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.
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.
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.
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.
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.