A long time ago, in a movie theater far, far away, I fell in love with a franchise.
The “Star Wars” movies were my absolute favorites growing up in a small town in Indiana. The universe of lightsabers and landspeeders, Wookiees and womp rats was one I could get lost in for days, weeks – years – of my youth. Little did I know a couple decades later I’d wind up living in the hometown of its creator, George Lucas. And I’d get to interview the man – twice.
So when the cast for the now Lucas-less return to the “Star Wars” galaxy was revealed, I was particularly excited. A whole new generation of little kids now has the opportunity to feel the Force with the same joyful abandon I did all those years ago.
The official announcement confirms that the old gang of Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke (Mark Hamill), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are all back.
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Then there is the new cast: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson and Max von Sydow. My guess is most of you only recognize one or perhaps two of those names. Respected veteran actor von Sydow has been in everything from “The Seventh Seal” to “The Exorcist.” Serkis is best known as Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” franchise.
You’ll have to have good recall or a strong love of indie fare to recognize the rest. Boyega is the lead in the 2011 British monster comedy “Attack the Block,” Isaac is the lead in last year’s indie darling “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Driver is Adam from the HBO series “Girls,” and Gleeson is Bill Weasley from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Parts I and II. Ridley, meanwhile, is a British newcomer whom every single entertainment writer had to frantically Google this week to figure out who the heck she was. The Associated Press didn’t even have a picture of her available.
So, what does this new cast tell us about the new “Star Wars”? A little and a lot, simultaneously. We still don’t know whom they are playing or the plot.
But by casting relative unknowns in such a mega-blockbuster, the filmmakers are making a definite statement. Unlike the latest “Star Wars” prequels, which paired relative unknown Hayden Christensen and household name Natalie Portman, this has no intention of relying on star power. There is no Ewan McGregor or Samuel L. Jackson in this cast. At least so far.
Bringing the old gang back together speaks to our love of nostalgia. It would not be unfair to say most geeks of a certain age – myself included – have warm, fuzzy feelings about the original trilogy and less warm, more grumpy feelings about the prequel trilogy that followed.
Another very encouraging sign is Boyega’s marquee billing in the cast list. The order of names matters in Hollywood, so putting him first signals he is most likely the lead, or one of the leads, of our new adventure And this matters for many reasons, but most simply because Boyega is a black actor. How many major motion picture franchises aimed at mainstream audiences have a black lead character? Not sidekick, not wise elder, not comedic relief – but lead? Yeah, not many.
Does this mean perhaps we’ve finally gotten to the point as a culture where we are not judged by the color of our skin, but our ability to wield a lightsaber?
Still, just as there is a light side of the Force, there is its accompanying Dark Side. So along with the encouraging comes some discouraging news. So far, the new cast features only one woman out of seven announced roles. Which means possibly only one new female character will be added to arguably one of the most storied sci-fi mythologies of all time. Major bummer, dude.
The first “Star Wars” movie gave us what continues to be the standard-bearer for spunky female heroines. Princess Leia remains one of the most iconic – though, sadly, still one of the few – feisty princesses in the entire princess Pantheon. That woman knew how to handle a blaster. And while I welcome the next generation of Leias, which I truly hope Ridley will embody, I can’t help but wish she wasn’t so all alone. In the entire expanse of space and time, can’t we find a few more ladies?
Wanting both a racially and gender-diverse cast shouldn’t be an either-or proposition. It’s not greedy to want both. It’s a desire to see all of us represented in the most beloved stories we tell as a culture. And in doing so, we allow more children from all over to keep dreaming about galaxies far away for a long, long time to come.