Director J.J. Abrams weighs in on diversity in the Star Wars universe

At Comic-Con 2015, the director of the hotly anticipated "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" calls ethnic and gender diversity in film roles "a big consideration."

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read

Director J. J. Abrams, left, at the Star Wars panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2015. To his left are screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and actor John Boyega. Abrams addressed the need for diversity in movie roles. Getty Images

SAN DIEGO -- During one of the most popular panel discussions here at Comic-Con 2015, a Friday event devoted to the upcoming film "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens," director J. J. Abrams fielded a question from fans regarding cast diversity in upcoming Star Wars films.

Two audience members jointly asked Abrams whether -- given his track record of helping build a diverse cast as director of the "Star Trek" reboot films -- he could confirm if there will be more Asian characters in the Star Wars universe. Asian characters are few and far between in the Star Wars franchise -- one appears in the original trilogy's last film, "Return of the Jedi," but for only four seconds before dying in a fiery explosion.

Abrams said that while he won't be casting future films in the franchise, because he's directing only Episode VII, he did include Asian characters in "The Force Awakens," which opens December 18.

"I think it's important people see themselves represented in film," Abrams said. "I think it's not a small thing."

Diversity has become a hot subject when talking about the world of comics, science fiction and fantasy, as well as the subcultures and technology-driven industries surrounding them. Not only are we beginning to see iconic franchises like Superman, Thor and Spider-Man introduce new female leads and minorities as prominent characters and even titular superheroes, but it's also becoming a subject no famous writer, director, actor or other celebrity can avoid addressing.

For Star Wars, it's a complex debate. The franchise has included prominent and strong female characters, like Princess Leia, as well as central characters played by black actors, such as Cloud City administrator Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, and Jedi Mace Windu, played by Samuel L. Jackson. On the other hand, Jar Jar Binks, a computer-generated alien in 1999's "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," drew fire from some critics, who said he called to mind demeaning black film characters such as those played by Stepin Fetchit in the 1930s. Then there's the conundrum of Darth Vader, famously voiced by black actor James Earl Jones but portrayed by white actor David Prowse.

Daisy Ridley, left, and John Boyega play two of the most prominent characters in the upcoming Star Wars film. Disney

The new Star Wars film has already generated an online dustup concerning diversity, focused on the character of Finn, played by black actor John Boyega. In the first preview for the movie, Finn is seen wearing the distinctive white-and-black armor worn by the franchise's stormtroopers, the iconic cloned soldiers who serve Darth Vader and the Empire.

Some fans said the Star Wars films had established that all stormtroopers had been cloned from a white man. Others, however, pointed out that the troopers are known to be clones of Jango Fett, a member of the so-called "Mandalorian" people, which, as the Star Wars wiki Wookiepedia has it, are a "clan-based people consisting of members from multiple species and multiple genders, all bound by a common culture." Further, the actor who played Jango Fett, New Zealand-born Temuera Derek Morrison, is part Scottish, part Irish and part Maori, an indigenous Polynesian people from New Zealand.

The debate over how a black stormtrooper could exist, which fed more-general Internet racism, led to the popularity of the #BlackStormtrooper Twitter hashtag in support of the casting and Boyega's own response to the criticism: "Get used to it."

Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy also touched on the Star Wars franchise's gender diversity at the Star Wars Celebration event in Anaheim, California, back in April, when she told the crowd that the new Star Wars universe would feature "really strong women." Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Leia in the original trilogy, said she feels it's no longer satisfactory to simply have just one strong female character.

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"It's good to have a little help," Fisher said then, alongside Kennedy. "I liked being the only one when I was 19...now, I need some backup."

The new Star Wars film will feature Fisher reprising her role as Leia -- alongside a new character called Rey, played by English actress Daisy Ridley, and female stormtrooper Captain Phasma, played by "Game of Thrones" actress Gwendoline Christie.

Despite characters like Leia, Calrissian, Windu -- and now Finn, Rey and Phasma -- Abrams and crew said the shepherds of the Star Wars franchise (a leader, after all, in the world of science fiction and fantasy) are striving to improve at every corner. Speaking about diverse casts, Abrams said: "It's a big consideration."

And though Abrams is passing off the director torch, Kennedy said Friday that his view on this will remain alive.

"There is every intention to carry on exactly what J. J. is talking about in all the Star Wars movies that we intend to make," she said.