There was a fair amount of excitement that greeted the recent news that Lupita Nyong'o and Gwendoline Christie had been added to the cast of “Star Wars,” and the exaltations that I read were just as fervent as the condemnations of the table read photo that led me to write this piece a few weeks ago. I'm glad people are excited for them to be cast, and I certainly think they are both talented performers, but I'm not sure party hats are appropriate yet.
I think both sets of reactions are sort of ridiculous, and not because I have any problem with the idea of discussing how people feel under-represented in movies. I think the reactions are ridiculous because we still have no idea what roles they're playing or what story is being told. We have no idea if they'll have big roles or small roles or even interesting roles. Terrence Stamp is one of my favorite actors, and he makes 100% no difference in “The Phantom Menace.” It is inconsequential to even mention his work in the film because of how little he has to do. Who knows? Maybe Lupita Nyong'o will be sitting next to Han Solo in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and get every great line in the film.
Probably not, but who knows?
Ultimately, I think the casting ins and outs of giant corporate blockbusters are not terribly interesting, because I don't think giant corporate blockbusters are where we should be looking for any significant social change or conscience. I certainly love many big films, but if I want to understand something genuine about people, and particularly people who do not share my particular experience, I don't go see a movie that has a number after the title. These are typically meant now to be assaults on your sensory perception that numb you into submission, not stories that reflect anything about the human experience, universal or otherwise.
There was news today that Lupita Nyong'o is going to produce and star in an adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel “Americanah,” which is a love story between two young Nigerians. It's described as “a romance that spans continents, visas, phone cards, and breakups, while exploring the cruelties and humor of both the modern immigrant experience and the difficulty of finding your way home.”
Now that's exciting.
What I have said time and time again is that no one should look to Hollywood to solve their problems if they feel that their story is not being told. Hollywood exists to make money and to homogenize everything into a flavorless paste that everyone around the world can passively absorb the same way. They want the broadest possible things, and specificity freaks them out. As international box-office becomes more and more important to the bottom line of giant movies, you will see the hue and the gender of the default leads in these films shift, but it's still not going to be about true representation. Speaking as a white American male, I can tell you that I don't recognize myself in most blockbuster movies. Not really. Sure, that lead character looks like me, but I don't think most of those movies have anything honest to say about people in general, much less specific people.
Nyong'o's casting in “Star Wars” is important because it then gives her a platform that she can use to help make her own projects, and when she makes “Americanah,” I hope it's great. I hope it hits all those targets mentioned in the press release, and I hope her visibility from “12 Years A Slave” and “Star Wars” is enough to help get that film in front of as many audiences as possible. More than that, though, I hope it makes real money. Already, just mentioning this on Twitter, I'm seeing people say, “No one will see that. 'Star Wars' is important because people will see it.” Well, if you're only willing to see the things that are marketed the loudest, then you're part of the problem, and bitching about how Abrams casts his movie seems disingenuous to me.
You want to see things change? Vote with your dollars. Always. Think about where you're spending your money. Hollywood will follow your dollars. You want more women to tell their own stories? Or people of color? Or people who represent communities that are all but invisible to the mainstream? Then figure out how you can financially send the message that this is what you want. “Star Wars” will make money no matter who appears in it. I'm glad that they've cast John Boyega and Oscar Isaac and, yes, Lupita Nyong'o and Gwendoline Christie. But I'm not going to assume that anything gets better in the bigger picture just because of who is in “Star Wars.”
Hats off to Brad Pitt's Plan B films and to D2 and Potboiler, who are all teaming to help Nyong'o get “Americanah” up on the screen. I'm excited to see who ends up directing it, and with Plan B involved, I am hopeful that this will not be some marginalized thing that vanishes into four theaters in the US. I'd love to see more Oscar-winners use their heat to do something that won't get done any other way, and I look forward to seeing this one when it's ready.
“Star Wars Episode VII” will be in theaters December 18, 2015.