But first, The Last Jedi.
Did you like the latest Star Wars movie? I did. I loved it so much, I saw it three times. I loved it so much, I dragged my friend, who hadn’t even seen The Force Awakens, to go see it with me. I loved the themes of the movie, which had to do with failure and recognizing the flaws of the past. I loved the way the director took risks and managed to surprise me—no easy feat.
My brother hated it. He said that Princess Leia’s “Mary Poppins” moment was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen. And this seems to be the nature of the film. People love it or hate it. Which is fine, because people have their opinions. What’s not fine is how the film seems to bring out trolls to the forefront.
There was an article that the film’s actress, Kelly Marie Tran was bullied off Instagram, because of people’s nasty comments, many of them racist. This is a sad development. Kelly Marie Tran is the first Asian American actresses to play a major character in Star Wars. Disney has made a consistent effort to bring diversity to their Star Wars universe, which unfortunately, even in this day and age, has caused backlash and controversy. I thought we were beyond that.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, I was spending a lazy Sunday skimming the entertainment news, when I happened upon this Los Angeles Times article called, “We need more diversity in film criticism, but 'Who is this movie for?' is the wrong question to ask.” Because I happen to read film reviews, I clicked on it.
The problem began at the Women in Film’s Crystal + Lucy Awards. Brie Larson, the actress who will be playing Captain Marvel in the upcoming MCU flick, said three things. First, most film critics are white men. This is a neutral fact. Second, there should be an effort to include more diverse voices. This is a fairly benign political view, which most people would probably agree with.
Third, movies are made for certain audiences and if you aren’t part of that audience, your voice doesn’t count. Or, as she put it, “I do not need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work for him about ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ It wasn’t made for him.” This is where the controversy lies, and where Justin Chang, the writer of the article, takes offense.
Chang argues that movies should be for everyone, not just people who fall into broad, demographic categories. Part of the whole reason we watch movies (or read books or look at art) is to experience perspectives that are unlike your own. I agree. I’m all for inclusivity, but I dislike the “us versus them” mentality it’s been taking on lately. You don’t need to be part of a movie’s “target audience” to enjoy it or have a say.
So here I was nodding along, thinking Brie Larson perhaps should have re-phrased her remarks more diplomatically, when out of nowhere, the writer points out, “I ask these questions, incidentally, as a 35-year-old Chinese American dude and one of the 13.8% of “underrepresented men” […].”
I did a double take. The writer is Asian?
Actually, I’m only half Japanese on my mother’s side. I’m also half white on my father’s side. This makes me half minority, half majority, half something else entirely. The thing is, while people talk about diversity in film, they usually aren’t talking about Asian Americans, so I’m used to that particular side of me being ignored.
I wonder if Justin Chang also feels that way. He writes, “Had I restricted myself to a slim diet of American cinema made for people who look like me, I doubt I could ever have fallen in love with the movies, let alone aspired to write about them for a living.” If movies are only made for the people who look like the characters, how could someone who hardly ever sees themselves portrayed enjoy the show?
The article goes on, but I found myself distracted by this uncomfortable feeling that, while I was happy enough reading the article not knowing who wrote it, as soon as I learned the ethnic identity of the author, I felt a sharp spike in interest. I could relate.
But why does it matter that the writer’s Asian? Should it matter at all?
It’s a question of representation, which is at the heart of this whole film criticism controversy. Why does it that matter that critics are one race or another, one gender or another? Or, for that matter, what does it matter if the main character of a film is black or white, male or female, gay or straight?
While pondering the dilemma, my thoughts swirled back to The Last Jedi.
Disney did a great job of diversifying the cast. We have a female Jedi as the lead character, with an African American storm trooper, a Latino fighter pilot, and the first Asian American resistance fighter. And with all those many characters to “represent me,” the one I decided was my favorite, my reason for watching the movie so many times was…
The white male character.
And anyone who knows me wouldn’t be surprised in the least. I have a habit of glomping onto villains and anti-heroes, especially if they have complicated backstories and hints of redemption. I also think that Kylo Ren is the closest to my personality. A dark version of my personality, but my personality, nonetheless.
I connect to characters on an individual basis—I think we all do. I don’t think white men like being told they are unable to relate to female characters or people of color. Nor do I want to be told I can only relate to half-Asian females.
So then why does it matter if the cast is diverse at all?
It matters to me because I feel invited. When you see a group of people—be it in a movie or in real life—and none of them look like you, the subtle message you get is, “You’re not wanted here. Stay away.” And sometimes I ignore that message—but sometimes I listen. I might have been a comic book nerd growing up, if, as a girl, I didn’t feel so awkward about entering a comic shop.
Oddly enough, what struck me the most about diversity in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was that, when I looked at the ranks of the First Order—not the main villains, just the extras sitting aboard the ship—I noticed women and Asian men. And a part of me silently went, “Hallelujah.”
It made me feel like women and minorities were normal. We could be good, we could be evil, we could be important, we could not be important—we could just be people who made choices and happened to fall wherever we fell. There was less pressure to “represent” anything. It also helped the white half of me which sort of resented that only white characters were allowed to be evil. It groups the white race as the “bad guys” all the time, which is unfair.
This The Last Jedi reasoning follows with film critics as well. I read a lot of movie reviews and the critics I respond to best are respectful and offer me insight. Some of the male critics I read are very perceptive about female thought processes. Some female critics I feel are wrong. But just because I care more about the individual, does not mean I want people of my gender and background excluded.
It’s not that their perception is so radically different. It’s just that every now and then, I like to be reminded that people who look like me exist, be they at the Los Angeles Times or in a galaxy far, far away.