This week JJ Abrams released the teaser trailer for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens and just like every other fanboy I watched the video over and over, often pausing to pick out even the most minute details. My dissection of the trailer was handled with the same level of precision as a group of Spaceballs with an giant fine-tooth comb. I mean this is JJ Abrams we’re talking about here. The guy who made Lost. Do you know how many Easter Eggs he snuck into that series?
Of course I wasn’t the only person with their eye on the trailer and it didn’t take long before people shared their discoveries and doubts to social media. It took no less than ten frames before some members of the Star Wars fan base had a collective head burst. The scene I’m talking about is the one that opens the trailer, where we see a stormtrooper with his helmet off, looking out into the distance with fear in his eyes.
Oh yeah, and he’s black.
The amount of outrage over this stormtrooper’s race has been well documented over Twitter and other social media outlets under the hashtag #blackstormtrooper. Although most is overwhelmingly positive, some try and point out the supposed “inconsistency” of his race due to the fact that stormtroopers were shown to be cloned from Jango Fett in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones:
Still others believe this is an attempt to appease the “PC lovers”, “Social Justice Warriors” or whatever other term kids are using these days to describe people who want to see women and minorities in films because they exist in a place we call society, just a small subset of the universe:
How this is still an issue is beyond me, although I’m sad to say I’m not surprised. I was under the assumption that science fiction had moved beyond this nonsense decades ago. Duane Jones was cast in a starring role in a major Horror/Sci-Fi film in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. That was in 1968, the same year Kirk kissed Uhura. Also, I don’t remember anyone accusing George Lucas of checking “diversity boxes” when he cast Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu in 1999. It’s 2014, a black stormtrooper shouldn’t be considered progress or pandering, it should be considered the norm.
That’s not to say the scene doesn’t mark a historic moment in the series. Go back and take a look at that scene.
There is definitely something striking and out of place about this stormtrooper that has nothing to do with the color of his skin.
It’s his expression, or better yet, the fact that he has an expression at all. Provided this is truly an Imperial Stormtrooper, JJ Abrams has done something that has never been done in the Star Wars universe. He’s humanized a stormtrooper.
Stormtroopers have traditionally been portrayed as a cookie cutter military outfit. Their uniforms are monochrome, without any semblance of coloring. No personalization, like stickers. No nametags. Their appearance is skeletal, the most stripped down our bodies can be while still maintaining their shape. Their voices are monotone, devoid of any kind of inflection. Even when they’re introduced as Jango clones, they are portrayed as mindless copies unlike the strong-willed Fett. For all intents and purposes, stormtroopers are meant to be mindless automatons, lacking any modicum of emotion or marksmanship.
There’s a reason for this in filmmaking, particularly Science Fiction, Horror and even some War and Western films. Things like zombies, robots, ninjas, orcs, brood-like aliens and the like are meant to be devoid of any humanizing features. This is so heroes can easily shoot and slash through swaths of enemies without eliciting an emotional response from audiences. It’s what differentiates Starship Troopers from becoming the sniper scene in Full Metal Jacket.
This method is used to great effect in the Star Wars franchise as the Empire is often depicted as masked or cloaked in battle, but the Rebels’ faces are exposed and possess features that make them unique. As an example take the first assault on the Death Star. On one side you have the the Imperial TIE Fighter Pilots, completely concealed in black helmets. Yet all the rebel pilots, from Wedge Antilles to my favorite, the portly Jek Tono Porkins, have their faces visible.
During the battle, no one cares as TIE fighters are blasted into particles, because they might as well be piloted by Death incarnate. But audiences feel for guys like Porkins as we witness him meet an untimely death as he sizzles (heh) among the stars. Porkins speaks with authority, we can tell he’s respected among his squadron and he sports a rocking neck beard. And for those of you wondering, yes, Lucas really named the heavy guy Porkins. (This was just to illustrate that Lucas humanizes his characters, not that he’s good at it.)
It’ll be interesting to see if Abrams is planning on giving the Empire a human side. It’ll certainly change the way we look at the Empire as well as explain the motivations of those within their ranks. Furthermore, it might reveal that there’s more than one side of the story when it comes to the battle between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Perhaps like most rebellions the outcome didn’t turn out as planned.