Diversity awakening: Thoughts on the new Star Wars film

*This post is spoiler-free, mentioning only the premise and plot points that could have been gleaned from the trailer.

Despite the raving of movie critics and the adoring, creative fervor of Tumblr, I still went into “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with some prejudices.

I am vaguely familiar with “Star Wars:” I reckon I have seen all of the films, but it has been too long since to have a strong sense of the universe’s essence. Due to friends and family, and franchise’s place in history, I know the series well enough to make sense of pop culture references, spoofs and memes. Jokes about fathers and John Williams’ iconic score do not fly completely over my head.

Further, my fandom allegiance is that of a Trekkie. Zoe Saldana, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto collectively stole my heart in the 2009 reboot of “Star Trek” and I have been smitten ever since. Compounded with the fact that I have just never been able to get into “Star Wars,” I wondered how “The Force Awakens” would stack up in my personal ranking of science fiction movies and worthy fandoms.

First and foremost, let me just say: the film exceeded all of my expectations, save for the expectation that it would exceed expectations. Long before I left the movie theater did I realize that the hype was definitely warranted.

The screenwriting, dialogue, cinematography, action and seamless weaving of old and new plot elements in the latest “Star Wars” installment has piqued my interest in the rest of what George Lucas has to offer. In addition, I was delighted to find that “The Force Awakens” strays from the tired formula of leading men and leading ladies.

Instead of a white man with his black sidekick and his damsel-in-distress love interest, Finn, a black boy, carries the weight of the film and Rey, a girl with a gift, does a lot of the saving. While the decision to have a female Jedi or for John Boyega to be the star of “The Force Awakens” may have been arbitrary, these simple choices sent a message. Because “Star Wars” is such a cultural heavyweight, the film has subtly and easily provided a positive, paradigm-shifting representation of black masculinity and the strength of women.

Not only is Finn the central character of the film, but his existence in the saga as whole is crucial to the Light side’s success. He is our protagonist and the Resistance’s unexpected champion in the fight between good and evil. More in that vein, he is a complex and noble character. In his defection and evasion from the First Order, we see a Finn driven by fear; in his selfless aid of Rey and the Resistance, we see a Finn driven by courage, fueled by his own righteous moral compass. And most importantly for black representation, the kid is funny without solely being comic relief.

In turn, while “The Force Awakens” may not pass the Bechdel test, Daisy Ridley’s part is beautifully written: she is tenacious and as smart as whip, she is golden-hearted but not too nice. Some critics have claimed that Rey’s affinity for combat, piloting, engineering and the Force make her too perfect, but her lackluster career as a scavenger, her headstrong attitude, her craving of the comfortable and her love-hate relationship with destiny prove otherwise. She does waver between self-confidence and self-doubt, but ultimately, she kicks ass.

And despite being in-and-out of the film, Poe Dameron, portrayed by Oscar Isaac, rounds out the trio. The Resistance would not have made half its progress without Poe’s knack for daring aviation. Further, as a Latinx man, Isaac’s presence completes the shift away from your typical blockbuster film representation.

I am still hungry for more women of color in space: Saldana has ruled the sci-fi scene as Agent Uhura in “Star Trek,” Neytiri in “Avatar” and Gamora in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but why does Hollywood allow only one actress to wear the hat of [token] brown girl in space?

Setting aside this shortcoming of the industry as a whole, “The Force Awakens” should be commended for its well-rounded black and female characters. Its minority representation was progressive without feeling forced or unnatural. In fact, apart from being a sound film cinematically, “The Force Awakens” is that for which major filmmakers should strive: a great ride all-around with a balanced and talented cast.

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