(The following post is based on this Twitter discussion. It contains minor spoilers.)
For such a major release, the reception of The Force Awakens has a surprising lack of contention. There are parts we all agreed were great (Finn, Rey, Poe, BB-8, General Organa, basically the whole movie) and parts we all agreed were weak (the derivative parts of the plot, Captain Phasma’s squandered role). But the only major point of contention I’ve seen is over the character Maz Kanata, a CG alien played by Lupita Nyong’o. In the interest of not setting myself up as the arbiter of women of color, I won’t draw a conclusion, but merely present the sides of the discussion.
Maz shows up in the middle of the film to dispense wisdom and give the protagonists Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber. Her character bears more than a hint of Magical Negro, which is one criticism she’s received, but I’m most interested in the discussion surrounding the casting of Nyong’o as a CG character.
Now, partly people were just disappointed not to see Nyong’o onscreen because she’s awesome, a grievance I totally understand, but the bigger issue is the feeling that the filmmakers deliberately hid her behind CGI because they didn’t want to put a black woman onscreen. And when you look at the whole franchise, a lot of evidence points that way. For one thing, she’s the only woman of color to appear in a Star Wars film…ever, meaning that out of seven films, a woman of color has still never appeared in the flesh.
Then there’s the franchise’s history of using voice actors of color but not letting them appear onscreen. The original trilogy uses James Earl Jones to contribute the momentous voice of Darth Vader, but when his helmet comes off, he’s played by a white guy. Clearly Star Wars has no compunctions about shortchanging people of color.
But there’s another side to the conversation. Special-effects characters (that is, characters created using mocap, puppets, and other techniques instead of being played by onscreen actors) also have a long history of being dominated by white men. Nowadays Andy Serkis plays everyone. Back in the practical-effects era, representation was even worse. The puppets of the original trilogy came from Jim Henson’s workshop, where the puppeteers were virtually all male. A nasty feedback loop formed where the lack of female puppeteers lead to a dearth of female characters, which led to a lack of roles for female puppeteers. It’s still standard practice for men to voice the few female puppets. Puppeteers of color weren’t common either.
So puppetry and its descendant, mocap, are another field desperately in need of greater diversity. Nearly all the special-effects characters in Star Wars, from Yoda to Sebulba, are coded and voiced male. (I don’t know how many were voiced by actors of color, but I’d be interested in finding out.) Since race and gender aren’t key parts of these characters’ identities, it’s easy for white male creators to default to giving them to white male actors and puppeteers. So Nyong’o’s role as Maz is its own kind of breakthrough; I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the first woman of color to perform a special-effects character in a Star Wars film.
Of course that’s little consolation to people who want to actually see her. As the lone woman of color in an entire film franchise, Nyong’o can’t singlehandedly correct every imbalance. Hopefully we’ll see more women of color in the upcoming films, both onscreen and off.