After hitting cinemas in December 2015, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise continues to dominate the box office around the world, so far earning $1.56 billion. It looks as though Disney’s latest addition to the Star Wars franchise is set to overtake James Cameron’s Avatar as the highest grossing movie of all time.
And, with great power comes great responsibility, with the film looking like it could seriously affect the face of popular culture. One meme circulating social media highlights the change in attitudes towards the representation of lead characters in movies. Unlike the ‘Old Hollywood’ belief that films only attracted large audiences if the leads were played by white men, The Force Awakens represents women, actors of colour and white actors equally. JJ Abrams has proven that gender and race mean nothing when it comes to making Hollywood blockbusters.
The film also indicates that a relationship between Rey and Finn may develop over the course of the trilogy. Mixed-race romance is something that few films have portrayed in mainstream cinema. How this will evolve over the franchise, we can only guess, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction for the film industry.
In addition to the movie’s content, the advertising of the film has been kicking up some interest in relation to racial and gender equality too. When the promotional material for the Chinese release was distributed, the internet erupted with calls of racism, as John Boyega’s character image was reduced and pushed to the side in favour of white actors. Although argued that it wasn’t the intention of the designers to discriminate against the black actor, it looked suspicious. The outcry against this poster demonstrates the way in which an actor of colour playing a leading role within a blockbuster movie is now embraced by the world.
As for the film’s merchandise, toy manufacturer Hasbro recently changed the Star Wars Monopoly board game to include the character Rey, after the female lead was omitted from the contents. Hasbro originally defended its actions, claiming that they didn’t include her because they didn’t want to reveal any spoilers. However, after a letter from eight-year-old Annie Rose Goldman went viral last week, the company agreed to include the character in the game. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, JJ Abrams revealed he wished he’d been part of the merchandise process, to ensure mistakes like this weren’t made. It’s saddening that while filmmakers like Abrams are casting strong female leads, there’s still a long way to go in the industry as a whole. The responsibility of ending gender inequality shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of an eight-year-old girl.
The Star Wars franchise has always contained confident and empowered female characters – Princess Leia of the original trilogy, and Natalie Portman’s character Queen Amidala in The Phantom Menace – both women fighting for what they believe in, Leia even taking a bullet to the arm and still fighting in Return of the Jedi. The latest film also passes the Bechdel Test, a set of criteria that determines whether a movie accurately and fairly portrays women: 1.there are two female characters; 2.they talk to each other; and 3. they talk about something other than men. Plenty of big movies have failed this test, including Spectre, Terminator: Genisys and the latest Mission Impossible release, Rogue Nation.
The Force Awakens is, however, the first in the series to feature a black actor on screen, as James Earl Jones only provided the voice for Darth Vader in the original trilogy.
Disney has announced that a Star Wars film is to be released every year for the next few years. The second in the trilogy, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, also features a cast of impressive diversity: Felicity Jones takes top billing, with Forest Whitaker and Chinese actor Donnie Yen in supporting roles.
Whether a fan of the franchise or not, the impact this film has made on the issue of inequality within modern cinema cannot be denied. I can only hope that the film industry takes a look at this film, not for its monetary value, but for its moral one.
For me, Star Wars has been, and always will be, a force to be reckoned with.
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