The intentionally chosen May 4 is National Star Wars Day. Yes, May 4, as in “May the 4th be with you,” playing off the classic “May the force be with you” line from the movies. While the holiday officially started in the ’70s (with the British), it has kicked into hyperdrive over the last few years as Disney has sought to make Star Wars an all-consuming cultural phenomenon again. And I, like all God-fearing Americans, will be consuming all that is Star Wars over the next 24 hours.
Because unlike other American cultural phenomena that clearly have no place for black people (e.g.,Friends, Lord of the Rings, Crocs or the Bush administration), African-American actors and actressesalways played a big role in the Star Wars films, books and toys, long before “diversity” was trendy. How black-friendly is Star Wars? In 2013 Verizon ran a commercial featuring a black family dressed as Star Wars characters for Halloween, and nobody blinked. How’s that for cross-cultural penetration? A galaxy far, far away has always been one of the most welcoming places for black folks in American film history, and here are a few roles that make May the 4th worth celebrating.
Samuel Jackson (Mace Windu), The Phantom Menace (1999)
Samuel Jackson’s Jedi Master Mace Windu was probably the best part of the lousy Star Wars prequel movies from the late 1990s. He brought a sense of power and strength to the Star Wars movies; has appeared in tons of video games, books and comics in subsequent years; and is generally regarded as the most powerful Jedi next to Yoda. Did we all want Samuel L. to bring a little bit of Jules Winnfield into his Jedi performance? Yes. Did he do it? Only on the Internet.
Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Femi Taylor (Oola), Return of the Jedi (1983); Gin Clarke (Adi Gallia), Phantom Menace (1999); Nina Fallon and Lily Nyamwasa (Stass Allie), Revenge of the Sith (2005); and Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), The Force Awakens (2015)
Now, that doesn’t mean Star Wars is perfect when it comes to black women. Many of these roles for women of color are small parts or just plain old problematic. The first black woman to appear in a Star Wars film is Oola, the dancer-slave who got eaten for rejecting her master. In Revenge of the Sith,producers thought it was OK to do some Saldana-Nina Simone-level nonsense and use CGI blackface to replace actress Lily Nyamwasa with visual-effects coordinator Nina Fallon to play Jedi Master Stass Allie (yes, blackface was bad in 2005, too). And in 2015’s The Force Awakens, a major black actress, Lupita Nyong’o, was cast, but she’s only providing the voice for a CGI character who looks like a talking orange with swim goggles. But compared with the Marvel movies, where only one black woman has had a speaking role in more than 10 films, Star Wars’ record with black women is exceptional.
John Boyega (Finn), The Force Awakens (2015)
James Earl Jones (Darth Vader), A New Hope (1977)