Posted in: Commentary

George Lucas: The Last Champion of Colonialist Cinema

Way back in the original Star Wars (before it was branded with a “IV” and subtitled “A New Hope”), it did not escape notice that at the end of the film, it was human heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo who got the glory while the non-humans – the wookie, Chewbacca, and the two robots – stood to the side to watch the royal blessing laid upon the Republic’s two great white hopes.

What’s a Wookiee need to do to get a little respect?

After six feature and countless spin-off reiterations, not much has changed. The Jedis (mostly human, though at least those ranks are not completely Caucasian) roam around the galaxy like the master race, swooping in to save the lesser races with their gift of protection and leadership. There are a few token races sprinkled through the supporting parts, mostly providing exposition and exclamations, and only Yoda has any real authority or distinction among them. The droids are essentially happy slaves. These robots talk and offer opinions and often suggest emotions, while R2D2 and C3PO have distinctive personalities. They’re offered up as characters as real as the humans, but in the scheme of this enlightened era of interstellar unity, they are treated as servants or pets at best and cannon fodder at worst. Decades after Blade Runner and Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s a little arrogant to give a robot personality and self-awareness without suggesting they might be, in their own way, people.

All right, maybe that’s picking apart a little point, but the last two Star Wars features introduced the Clone Army, a race of genetically hatched humanoid soldiers designed solely to fight. They are treated, essentially, as organic robots, flesh and blood slaves sent to fight the Republic’s battles.

I’m sure Lucas never thought any of this through, which is really the point. What began as his paean to the innocent attitudes of the old sci-fi serials and the swashbuckling thrills of classic Hollywood adventures and pirate movies feels more and more like Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist adventurers in the stars. “Long, long ago” is right. For all the “democracy” of the interstellar parliament, it’s built on aristocracies and monarchies and authority granted as a form of privilege, and the “Senators” (were they really elected, or simply appointed?) all act like it. The films have all the cultural egalitarianism of Gunga Din, with Jedi knights in place of the British soldiers, bringing their benevolent leadership to the battle. Jar-Jar Binks is the most egregious example of the lesser race. Even if he didn’t channel the worst shuffling, babbling, subservient stereotypes of demeaning African-American roles in the thirties and early forties, he’s a child, a happy idiot adopted by the mature human races. Is it a coincidence that, in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, he’s the dupe manipulated into giving the Chancellor all the power he needs to make himself Emperor?

Asajj Ventress: “Separatist scum” and a Jedi traitor to boot!

What brought this all up again is the new animated feature Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which is, for all the convoluted politics of the interstellar war (it was started over trade tariffs, for gosh sakes, and is all about quelling a breakaway faction), even more simplistic than the earlier films. Lucas neither directed nor wrote the film, but it is his universe and, as an active producer, his long shadow falls over the entire project. Annakin (back before he embraced the dark side and went all Darth over the universe) is given his own padawan (Jedi-speak for apprentice), a feisty, reckless alien girl with floppy dreads and orange skin and all the attitude of a human teenager. One way to open up an overwhelming masculine and Caucasian club, I suppose, though it’s really about creating a young figure to carry the subsequent animated TV series to follow (and spawn a whole new line of merchandising possibilities). But ultimately we’re back in the same universe where the Jedi are the paternal enforcers, sort of like holy warriors who preach a message of peace and balance. They walk softly and carry a big light saber to preserve the status quo: you’ll be a part of this democratic confederation even if we have to conquer you to do so. The soldiers of the Republic’s clone army have all the personhood of a video game avatar and they fall unmourned. Nothing in the film suggests that we should place any value on their lives; they’re doing what they were raised to do. And the enemy forces of Count Dooku’s rebellion are largely non-human: “Separatist Scum,” spits Obi-Wan in a decidedly non-Jedi display of contempt for the enemy, which includes a traitorous Jedi (of non-human origin, of course). The droids of their invading army are not merely cannon fodder, they are dim-witted robots treated like tools and played for comic relief as they get blown up and squashed like toys.

Playing soldier: A guide to using your action figure

I guess I shouldn’t ask for anything more from a movie that is less a story than a feature-length TV promo and toy commercial. This isn’t a chapter from the Clone Wars, it’s just an illustration of how you can play your own game of Jedi superiority. The Jedi are supposed to be something like Shaolin Monks and holy warriors, borrowing their philosophy and mythology freely from all over (Buddhism, Christianity, Greek myth), but they sure come off as knights templar sent off by a secular pope to the crusades to fight the heathen hoards. It makes for a pretty distasteful attitude of cultural superiority and arrogance.

Jim Emerson has another, equally unflattering take on George Lucas that’s worth checking out. The essay, “George Lucas: Give it Up!” is on his Scanners blog. I reviewed the film for the Seattle P-I and for my own blog.