Donald Glover was the host of last night’s Saturday Night Live, and appeared in one sketch as his character in the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story: Lando Calrissian. There, he asked a question that’s been raised a lot about the Star Wars universe: where the hell are all the black humans in space?
In the sketch, Glover’s charming Lando hosts the “first-ever summit for all black humans,” on Naboo, which turns out to include just three attendees. It’s a pointed jab at the lack of diversity in the Star Wars films.
The lack of diversity in the franchise is something that’s long been pointed out when it comes to the franchise: In her 1980 essay “The Lost Races of Science Fiction,” (reprinted in Gerry Canavan’s critical biography Octavia E. Butler) science fiction author Octavia Butler noted that minorities were often ignored because they were supposed to be “escapist” fantasies, and that there “is the implication that a sprinkling of blacks, Asians, or others could turn the story into some sort of racial statement. The only statement I could imagine being made by such a sprinkling would be that among the white, human people; the tall furry people; the lumpy, scaly people; the tentacled people, etc, were brown, human people; black human people, etc. This isn’t such a heavy statement — unless it’s missing.” A New Hope featured James Earl Jones as the voice of Darth Vader, but it wasn’t until The Empire Strikes Back that Billy Dee Williams portrayed Lando Calrissian, while a couple of bit parts went to Femi Taylor (dancer Oola), and Ronny Cush (rebel pilot Grizz Frix)
The Star Wars prequel films did a bit more: The Phantom Menace introduced Captain Quarsh Panaka (Hugh Quarshie) and Jedi Master Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), while Attack of the Clones introduced Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison.) The prequel’s small advances haven’t always gone over well: George Lucas was heavily criticized (among other things) for Ahmed Best’s performance as Jar Jar Binks, which was seen as a heavily caricatured and stereotyped character.
With Disney’s new installments, the debate over race in Star Wars has heated up in recent years. There’s been more visible roles for black and minority actors: Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, while John Boyega portrays a black First Order Stormtrooper named Finn, which prompted racism from some quarters. This has continued with the franchise’s standalone entries: during the press tour for Rogue One, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy told CBR that diversity and that having a cast that’s representative of the world’s population “incredibly important to Star Wars.”
Lucasfilm’s intentions regarding diverse casting appears to extend to the upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story — somewhat. Glover is playing the iconic character first portrayed by Williams, but that cast also includes Thandie Newton (Westworld), while Paul Bettany’s mob boss Dryden Vos was originally played by Michael K. Williams — before he was replaced due to scheduling problems after the film’s original directors were fired. There’s still more that the franchise can do to truly represent the franchise’s global audience.