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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a political film, but not because of its cast

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We’re looking at the wrong things when we’re talking about “politics”

Lucasfilm/Disney

I know I’m going to see myself in nearly every piece of pop culture I consume.

That’s the advantage of being a heterosexual white guy from Ohio with a bit of a beard and a “maturing” hairline. I never really have to think about representation because it’s handled for me. I’m on all the sliders for character creation. If there’s a “default” hero in your game, chances are I resemble them when it comes to the broad strokes.

Star Wars is the latest franchise to find out that casting with the idea that not everyone needs to look like me can be very profitable.

How do you figure?

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story cost a reported $200 million, and it has already brought in $290 million in revenue worldwide. That’s after one weekend in the United States. The film is already the hit Disney was hoping it would be.

Now let’s look at the cast, which includes a number of individuals who don’t look like me. Who, in fact, come from a variety of backgrounds with skin color that isn’t just different shades of eggshell.

The comments of this story will likely be filled with people who claim that, for them, representation doesn’t matter. Which is fine, although I’m not sure why they have to state that they don’t care about something other people care about. I’ve never poked my head into a casino to make sure everyone knows I’m not that into playing Blackjack, because Poker is like, right over there.

But I found myself telling my wife that I was enthusiastic about seeing the movie tonight with our daughter due to the film having such a kickass woman in the lead role. My daughter and I had also caught a late-night premiere showing of The Force Awakens, a film that features one white male hero who is killed before the credits roll and another who is off somewhere wallowing in his own self-doubt.

“But I don’t pay attention to the skin color, gender or background of the actors who play characters with varying amounts of agency and importance in the film!” some may argue. To which my only reply is that directors, casting directors, producers and writers sure as shit do. You’re also maybe better off telling that to the people desperate to politicize the film for their own benefit.

It’s not like I would have skipped a well-reviewed Star Wars film if it, like the vast majority of Star Wars films, featured white guys as the protagonists who do most of the heavy lifting in the action scenes. But the addition of a woman in the lead absolutely created a sense of urgency to see the film. I’m far from the only person who thinks so.

Kumail Nanjiani is another very prominent fan of science fiction and Star Wars, but these kinds of emotional reactions to the film will go a long way to cementing the love many of us have felt towards the series in a new way.

Star Wars fans who weren’t white guys have been seeing Star Wars films for decades, but the franchise is beginning to see them. And the results have been beautiful.

“For decades, people of color got behind the strength, charm and power of characters like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo,” Polygon’s Jeff Ramos stated. “People have built their entire lives around worshipping them and making them their personal heroes. Now, a new generation of fans can look up to people like Finn, Poe Dameron, Chirrut Îmwe and Baze Malbus. That gives me so much hope and pride.”

Disney doesn’t want to talk about this

Disney CEO Bob Iger is adamant that a film about rebels working towards the destruction of a totalitarian government isn’t political. “Frankly, this is a film that the world should enjoy,” he said. “It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.”

That’s why there’s a character in all the scenes that feature the Empire who turns to the camera and explains that using violence to control your citizens is a perfectly valid governmental choice. I’m assuming those moments are in the film, I have a ticket to see it tonight.

If those scenes don’t exist, maybe the film is kind of political in some respects. Because it’s actually really, really hard to create science fiction of even the popcorn variety without addressing politics in at least a superficial way. I bet the film brushes against the idea that unrestricted governmental power is bad, for instance.

I do believe Iger when he says the casting isn’t a political statement. "[Rogue One] has one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film we have ever made and we are very proud of that, and that is not a political statement, at all,” he stated.

The casting helps the franchise, in a very direct way. People want to see themselves onscreen, and Star Wars already has the white audience nailed down pretty securely. The creative teams behind the new films know that creating and casting a diverse array of lead characters will bring in new audiences or secure the allegiance of existing fans. And it will surely help the film’s performance overseas as well; the importance of China’s ticket sales when it comes to blockbusters can’t be overstated.

It’s interesting that Disney has to claim the film’s story isn’t political — even though creating a film with this basic plot is inherently political — while also not leaning into the idea the casting might be political, or at least a way to make the series more welcoming to more people. Instead they just call it one of the “most diverse casts” in the series, while distancing themselves from what that might mean, or why the film was cast that way.

The film’s casting is making so many people feel good that it’s probably uncomfortable for Iger to directly address one reason for the film’s diversity: casting in this manner is good business. No one wants to feel listened to only due to their demographic strength, although white guys like me have benefitted from that strength for basically the entirety history of modern pop culture.

But the world isn’t filled with people who look like me, and I’m going to buy that ticket anyway. Blockbusters get to take people like me for granted in 2016, and now often cast to try to appeal to everyone else. It’s about time.