The Unlikely Hero in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a Vietnamese American Woman

Earlier this month at Star Wars Celebration Orlando, Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran was announced to play the largest new role in the upcoming film “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

According to “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson at the event’s “The Last Jedi” panel, Tran’s character Rose is a maintenance worker in the Resistance.

Johnson explains that one of the takeaways he had as a child growing up watching the “Star Wars” series was the idea of heroes like Luke Skywalker getting “pulled out of wherever” and becoming “this unlikely hero.”

The main hero of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker, was a moisture farmer on the Outer Rim planet of Tatooine who was suddenly pulled into the Rebellion with the purchase of two droids. The main hero of the prequel trilogy, Luke’s father Anakin, was born a slave.

Up until recently, this “unlikely hero” has always been a white man. The seventh film in the franchise, “The Force Awakens,” features another Skywalker, Rey, but this time a white woman. The “unlikely” hero in last year’s anthology film “Rogue One” was Jyn Erso, who was also a white woman.

Evidently, it is very likely that the main “unlikely hero” in the “Star Wars” franchise is white.

(As an aside, the idea that anyone can become a hero is at odds with Anakin’s Jesus-like backstory introduced in “The Phantom Menace,” which makes the unlikeliness of the Skywalkers’ heroism much less random and much more purposeful. But we’ll ignore that because, well, “The Phantom Menace,” am I right?)

While Tran’s role is not as the main heroine of the film, it is promising that Johnson introduces Tran’s character as “the biggest new part” of “The Last Jedi.”

He explains, “The notion that anyone out there, any of us, can step up and turn into a hero. That’s really kind of where the character Rose comes from. She’s not a soldier, she’s not looking to be a hero, and she gets pulled in a very big way into an adventure in this movie with Finn, and Kelly just embodies that for me.”

Discussion of Tran’s  character from 28:37 to 32:45.

This is the first time in which the narrative that “anyone” can become a hero has been extended to an Asian American woman in the franchise since the original release of “Star Wars” 40 years ago.

Also important is the role of an Asian American woman on the big screen as a hero of the Rebellion. With Asian women generally portrayed as submissive and conforming, the role will hopefully break stereotypes and prove that they can be rebels and kick ass too.

It will be the first time that Tran, who up until now has appeared in web series and guest starred in TV roles primarily as a comedian, will appear on the big screen. The “Star Wars” franchise has propelled many of its actors to fame over the years. It has done so for the likes of Mark Hamill, and more recently Daisy Ridley and John Boyega–and it may just do the same for Tran.

This is a timely announcement considering this year’s controversial casting of a white woman, Scarlett Johansson, as Major Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” which was just released at the end of last month.

In an interview with Vice, “Ghost in the Shell” director Rupert Sanders claimed, “The world cast Scarlett really. That’s who people want to see in this kind of film … it is ultimately an international and global film starring a global lead. You need Scarlett Johansson if you are opening a film in Russia as well as in Tokyo.”

The message that Sanders sends is that only the stories and experiences of white people are universal. The “world” does not want to see an Asian story come to life portrayed by Asians. Asians are not “global,” whatever that means.

(Of course, Sanders has only directed one other film, so take his opinions on what kinds of films the world wants to see with a grain of salt.)

Ironically, on the same date that “Ghost in the Shell” was released in U.S. theaters to flop in the box office, Marvel Vice President David Gabriel accused diversity and women as the forces behind declining sales. In a statement that has been well-criticized, Gabriel claimed, “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.”

It is thus refreshing to see a well-loved franchise and cultural phenomenon like “Star Wars” continuing to follow its trend of including more and more diverse roles in space by introducing an Asian American woman in what will hopefully be a dynamic, stereotype-breaking role.

The series’ most recent film, “Rogue One,” features a diverse cast that includes three Asian men as part of the Rebellion. However, in celebrating the film’s diversity, it is also crucial to recognize that the film’s women and men of color all die in order to secure the plans for the Death Star. Though the cast introduced in “Rogue One” was never referred to in the original “Star Wars” films, it is questionable just how necessary it was to kill everyone off. It also raises the issue of whether or not the bodies of women and people of color are seen as more expendable.

Portrayals of Asians in space are a long time coming, especially as “Star Wars is a franchise that has always taken from Asian cultures without any representation of Asian characters up until recently.

(To be fair there is one Asian man (Lieutenant Telsij) in “Return of the Jedi” during the Battle of Endor, but he literally appears for less than 2 seconds. Yay representation!)

Director John Landis recalls that after a screening of the original film, he asked, “George, is everybody in outer space white?” It is high time for the series to feature Asians in space.

Whether or not these roles for people of color in space will be more dynamic is unconfirmed.

Hopefully the casting of Tran will lead the way for not only the casting of more and more Asian American actors and actresses, but for stories of them in more compelling roles.

Lastly, it is important to note that, despite her so-called huge role in the film, there is not a single snippet of Tran in the 2 minute and 12 second trailer for “The Last Jedi.”

The fact that Rose is a new character is irrelevant to the fact that she is excluded from the trailer, as the trailer for “The Force Awakens introduced multiple new characters. There are only 2 possible rational explanations for Tran’s character not appearing in the trailer. Either Rose is not relevant enough to the overall movie so she does not warrant time in the trailer, or Rose is relevant but the image of her is not important enough to include in the trailer. Unfortunately, neither of these two options are without flaw, and it is impossible to tell which is the better of the two, if there even is a better option. Implications of these options may mean that the Asian American community is celebrating the film for doing the bare minimum, pandering to our community, or, like Sanders’s claim referred to above, that the image of an Asian American woman will not sell and/or does not belong.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is scheduled to release in U.S. theaters on December 15, 2017.

 

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