One of the best moments in Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes early on. During one of many desperate, skin-of-their teeth escapes, victory or death for the Resistance (the new moniker for the Rebel Alliance) comes down to one woman, in the last bomber ship they have. Her co-pilot is dead, and the trigger required to release the bombs is out of her reach. All she can do is kick the railing as hard as she possibly can to shake it loose.
It’s a sequence ripped straight from a WWII pilot movie, right down to the woman’s costume and the design of the guns of the ship. Human resilience ultimately wins the day, and the Resistance escape by the skin of their teeth, thanks to this one woman – who turns out to be the sister of new character Rose, both played by Vietnamese women. The Last Jedi is filled with these kinds of moments of resistance, most often and most powerfully from women and people of colour.
As with pretty much any film in this franchise, there are very vocal populations of people who loved it, and who hated it – unfortunately, in the case of the latter, there’s a subdivision that have taken to review-bombing the film, protesting its very existence, generally being awful (and ultimately undermining people who have genuine grievances with the film). The alt-right has recently claimed responsibility, because of course they have, and it’s not all that surprising. Not to say that everyone who has a bone to pick is a Neo-Nazi, but there’s a reason that alienated white boys are trashing this film in particular and not something that is typically associated with people of colour. It’s because they think Star Wars is theirs.
And for a long time, they’d have good reason to – and as much as I love the franchise, it hasn’t been the most accommodating to women and people of colour. You can basically count how many there are on one hand throughout the 6 films under Lucas. Thankfully, The Force Awakens course-corrected in a big way by handing the story over to a black Stormtrooper, a woman reconciling with her connection to the force, and a Latino pilot (of course there was backlash there too, lest we forget). And while the film attempted to embrace diversity in a film franchise famously about rebelling against oppressors, you don’t feel the stakes of the conflict and why it matters as much you do in The Last Jedi.
One of the more striking differences between the First Order and the Resistance in The Last Jedi is the former’s lack of diversity and the visibility of women and people of colour. Forced to hide their faces under helmets, any individuality is crushed in favour of the uniform white and masculine design of the stormtroopers.
What The Last Jedi also introduces are allusions to colonialism, in a sequence where Rose and Finn visit the decadent casino planet Canto Bight, which Rose reveals got its wealth from war profiteering and plundering resources from a poorer, less powerful population.
People have taken particular issue with the casino planet section, and I can see why – the space horses are created through heavy CGI and there are other goofy moments throughout. But it’s easy to miss the wider implication of the sequence, that for a lot of people the status quo of the current world is built off of enterprises like this one, and we’re often demonised and hated for even daring to bring it up.
The presence of such a place enriches both Finn and Rose’s storyline, giving the former a new perspective on the conflict and the threat that it poses to people outside of his circle – and with Rose, it shows how the characters we love have been impacted by the Empire and the First Order in the past. To cut this part of the film would be to cut an essential part of these characters arcs, while at the same time cutting down Star Wars’ potential as universal, inspirational filmmaking.
There’s also the vital introduction of the planet’s slave children, one of whom brings the plot, and the film’s message full circle in its moving conclusion. The force, the ability to be a hero, and yes, Star Wars itself, isn’t something reserved for any one group of people. The implications behind the casino planet are part of why I enjoyed the chase sequence – the triumphant tearing down of an institution built on the backs of less fortunate people will always sit well with me. Without it, the film, and the series, would be weaker.
The joy of watching this film as a person of colour doesn’t just come through things like this – there’s just the sheer, visceral pleasure of seeing someone who looks like you doing something awesome – The Last Jedi delivers this in spades. The aforementioned bombing run in the opening, Finn’s fight with Phasma, Rose’s last minute rescue of Finn and her killer line, arguably the most important line of the film – it’s all extremely exciting and moving to witness. Aside from the actions of Luke Skywalker, many of the film’s most important, ground shaking (and ship-obliterating) acts are committed by women (our lord and saviour, Space Dern) and people of colour (Finn, Rose, Rose’s sister Paige).
With these sequences, Rian Johnson does something that other white filmmakers have often struggled to do for people of colour in films this year: give us visibility. As much as I enjoyed other 2017 films like Dunkirk or The Beguiled, it began to feel like filmmakers would erase people of colour just to make things easier for them. But in The Last Jedi, people of colour are finally at the forefront of Star Wars – not as sidekicks or on the sidelines. Heroes can come from anywhere, and representation matters.