With Star Wars returning to the big screen, an argument has erupted over whether the franchise is racist, sparked by some observations by MSNBC host Mellisa Harris-Perry, who said:
The part where he was totally a black guy, whose name basically was James Earl Jones, and while he was black, he was terrible and bad and awful and used to cut off white men’s hands, and didn’t, you know, actually claim his son? But as soon as he claims his son and goes over to the good, he takes off his mask and he is white? Yes, I have many, many feelings about that.
This is a debate that actually goes back to the very beginnings of Star Wars. In fact, some of the most thoughtful observations on Star Wars and race were penned by the science fiction writer Samuel Delany, who watched a preview of the movie before its wide release in 1977. Writing in the magazine Cosmos, Delany praised the movie for being “always colorful, visually energetic, and immediate.” But Delany had also been a pioneer in trying to make science fiction more diverse in books like Nova, whose main character was of Norwegian and Senegalese descent.
In his critique of Star Wars, Delany shrewdly noted that the rich diversity of alien cultures shown in the movie stand in contrast to the fact that the human characters are overwhelmingly white men. Delany wrote that a review of the movie could begin, “In Lucas’s future, the black race and yellow race have apparently died out... By and large, women have also been bred out of the human race...”
For Delany, the lack of human diversity in Star Wars was not just politically objectionable but more importantly an imaginative failure of universe-building, a failure of the science fiction imperative to imagine an alternative world as rich and complex as our own. “When you travel across three whole worlds and all the humans you see are so scrupulously Caucasian and male, Lucas’s future begins to loo a little dull.” Considering that subsequent Star Wars movies tried to push harder for diversity, it’s hard to deny the truth of Delany’s critique.