Something that has become quite interesting of late is the diversity that has been injected into big-budget Hollywood cinema. The most recent and obvious proponent of this trend comes from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For anyone who has not seen the movie, there are a plethora of various ethnicities and genders all being led by a young woman. Rogue One brilliantly executed the message of how diversity can not only be well integrated into a big budget film, but also enhance its overall quality. The film has obvious flaws and the majority of them stem from the required fan-service that the studio mandated, but be that as it may, the film features good performances and a number impressive of impressive action sequences. To put things into context, let’s examine certain elements of the Star Wars universe.
Two very integral components of the films have been the Force and Jedi, both of which have ties to eastern cultures. George Lucas was the brainchild of all of these ideas, but it is easy to see where his influences came from. He has gone on record stating how Akira Kurosawa was a major influence of his, especially his two famous samurai films: Yojimbo and Seven Samurai. Jedi are essentially space samurai with lightsabers instead of katana. Their attire is very similar since they wear robes meant for swiftness and agility. They both have a honor-based warrior codes and have master-student relationships.
The force is another element taken from eastern culture. If you have any knowledge of Daoism then you have heard of the Yin-Yang. The symbol itself is a popular image and represents the balance between light and dark. The light represents an extreme: femininity, softness, and wetness. The dark represents the other extreme: masculinity, hardness, and dryness. Lucas simplified the concept of the force by having one side be evil and the other side is good but the idea of balance has remained.
The point behind bringing up these two components was to show that diversity was always integral to the Star Wars’ series. The series has taken many ideas from various cultures and interjected them into its universe. Rogue One has just gone the extra step and added talented diverse faces. Talented is another keyword for the film as many of the performances were phenomenal.
Forest Whitaker portrays Saw Gerrera, an extremist brought to near insanity because of the war and his violent past. His character has been broken down physically and mentally and is similar to the roles that Whitaker has played in the past. He has portrayed Idi Amin in the Last King of Scotland who is someone who has been corrupted because of power and circumstance. He has also played characters who have been oppressed but remain stout in their cause like Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. With this background, he is able to bring the pain and twisted anguish to the character.
Donnie Yen plays Chirrut Imwe, a blind warrior monk who understands the force, but is not a Jedi himself. Yen has years of martial arts experience and has portrayed various martial arts masters. His most famous role was Ip Man and it was a wise and humble master who faced oppression, but was guided by his sense of morality. These experiences enable Yen to embody the zen-like quality that was needed to complete the character. Yen portrays the character with mental and physical strength yet still retains his humility. There is also an excellently choreographed fight scene that Yen is able to perform perfectly because of his martial arts background.
Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor, an intelligence agent for the rebellion and one of the more morally gray characters in the series. I am currently only familiar with two of Luna’s previous works and they are both villain roles. He played the drug smuggler brother in the comedy Casa de mi Padre and he played a drug dealer in Blood Father. Many roles that he played appeared either villainous and/or criminal in some way. With this experience, he was perfect to play the character because he did not act charismatic or likable and instead plays him sly and suspicious. It was easier for the audience to accept that he would be willing to do horrific acts yet still not reprehensible because it was for the cause. The grayness is something new to the Star Wars films because it shows a more brutal side of the rebellion.
The last two actors that I would like to discuss are Riz Ahmed who played Bodhi Rook and Wen Jiang who played Baze Malbus. Ahmed’s character is an imperial pilot who defected to the rebels and brought important resources to their cause. At first it seemed like his character was going to be little more than an extra. Where Ahmed shines is that while he seems weak and nervous, he continues to push through and aid in the fight. He conveys a strength and perseverance that shines through his meek and meager appearance. Jiang’s character is another warrior monk from the same order as Yen’s. However, he has become jaded and lost faith in the Force but still aids Yen’s character. One thing that stands out about Jiang is the stout and powerful nature he conveys. Apparently, Jiang is quite popular in China and he is well known for his strong voice. An important note about these two actors is that they were both trained in well-received schools of acting. Ahmed after graduating from Oxford University went on to attend University of London’s School of Speech and Drama. Jiang graduated from Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama which is considered one of China’s most prestigious acting schools.
On another note, there have been some complaints to the diversity in the film and to the emphasis of diversity in cinema in general. Some people have noted that the movie’s use of Chinese actors is meant to attract China’s market. The other complaint is that diversity in general causes unneeded effort on the filmmakers. Now, there is some validity to these arguments. While it is true, that China is a big market and unfortunately studios make decisions based on that fact. We all still remember the infamous second half of Transformers: Age of Extinction, in which is devoted to the efficiency of the Chinese government. Although, there cannot be any complaints against any of the actors in Rogue One since their appearance did nothing to take away from the plot nor the overall experience. Movies are a business so if there is a way that the filmmakers can compromise with the studio and create a great product without sacrificing quality then that’s a win for everyone.
The second complaint gets its foundation in the fact that there is a lot of work that goes into filmmaking and making extra stipulations just creates a burden. True, having to adhere to diversity guidelines is hard but filmmaking is arduous. Any artist will attest to the effort that is needed to create artworks and many times what seems like a problem can lead to positive results. In certain cases, such as in Rogue One, it forced the filmmakers to look more extensively in casting. They were able to find actors with diverse backgrounds who were able to offer unique experiences to the project.
Diversity is adding a whole other level to Hollywood films and it is a smart idea for the studios to progress along with it. The world is diverse and it is nice to see faces that are a proper representation of this fact. Now, I am not saying it is always appropriate because there are exceptions like historical films where diversity would be inconsistent. However, in cases where diversity can be utilized like fantasy and science fiction then it should be utilized to its highest potential. These films have the opportunity to reach large audiences and the familiarity that diversity emanates will help them connect to the movie more. Thus Rogue One is a major step in that direction and hopefully, more big-budget films will follow.