By Keith Chow, The Nerds of Color
The month of May holds a special place in the hearts of Asian American and Pacific Islander Star Wars fans. For starters, May has been AAPI Heritage Month since 1990, though it originally began as “Asian Pacific Heritage Week” when it was proposed in Congress by Representatives Frank Horton and Norman Y. Mineta in 1977. That’s right, 1977. You know what else debuted in May 1977?
Before the last three Star Wars movies — Episodes VII and VIII, plus Rogue One — became staples of the Holiday Movie Season, every other film in the Saga was a May release. (This year, Lucasfilm finally returns to tradition when Solo: A Star Wars Story debuts in theaters on May 25). Also, “Star Wars Day” falls every May the Fourth, so naturally, May is Star Wars Month by default. So what better way to honor both AAPI Heritage Month and Star Wars then by going through the history of AAPI representation in the Galaxy Far, Far Away?
The Original Trilogy
It’s no secret that the filmography of Akira Kurosawa had a huge influence on George Lucas’ space opera. Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress is perhaps the most obvious. Beyond the narrative echoes between the two stories, Lucas had intended to rhyme Star Wars and Hidden Fortress even more by casting the legendary Toshiro Mifune, one of Kurosawa’s frequent collaborators and the star of Hidden Fortress, as either Darth Vader or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sadly, Mifune turned down the role, and it would be more than two decades before an Asian face would be seen in Star Wars — not counting Nien Nunb or Lieutenant Telsij (the first Asian actor to speak a line of dialogue in any Star Wars movie), of course.
Twenty years later, in the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi, Dalyn Chew became the first actor of Asian descent to have any significant screen time in a Star Wars movie. In an extended musical number inserted into Jedi, Chew plays Lyn Me, one of the backup dancers at Jabba’s Palace. Sure, she doesn’t really have any lines, but she did get more than four seconds of screen time and an action figure!
The Prequel Trilogy
When Lucas returned to the franchise in the late ’90s to tell the backstory of Darth Vader, he also forgot to cast AAPI actors in any significant roles. Aside from Dhruv Chanchani as Ani’s friend Kitster, the only other Asian-coded characters in The Phantom Menace are the Neimoidians and Queen Amidala’s wardrobe. Speaking of Padme’s fetish for Oriental wear, perhaps the filmmakers were trying to make amends for the original queen’s fashion by casting actual Asian and Pacific Islander actresses like Ayesha Dharker and Keisha Castle-Hughes for subsequent Queens of Naboo?
The prequel Attack of the Clones in 2002 was also responsible for the most significant AAPI casting decision to date. In addition to several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them AAPI Jedis, veteran Maori actor Temuera Morrison was chosen to play Jango Fett. Not only was Jango the most heavily marketed character of the prequel sequel, casting Morrison had ripple effects in terms of representation throughout the Saga.
Because Jango was the source for all of the Clone Troopers, that meant beloved characters like Captain Rex from the animated Clone Wars were also coded as Pacific Islander. More significantly, Daniel Logan was cast as the pre-pubescent Boba Fett, meaning the man underneath that iconic helmet from the Original Trilogy was also Maori. A point made even more clearly when Lucas had Morrison redub all of Boba Fett’s lines for all future digital and blu-ray releases of the trilogies and allowed Logan to reprise the role on Clone Wars.
The Force Awakens & Rogue One
In 2012, the Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas for just over $4 billion. This acquisition signaled a new era in the Star Wars franchise, promising a continuation of the Saga stories but also an interconnected universe of movies, television, comics, and everything in between. Production on the sequel trilogy — the long-promised Episodes VII through IX — began soon after when J.J. Abrams, the man who reinvigorated the moribund Star Trek movie franchise, was brought on to direct the first new Star Wars movie in a decade.
In the run-up to The Force Awakens, Abrams and the Lucasfilm brain trust were asked about Asian representation in the future of Star Wars during a Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con, to which the director famously responded, “Go Asians!”
When The Force Awakens finally premiered, the promise of more AAPI characters in Star Wars was realized… sort of. While TFA featured more AAPI actors than all previous six films combined, none of them could be considered major characters.
For instance, the buzz surrounding the announcement that stars from The Raid, the cult martial arts classic from Indonesia, was going to be in the film as the fearsome Kanjiklub was soon met with indifference once audiences figured out their screen time would be severely limited. Other actors like Ken Leung (as Admiral Statura) and Jessica Henwick (as Resistance pilot Jess Pava) wouldn’t fare much better since their scenes are also glorified cameos.
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