Earlier this week, it was announced that Lupita Nyong'o will be joining the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. This is big news one of Hollywood's biggest fantasy epics, which has been told virtually without women or people of color. But Nyong'o needed this role as much as it needed her.
As Vulture's Kyle Buchanan has pointed out, although Nyong'o won an Oscar for her debut in 12 Years A Slave and was named Most Beautiful Person of the Year by People Magazine, her position among Hollywood's A-listers has not yet been cemented. Noting that she has largely been approached for supporting roles since, Buchanan wrote, "If a white actress with ample beauty and brains had just won the Oscar for her film debut, you can bet the offers wouldn't have been as meager." Her role in Disney's upcoming film has not yet been announced, but it's rumored that the actress will play either Obi-Wan Kenobi's daughter or granddaughter, Clone Wars villain Asajj Ventress, or even a character with no existing ties to the franchise. Filming for the movie began before her addition was announced, so it doesn't seem like Nyong'o will have a lead role in the Star Wars film, but being a part of the second-highest grossing franchise in Hollywood history is sure to raise her profile and create opportunities that she, unfortunately, hasn't yet had access to. Going mainstream will certainly help Nyong'o to, as she told IndieWire's Shadow and Act blog last year, "create my own work in the future so that we don't have to keep saying we don't have work for black women."
Of course, Star Wars needed Nyong'o just as much as she needed it -- but not every director would have recognized that. J.J. Abrams, whose shows have featured some of television’s most diverse casts, is committed to diversity. In February 2013, speaking on Jeff Garlin’s By the Way podcast, he talked about a failed attempt to create diversity in his show, Undercovers -- via Slashfilm:
We wrote these characters but when we went to cast it, one of the things I had felt, having been to the Emmys a couple times - you look around that room and you see the whitest fucking room in the history of time. Its just unbelievably white. And I just thought, we're casting this show and we have an opportunity to do anything we want, why not cast the show with actors of color? Like not for sure, and if we can't find the actors who are great, we shouldn't, but why don't we make that effort because it wasn't written that way and isn't that the cooler version of doing this as opposed to saying 'this is an urban show'. It fucking kills me when they call something 'an urban movie' like its a separate thing, like 'it's that thing over there.'
Abrams’s casting call, which also includes John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley and Gwendoline Christie, is also significant because the entire genre science fiction and fantasy maintains problematic representation of race and gender; the Star Wars franchise can help change that. Why do fictional worlds, which are so rich with imaginary creations of Jedi warriors and wizards and Orcs and elves, who operate in a realm with entirely different set of physics, reflect such a cartoonish version of our own racial politics? In Game of Thrones, almost every person of color is of a slave race, obedient to a white master. In Lord of the Rings, the benevolent creatures, like Elves and wizards, are white, while the more sinister, less relatable characters are darker-skinned. And women fare no better -- according to an analysis by Racialicious guest contributor Karishma, there have only been about 45 women of color in major fantasy and sci-films, and "unsurprisingly...most of the women of color on film are mostly background players, filling highly stereotyped and exoticized roles."
Nyong'o isn't suddenly the poster girl for racial diversity in fantasy -- nor should she be. But considering that Star Wars, the most venerated franchise within its genre, has long had a diversity problem, her hire is a significant moment that will open doors for other women of color. There's now renewed hope that sci-fi and fantasy projects will follow Abrams's lead going forward, too. The next step, of course, is to give Nyong'o a lead role in her own epic adventure.