Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My reaction to the Episode VII cast announcement

Yesterday, announced most of the main cast of Episode VII. In addition to the six returning regulars (Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, and Kenny Baker), they named seven new cast members: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow. A lot of fans greeted this announcement with disappointment, chiefly because they announced only one new female lead. I understood that response, but I didn't share it — not because I don't share the desire for more female characters in the Star Wars universe, but because I didn't see quite the same announcement they did. In fact, I saw the possibility of an excitingly diverse cast and a cause for celebration (yub-yub), not outrage.

Before I explain, I should point out that an incomplete cast list is a terrible way to judge the diversity of a film. What matters much more is how the characters are used. If you were to look at the cast list for Alien without knowing anything about the script, you'd see a sausage-fest of six men and two women; you'd have no way to know that Ellen Ripley would dominate the story — and go on to become one of the most iconic heroines of science fiction to boot. My advice would be to wait until more information is available before giving in to disappointment (or excitement, for that matter). Failing that, read on.

One bit of information that got lost in the excitement of the cast announcement was the fact that casting is not complete. The official casting call included "a second young female, also late teens, tough, smart and fit" — and, unofficially, biracial — which is probably the part Lupita Nyong'o and Maisie Richardson-Sellers were/are in consideration for. After the irked response to the casting announcements, sources clarified that this is indeed still an uncast role, which fits with reports from a few days ago that Abrams still had casting duties to finish before filming begins in a couple of weeks.

Taking this as gospel, that leaves us with six original cast members and eight newcomers. Abrams had little to no control over the genders of the original cast, so let's leave them alone and make some guesses about the newbies. Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings) is King of Motion Capture; we can guess that he'll be playing a CGI alien of some sort, which could make the question of his gender and ethnicity approximately as relevant as Mayhew's. It's been widely speculated that Adam Driver will play a villain, which is also a likely bet for Max von Sydow, who could be following in the distinguished footsteps of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. If true, that gives us two white dudes as villains, and leaves us with five likely heroes in the core cast: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and an unnamed biracial woman.

That's a black dude, a white woman, a hispanic dude, a white dude, and a biracial woman as the five core heroes of a Star Wars movie — maybe. Leaving aside my excitement about the specific actors cast in those roles (and I have a lot of excitement about John Boyega after Attack the Block) that looks to me like a laudably diverse main cast. (Boyega is getting top billing, too, if that means anything.) If we go on to consider that Ridley's character is rumored to be the daughter of Han and Leia (which nails down her ethnicity pretty tightly), and maybe toss in my pet theory that von Sydow is a holdout Imperial officer (which means old white dude), it looks to me like Abrams chose diversity where he could, and where many directors would not have.

Do I know that all of my guesses and inferences are correct? Of course not; there's still plenty of room to be disappointed. And there's no way Abrams will get all the way to equal gender representation, which is the ultimate goal. But I suspect, when the first trailers are released, we're going to wonder what all the fuss was about, and either give Abrams a thumbs-up for expanding the diversity of the Star Wars universe or find something new to complain about.

(I know where I'm putting my money.)