I just felt a disturbance in The Force, like millions of hot takes crying out at once…
If you’re anything like me, then you are on the edge of your seat waiting for the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (despite the title’s resemblance to an intergalactic Folgers commercial). As we all know, nothing enhances enjoyment of Star Wars quite the way a cable news panel segment can; if George Lucas ruined Star Wars by underthinking the prequels, you can bet cable news pundits can ruin it by overthinking.
Enter MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, who was flagged by conservatives Sunday for accusing Star Wars of racism because of Darth Vader:
MHP: I know why I have feelings — good, bad, and otherwise — about Star Wars. And I have a lot. I could spend the whole day talking about the whole Darth Vader situation.
Wesley Morris: Really? You could?
MHP: Yeah, like, the part where he was totally a black guy whose name basically was James Earl Jones, who, and we were all, but while he was black, he was terrible and bad and awful and used to cut off white men’s hands, and didn’t, you know, actually claim his son. But as soon as he claims his son and goes over to the good, he takes off his mask and he is white. Yes, I have many, many feelings about that, but I will try to put them over here.
Now, conservative will disagree with MHP because she’s saying that something is racist, which nothing ever is, and for Perry’s insufficient gratitude on behalf of James Earl Jones (they’ve got it backwards, of course; Jones helped Star Wars way more than it helped him), but they are wrong. There were lots of racist things about Star Wars, and not just with the prequels. For example, all of the (mostly-white) human characters are normative, while all of the clearly identifiable alien races are rigidly stereotyped. The stereotypes just became much more recognizable in the awful prequels.
No, the problem with MHP’s analysis is that it is already a reach, and a factually flawed reach. Although he was known to choke a fool, Vader only cut off one white man’s hand, and it belonged to his son, (SPOILER ALERT) Luke Skywalker. This is important because he performed the deed right before he claimed his son in the most famous son-claiming ever. Darth Vader never didn’t claim his son, he just thought he was dead.
It would be an entire movie later before Vader would be revealed beneath that helmet, which was, indeed, a mistake by George Lucas. Nothing could have lived up to the mystery that had built up behind that mask, but especially not the revelation that Darth Vader is essentially Conchata Ferrell after a badly-botched spa day. Besides, after 20 years in that mask, how can anyone be sure Anakin Skywalker was white, and not just really, really ashy?
It was in the next segment that things got really weird. After my old pal Glynnis MacNicol offered her defense of Princess Leia‘s slave-girl costume (to which I would only add that the costume was always intended to signify the piggishness of Jabba the Hutt more than anything else, and that Carrie Fisher acted it as the unfamiliar drag that it was for her character), Princeton University Professor of Politics Amaney Jamal brought up the importance of having people you can identify with in movies.
“Studies have shown that people will identify with people that look like them in these movies,” Prof. Jamal said, adding “It’s important for people to have characters they can identify with.”
That prompted an unusual memory from MHP, the weirdness of which did not appear to be lost on New York Times critic Wesley Morris:
MHP: When I was a kid, I had barbies that were African-American, and I hated Ken because he seemed wack. So I used to always marry them off to Chewbacca. And so given that you are saying…
Wesley Morris: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute…
MHP: I married all my black Barbie dolls off to Chewbacca, that was to be, he was tall…
Wesley Morris: Hairy.
MHP: Hairy, kind of in control of the situation. (Horrible impression of Chewbacca’s growl)
Wesley Morris: Sub-lingual, that’s…
MHP: Yeah. And now that you are saying this is, yeah, I’m wondering about — I have concerns about my own childhood now.
Wait, what? Now, I can understand feeling alienated by Ken, and given MHP’s Mormon upbringing, I guess I can understand her marrying all of her black Barbies to one dude, but it also sounds to me like she’s saying that the Wookiee was the stand-in for black men. She couldn’t find a black GI Joe? Hell, what about Lando?
In that context, as Morris seemed to allude, Chewbacca embodies many of the brutish, bestial stereotypes that still resonate in our culture, so maybe MHP is right to have concerns. She has repeatedly glossed over and made excuses for the Mormon church’s racism, but maybe some of that sank in. Or maybe, as 900 year-old OG Yoda might say, “Overthink Star Wars a little less, should we all.”
cross-posted from Mediaite