In the Star Wars movies, diversity has always been a hallmark of the light side of the Force, and the main trio of The Force Awakens finally reflects that in a way that can't be ignored.
You all know what I mean by "the main trio," a concept familiar as heck to Harry Potter fans but just as present in the Star Wars trilogies. It's the two guys and a girl whose adventures — and relationships, romantic or otherwise — are the gravitational well around which the plot orbits. Luke, Han and Leia. Anakin, Obi-Wan and Padme.
Finn, Poe and Rey.
For the first time in Star Wars history, a franchise will be built around the adventures of the sort of people that Hollywood routinely overlooks: women and people of color. Yes, Oscar Isaac is a Guatemalan-American actor of Cuban, Guatemalan and French descent. He's not a white dude. In fact, all of the white dudes in the film appear to be acting the roles of mentor characters or villains, overfamiliar and historical standby roles for actors of color.
In a studio system that considers it a "risky" bet to place a woman or a person of color in the lead role of a big-budget film, Disney is doing what many have been asking it to do with its Marvel movies for years. The company cast "risky" actors in a franchise that's literally too big to fail.
And you know what? It's about time
Diversity — of race, gender and even species — has always been a central quality of the light side, one that set it apart visually and ideologically from the dark side.
Imperial and proto-Imperial forces are consistently placed in conflict with more diverse forces — whether they're the Rebels, the Jedi, or the allied human and gungan troops of Naboo. In Star Wars, homogeneity is synonymous with evil. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Imperial army of the end of Palpatine's reign, staffed entirely by white, male (and human) officers.
Contrast with prominent Rebel Alliance characters like Leia Organa and Mon Mothma, Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian, Nien Nunb and Admiral Ackbar. And I haven't mentioned the Rebel Alliance's relationships with Bothan spies and Ewok tribesfolk. The Rebels work with other races as a matter of course. The Empire stoops to employing a Cantina bar's worth of bounty hunters when it has no other option. It's right there in the name: By definition, "alliance" implies a diverse force working together.
Admittedly, it took the movies a little while to get around to showing the full diversity of the Rebel Alliance. Lando shows up in Empire but doesn't fully commit until Jedi, which is also when Mothma, Ackbar and Nunb are introduced. But the enduring images of Jedi are of a black man and his alien co-pilot destroying the Death Star, of a strike team made of men, women and aliens defeating a group of interchangeable human "stormtroopers." That's the Rebel victory that the galaxy celebrates.
P.S.: Don't tell me that Jango Fett, the genetic "father" of the clone troopers, is played by Temuera Morrison, an actor of Māori descent, and so therefore any stormtrooper is a character of color. I mean, we ALL know that the Imperial army was less than 30 percent clones by the time of A New Hope, right?
The Force Awakens won't be perfect
For one thing, though it's given us our first on-screen female stormtrooper (and female Star Wars villain, except maybe for Zam Wesell), rumors are that Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma is a minor role (potentially faceless) at best. For another, The Force Awakens is still part of a Hollywood trend of casting women of color in science fiction as aliens rather than characters representative of their own ethnicity and gender.
Like Darth Vader and Jar Jar Binks before her, Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata hides the face of a black actor behind the work of animators, prop designers and other performers. The physical presence of David Prowse in his death mask and the sweat and toil of animators crafting a character from motion-captured performances are an indelible, vital part of these roles. But that doesn't change the fact that Darth Vader, Maz Kanata and — heaven forbid — Jar Jar Binks are not examples of black character representation in science fiction.
But The Force Awakens will still be huge
We stand upon a precipice: Behind us lie the days before The Force Awakens becomes an indelible part of our cultural matrix. Before us stretches the endless future in which it is but the beginning of a brave new Star Wars canon. That is true regardless of whether it's a great film or just a film that's better than anything in the prequel trilogy.
I mean, let's be real, it couldn't possibly be as bad as the prequel trilogy.
But no matter how The Force Awakens is received, it will still have done one thing that would make it all worthwhile. It's given us a major, modern action/scifi blockbuster franchise built around the lives of three heroes, none of whom are white dudes.