Star Wars and Identitarian Power

Hillary Clinton gave a recent speech in which she was perceived to embrace an identity-politics core to her campaign:

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”

Philip Cohen on Family Inequality did a riff about the evident desire by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to classify discrimination as against a “community” rather than as against individuals. Why do we hear about “LGBT Community” and the “Black Community,” instead of “LGBT People” and “Black People,” while we rarely hear about the “White Community” rather than “White People?”

The answer seems pretty obvious: political mobilization arises from making people feel that struggles are shared, so there is a strong incentive for Democrats to increase community consciousness among groups that disproportionately vote for their party, and to decrease community consciousness among groups that don’t.

But  let’s talk about Star Wars.

The original Star Wars is so much fun (in part) because it showed the way Hollywood could blend many different sensibilities into a single story, from the guys doing the props and special effects, to John Williams’ score, to George Lucas’s own love of other directors’ movies, like Kurasawa and old Westerns and Flash Gordon serials (see clip below.) Lucas wasn’t a big shot then, so he had to let other people fix his script, change the visuals, and alter the story, all of which made for a well-made and innovative movie. Of course, Lucas never understood that- people started telling him he was a genius and he believed it- so he had complete control over the prequels, which were horrifically bad as a result.

The new Star Wars (presumably created by a committee of J.J. Abrams and an Imperial Starfleet full of Disney executives) didn’t fall prey to the same tiresome megalomania as the prequels, and it’s generally a quite good movie. Some of the images in the first half were great, playing skillfully off of the original films while giving a sense of the passage of time and a changing universe: the star destroyer buried in sand, the black tie fighters, the droid BB-8. The pacing, too, was largely in keeping with the rapid-fire feel of the original film– a chase then another chase then another chase, without too much clutter in the frame.  The actors playing the two young protagonists (John Boyega as the black former stormtrooper Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey, an apparently orphaned future Jedi)  gave sympathetic and likeable performances– and it’s not like, apart from James Earl Jones and Alec Guinness, the acting was always such great shakes in the originals.

There was something that bothered me about the politics of the film, though, and it wasn’t that the bad guys were, as my wife put it, “a bunch of Heil Hitlers,” as was made very clear in this strikingly composed shot that echoes the Nuremberg rallies:



Whereupon the virtual camera then pivots to show the First Order’s swastika-like banners:

This view of the First Order– a Nazi war machine led by pale, British-accented guys slinking around the galaxy blowing up the good guys’ planets, is contrasted with the good guys of the Resistance, a Coalition of the Communities of the Diverse (in racial, gender, and species terms) led by a very Hillary-like Princess Leia:


In some ways, of course, this isn’t such a big change. In the original films, the Empire is, apart from Darth Vader, run by a bunch of pale white guys with British accents, as the First Order is in this one. But since the heroes of the original films are also mostly white guys, the contrast is not quite as clear. The central moral axis of the original Star Wars movies– in keeping with the politics of Hollywood of the time– was less about race or gender than it was the Whole Earth Catalog (youth, individuality and vaguely New Age spirituality) versus the hierarchy and rigidly-enforced order of the Military Industrial Complex.

Making a science fiction movie about contemporary identity politics isn’t necessarily an aesthetic flaw. John Sayles’s 1984 Brother from Another Planet skillfully plays on the parallels between the poverty of 1980s Harlem and  the silent alien played by Joe Morton’s evident oppression by white men from his own planet, from whom he is trying to escape.

The bigger issue is the way in which the new movie’s identity politics overshadows the individual journeys of Finn and Rey– much as the “Black Community,” the “Hispanic Community,” and the “LBGT Community,” often overshadow the individual struggles of black, Hispanic, or LBGT people in contemporary left-of-center rhetoric. The individual journey of the heroes is not, as in Joseph Campbell and the original movies, an individual triumph over internal and external obstacles, but merely to get together with the inclusively diverse Right and the Good people and Be Awesome. You don’t become a hero by growing or improving or questioning yourself (ala Luke with Yoda and Obiwan), but by embracing your identity and joining with those are like you or who, most of all, Finally Understand You.

Think about two deliberately paralleled images: Finn becomes good the moment he removes his white stormtrooper’s mask to reveal his (black) face. But Finn almost immediately begins to claim that he is a member of the Resistance, not just because he is trying to impress Rey (as is claimed in the terms of the film) but because the film has no place for any individual as hero apart from their allegiance to a larger Community. On the other hand, Bad Guy Ben’s two acts of evil with emotional weight in the film- the unsuccessful, rape-like attempt to read Rey’s mind, and killing his dad Han Solo- occur after he removes his black mask to reveal his (white) face. In the terms of the film, it is the bad guy’s real face that is the embodiment of evil, not his mask. White Men, not White Community.

The irony is that making Bad Guy Ben lose to Rey on both their first and second encounter shifts sympathy away from her as a protagonist. We just naturally empathize with those who struggle, not those who too easily succeed. Think of how Luke is shown whining ineffectually to his adoptive parents, being knocked out by the Sand People, almost getting killed in the cantina, messing up in his first light saber training, and watching impotently as Obiwan is struck down before his first triumph against the Death Star. And the whole second movie is pretty much Luke screwing things up over and over and only barely scraping by. Rey’s problems are entirely external to her- and easily conquered- while Luke is narratively successful as a hero because his main obstacles are internal- anger, impatience, pride.

The message that there is little for the good guys to learn- that what is needed is for the good people to keep doing good things and fighting off the bad folks, and forget all that stuff about  conquering your own anger or improving yourself- may not make Rey and Finn as enduring as heroes as was Luke Skywalker, but it is well suited to a progressive party in power that wants to retain it. Hillary’s coalition has dominated national politics for most of the last two decades, slowed but never entirely stopped by a largely-dysfunctional Republican Party. If anyone was going to break up the big banks, it would have been that same coalition. Ending racism, ending sexism, ending discrimination against the LGBT Community are agreeable aims for a party in long-term power because there is no expectation of their accomplishment: failure to blow up these Death Stars is merely evidence of the overwhelming need for more effort.

And in the mean time, best to get with the Resistance.



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