc.. those who exploit the week .. tyranny is a result of war as is the rise of the rebellion! As the story unfolds you encounter many characters and as Lando appears in empire and then in Jedi he is a positive influence in the integral outcome of victory over the imperial enemies and is a huge part of the story! In all there are only a small group of characters we can identify as main characters in the early movies.. and the rest are enormously diverse and different, all colours blue green yellow purple and none are judged or defined by whatever colour they happen to be!… Fixation on the race or colour of these amazing characters is deflection from the true virtues of each character and is destroying the fabric of what starwars is supposed to be! It was never about race or colour it is about overcoming the impossible and uniting all good and riotous people throughout the galaxies to harness the most excellent qualities from each other and destroy evil.. as time moves on we see more of each world we see more species and more colour.. please just enjoy the ride and relive the magic though innocent eyes again

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