What if Star Wars was a comic book series that came out in the 30s? What if forty years later, George Lucas turned that series of comics into a film series. But what if Lando had been white in the comics and Lucas cast a black man in the film he made in 1979?
This would offend the sensibilities of some people. Why?
I have been having an argument with a group of white friends for the last few hours. The gist of the argument is they do not want established superheroes to have their ethnicity altered. They want Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and The Hulk to remain white for all of time.
Clearly, I disagree.
(Note: You can change any of those characters to different characters, those examples just popped in my head. You can add The Punisher or whoever you want for your consideration in this discussion.)
What is so unique about a fantasy version of “whiteness” that makes it impossible to imagine Peter Parker as an African American, orphaned, from a middle-class background? What makes it so a young black kid cannot be so enthusiastic about science he becomes a radioactive spider man? What changes the character? I just don’t see it.
The answer isn’t to make new exciting black superheroes so lets not entertain that too seriously in the short term (although the goal is one to strive for). For every bajillion new superheroes made, only a few resonate. Only a few of those in the thousands of failed heroes are non-white. So that makes the chance of non-white heroes which resonate to the level of getting a feature film to be highly unlikely. It is also worth noting when Disney purchased Marvel they famously explained they did not buy Marvel to make new characters, they bought Marvel to exploit their back catalog of established superheroes. That makes the idea of new superheroes that are non-white even less likely.
There is absolutely nothing iconic about the non-suited characters whatsoever. I understand Batman, to an extent. An African American actor might not look so good against the darkness of the suit, maybe. I’m assuming. But does it matter if Tony Stark is Latino? No one is asking for a character that roles his Rs. Tony Stark is a character who as a bajillionaire, has a background I cannot personally relate to having grown up lower middle-class. In fact, most of on the planet cannot relate to Tony Stark as a super rich guy. It is a fantasy background, why does it matter?
For many characters, the mask or the suit obscures the racial identity behind a suit of armor. Why does this matter to some white people so much? I know most of the people saying these things personally and they do not strike me as cartoon racist. But this chord, when struck, brings out a questionable line of thinking I am struggling with understanding right now.
Like all roads with me, they bring me to Star Wars.
When Lando Calrissian was first conceptualized, his character was Han Solo’s stepfather. There was nothing “black” about the role. Even by the finished shooting script for The Empire Strikes Back, there was nothing explicitly “black” about Lando Calrissian. Like the superheroes mentioned above, there is no reason such a character needs to be black or white.
It makes me think of Nick Fury. When Samuel L. Jackson played him, it didn’t matter he was no longer white as he had been for most of the character’s history (note: I am aware the comic character looked like Jackson and he sought the role after the appearance was changed on the page).
The fact of the matter is Lando was well written. He was written in a way that almost any solid actor could have played the part. Lucasfilm could have easily picked a great white actor to play Lando. They didn’t. They picked a great black actor to play Lando Calrissian. What if Star Wars had existed in comic book form before Star Wars was a film? What if Lando was white in the comic? Would the blackness of Billy Dee Williams matter in that instance? Clearly not.
In terms of the story itself, the story of Star Wars, it doesn’t matter that Lando is black. But it matters here in reality, on planet Earth. It told white kids that African Americans can be as heroic as their white heroes. When Lando blew up the second Death Star after leading the attack on the Galactic Empire, it was reaffirmed. But more importantly, it told young black children that they too can be heroes. They too can pilot the Millennium Falcon and save the day. That’s important. That means something to the imaginative self esteem of our youth.
Now, Episodes IV-VI are a product of their day. I’m not here to put old movies on trial. I’m not here to be a presentist, that is someone that unfairly holds the past to the standards of day and ignores all the struggles, social strifes, and gains made in the last thirty years. But lets be honest, Episode IV didn’t have any black actors at all. Episodes V and VI added Lando (but to be fair they didn’t really add many new characters at all). It wasn’t perfect, but it was better. It tried.
Representation matters. I want my son to grow up thinking unquestionably that any skin tone found upon the surface of Earth can be a hero in our imagined worlds and stories. When we see that in our imaginations, it becomes easier to see that in our real lives, where things really matter and have dire consequences. But the reality is that my son’s culture is going to imbue him with culturally held beliefs outside my control. Without guidance, “seeing is believing” and he might grow up thinking white people are somehow superior because the imaginative world he will likely observe via countless hours of film and television will show him otherwise.
I think people need to ask themselves while maintaining a white status quo of the imagination matters to them?
On the eve of the casting of Star Wars: Episode VII this matters to me even more. Often people say “best man for the job.” I agree to an extent. The parameters of a role only have a range so wide, especially in a Star Wars film. So what happens when you have two actors of equal range and potential? I hope in that instance, diversity is considered and favored. Interestingly, these same friends do not want classic characters appearances altered are okay with a black actor as the lead in Star Wars: Episode VII.
So what if Lando had been black in the 1930s and then a black actor was cast as Lando in the late 1970s? Would it matter? Clearly not. In fact, it allowed Star Wars to have some diversity. That’s clearly a positive thing without any negative ramifications worthy of note. I would rather side with diversity than homogeneity.
I don’t buy into a line of thinking that states you’re either racist or you’re not. The world is clearly not so defined. Some of the people I know who hold beliefs about keeping classic heroes white hire black people, have diverse families, and are genuinely nice people. I think perhaps they fear change more than anything. I am not interested in justifying their questionable beliefs, that’s their responsibility. But figuring out exactly what makes them jump to such intensely held beliefs is important. I don’t think any of them would care of they started with a black Peter Parker. But changing Peter Parker offends them, regardless of the fact every new film series is a reboot with various reimaginings.
Maybe they should consider that Lando could have been white, but it didn’t matter he wasn’t. We humans create these fictive lands and we can make them whatever we want. We can make Nick Fury white or black because we say he is so on screen just as we humans said Lando was dark skinned on screen from the start.
I’m hopeful people will rethink positions on these issues. We all win in a fair and just system and diversity is fair and just. There’s nothing wrong with changing one’s stance on this issue to favoring different ethnicities for roles to come and that have existed for years.
We have to be able to alter established norms or we are damned to replicate an unjust past. I don’t want any part in that.