Star Wars’ cinematic saga was close to fading into legend before Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012. Since then, the franchise has renewed its lease on life, thanks in part to Disney's newly-minted streaming service. Disney+ is building on Lucasfilm’s perpetual impulse to innovate, and with the studio’s waning focus on film, streaming is poised to lead Star Wars into a new era -- and the upcoming Acolyte is taking it one step further.
With Amandla Stenberg in talks for the lead role, Acolyte will be the fourth Star Wars series helmed by a person of color -- after The Mandalorian, Andor and Ahsoka -- and the first to cast an openly queer actor. Not much is known about the series so far, but showrunner Leslye Hedland has been vocal about the need for queer voices in Star Wars. But while this new focus on diversity is a welcome change for such a time-honored franchise, why did it take a shift from films to series to make such a difference?
The Original Trilogy Was Rife With Missed Opportunities
George Lucas had a more-diverse vision for his Star Wars saga as far back as the Original Trilogy. As a longtime fan of Akira Kurosawa, Lucas drew reams of inspiration from the Japanese filmmaker. He was famously eyeing Kurosawa’s recurrent leading man, Toshiro Mifune, for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi.
In fact, J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars detailed the grueling casting process for A New Hope, and Lucas’ interest in the actor. Mifune eventually turned down the chance to play Obi-Wan, asserting that a science fiction film would cheapen the image of the samurai, but Lucas’ inclusive choices didn’t stop with him. “If I’d gotten Mifune,” Lucas told Rinzler, “I would’ve also used a Japanese Princess [Leia], and then I would probably have cast a Black Han Solo.” His musings align with actor Glynn Turman's, who came close to taking the role over Harrison Ford.
Unfortunately, Turman’s casting as Han also fell through, albeit for other reasons. While speaking to Creative Loafing, the actor revealed that a relationship “between a white Princess Leia and a black Han Solo” may have attracted too much controversy. At the time, interracial pairings in films were making headway -- thanks to the efforts of actors like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge -- but they were still met with backlash. “Those were the times,” Turman admitted.
The Saga Continues In Present Day
This trend continued when Lucas returned to direct the prequels. Though Natalie Portman is the Padmé Amidala that Star Wars fans know and love, there was a time when the role almost went to a Black actress. Sherlock star Vinette Robinson auditioned for the role when she was just 13. It's not clear how far in the audition process Robinson got, but it's interesting to wonder what a female lead of color could have brought to the franchise in the early 2000s.
The sequels, in turn, are rife with well-documented near-castings. Maisie Richardson-Sellers, who played Resistance member Korr Sella in The Force Awakens, originally auditioned for Rey. Matrix Resurrections star Jessica Henwick also went through a grueling six-month process for the same part. Though Henwick went on to play Jess Pava, the first female X-Wing pilot, she admits that it was “very hard” losing the role to Daisy Ridley.
As for the sequels, Star Wars' spin-off films had a lot of peripheral diversity. Rogue Onefeatured the most diverse cast of any live-action installment but still got unwarranted flack for its lack of female characters. The second Star Wars story, Solo, had the task of casting actors for previously-existing characters -- but there was some wiggle room with Qi'ra, Han Solo's leading lady. Vanity Fair famously reported in 2016 that four actresses of color -- Henwick again among them -- were testing for the role. Despite this, however, Game of Thrones alum Emilia Clarke was eventually cast as Qi’ra.
Why Is Star Wars Pivoting Now?
It’s important to note that, for the most part, these roles went to their respective actors for a reason. But Star Wars could have aided in decentering a solely white narrative as far back as 1977. Lucasfilm has always had the opportunity to build the franchise into the inclusive universe it claims to be, and though the films haven’t always been down for the risk, other Star Wars properties are notorious for picking up the slack.
For a long time, diverse leads could only be found on the pages of Star Wars comics or novels. Characters like Doctor Aphra, Quinlan Vos and Vi Moradi have been fan-favorites since their respective introductions to the extended universe. Even animated series like Rebels and Resistance featured inclusivity across the board before Disney+ was even established.
t’s possible that Disney fell prey to the theory that diverse films flunk at the box office -- but again, that doesn’t align with the success of Marvel films like Black Panther and Shang-Chi. Authentic representation has always been wildly profitable, which means that the opposite is true for films that perpetuate a lily-white narrative. That’s not to say that profit is the only reason to pursue inclusive casting, but it certainly debunks an age-old misconception.
Star Wars may be full-on pivoting to series on their streaming platform for now. There’s been no real news about any of the films that Lucasfilm had previously announced, and it’s likely they’ll be stuck in development purgatory for the foreseeable future. But with that being the case, the studio can take time to refocus and find new opportunities to change the face of their films.