For a film genuflecting to fan service every 30 seconds, Billy Dee Williams' absence from Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was one of its more lamentable shortcomings. Without Lando Calrissian, it didn't feel like the gang really was back together, and not because Luke Skywalker had gone off to become a space hermit.
In such a linear, action-oriented sci-fi narrative like Star Wars, the lingering appeal is usually in the backstories fans are left to imagine for themselves. Lando's held the most potential to me since I was six years old. I loved his caped action figure and the wondrous art deco setting of Cloud City. Growing up and revisiting Calrissian's two Star Wars appearances, I fit him into the original trilogy's overall theme of redemption (of Han Solo in the first film, Calrissian in the second, and Darth Vader in the third and over all).
Calrissian, in a sense, was more successful than his old buddy Han, somehow taking over a mining station that operated, quietly and lucratively, outside of Imperial view. Then his conditional friend showed up out of the blue, trailing a galaxy-sized problem of his own making. I might have sold Solo's ass out, too.
Of course, when J.J. Abrams cracked the original Star Wars out of hibernation with The Force Awakens, fans wanted to see or feel the presence of the longer-tenured characters, including Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO. That left not much oxygen in the room for an extrovert like Lando while necessarily introducing the new triad of Rey, Poe and Finn. I get it.
Calrissian, as a character, will get his due in the Han Solo one-off movie coming in 2018. But Donald Glover will play him in a prequel story about the dashing rogues' younger days. Williams met his successor, (as spotted on Twitter), and then expanded on the role's handoff with The Hollywood Reporter.
"I guess what it is that I identify so much with Lando," Williams said. "I mean, Lando has been very much a part of my life for over 30 years. When I go out and do conventions and stuff like that, even though people know me from all the other things that I've done, certainly [Lando] takes precedence. I just never thought of anybody else being Lando. I just see myself as Lando."
Williams, who at last voices Harvey Dent as Two-Face in the new Lego Batman movie (see our review here), said he would make a cameo in the Han Solo film if asked. Apparently he hasn't. Sure, a conspicuous cameo can break down the viewer's immersion in the story the flick is trying to tell. But if nothing else, Williams has already taken a Star Wars role of conspicuous inclusion with skill and aplomb, in two movies that faced even greater expectations.
Star Wars was a lily-white affair in 1977 (James Earl Jones, originally uncredited as Darth Vader's voice, per his request, does not change this). Blockbuster sequels of present day still pale next to the anticipation for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Yet here was Williams, the blaxploitation actor from the Colt 45 ads, Brian’s Song and The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings dropped into the middle of it all as Star Wars' first black character.
People noticed. not in the context of a galaxy far, far away, but in the days when affirmative action case law was barely 10 years old. If including a black man in such a pop culture phenomenon was a worthy gesture in its time, it still compounded the problem facing the role. Calrissian is, properly, a supporting character, which meant his development simply could not go far enough to beat back a cynical view of Williams as a racial token.
The Han Solo movie is an opportunity to reconcile that. Of course, Glover will be the one to complete the picture of Solo's smuggling partner and gambling opponent. But it would be nice to see Williams get some sort of tribute appearance, if for no other reason than as a retirement gold watch, to say he was part of the film that delivered the full view of Lando Calrissian. He's the character Billy Dee Williams indeed created and, given so little to work with 37 years ago, gave a recognizable and beloved personality.