In 2014, just a few months after winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her emotionally draining and physically exposed role as “Patsey” in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (2013), it was announced that Lupita Nyong’o would be cast in J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Wars” franchise for its new owner The Disney Studios.(1) Nyong’o’s addition to the cast along with John Boyega and Oscar Isaac’s casting announcements gave new hope to many “Star Wars” fans of color who have long wanted to see greater racial diversity within George Lucas’ beloved and globally entertaining space fantasy film.
Later in May of 2015, it was publically announced that the character that Lupita Nyong’o was cast to play would be a CGI character rendered through the complex technical process of motion capture most successfully done with actor Andy Serkis as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “he Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
This announcement did nothing to dim the new hope of “Star Wars” fans of color; indeed many simply shifted their excitement and expectations upon the notion that John Boyega and Oscar Isaac would be seen physically within the film while the notion that an Academy Award winning actress of color would not be physically seen did little to poison that hope of inclusion into what is essentially a White male fantasy.
The promise that traditional cinematic racial tokenism fulfilled before the election of President Obama is that at least Black and other minority actors could have a role in a White film: servant, gangbanger, sidekick, zombie food, stick-up kid, dead body, first to go, last to know; whatever the role it didn’t matter, at least one could take comfort in knowing that White controlled Hollywood could throw us folks of color a few crumbs from their vast and opulent tables of money, prestige, glamour and power. And if you played your role well enough they’d even give you an award as credit for playing along and supporting the fact that, in a White film, the White characters ultimately wield full dramatic agency.
Hyper-tokenism, by contrast, after the elections of President Obama relates primarily to retaining Black audience loyalty throughout the multiple installments of the big White film franchises or the multiple seasons of a celebrated White television series via a marked increase in screen time, dramatic involvement and promotional images of a Black or minority character in a White narrative while simultaneously reserving full dramatic agency as the providence of the White characters by the end of an installment of the franchise or finale of the series.
Which brings us to a troubling observation concerning this new and financially triumphant installment of the “Star Wars” franchise: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Why was the celebrated visual beauty and Academy Award winning acting talents of Black actress Lupita Nyong’o hidden behind a computer generated heavily disguised Asian caricature?
The character of Maz Kanata is unmistakably an Asian caricature and stereotype that can be traced back in Hollywood film history, going back as far as the Charlie Chan film series (1929) with its title character solving White people’s malfeasance or the Fu Manchu film series (1932) with its title character as a compendium of anti-Asian, yellow-peril villainous stereotypes. Both Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu were often performed by White actors in “yellow face”. Much like the CGI caricature of Jar-Jar Binks in “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” was a heavily disguised throw-back to the cowardly and comical Black servant in early White Hollywood B-movies. Visually the CGI character of Maz Kanata recalls Mickey Rooney’s racist “yellow faced” and bespeckled portrayal of Mr. Yunoishi in Blake Edwards’ film, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” (1961).
Regardless of director J.J. Abrams attempt at “softening the blow” with a rather sentimental confession that the character is based on an old high school teacher and the reddish tint of the skin color, the Asian characteristics of Maz Kanata recalls the short-statured and begoggled Asian eye-maker in Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” (1982) as well as the bespeckled Asian key-maker in the Wachowski’s “Matrix Reloaded” (2003).(3) The only other significant difference between the old Hollywood Asian stereotype and this Asian caricature beyond its color is that, mercifully there is no broken English spoken to accompany it.
The bespeckled Asian character in a White film often stands as a mediator of knowledge or arbiter of an object needed to complete the White hero’s journey.
The simple answer as to why Lupita Nyong’o was hidden within an Asian caricature in “Stars Wars: The Force Awakens” is because the White filmmakers and the White controlled studio did not want the beauty and talents of a Black actress who happens to be of Mexican and Kenyan descent to distract and diminish the White heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) whom they had chosen to be the true hero of this installment of the tale.
As critic Joseph Boston asserts,” The casting of largely unknown Daisy Ridley as a central protagonist in the ‘Force Awakens’ therefore entrusting an inexperienced actress with a multi-billion dollar corporation while Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is relegated to a supporting CGI character named Maz Kanata is but the latest example of “Star Wars” and Hollywood’s misogynoir & its ‘problem’ with Black women writ large.”(4)
White jealousy and the process of othering the beauty and the sensuality of the Black female and her body can easily be traced back to the early 1800’s and the tragedy of the South African woman known as “The Hottentot Venus”, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman who was lured to London and Paris in 1810 under the ruse of gaining riches in the theater. But she was ultimately exploited, degraded and abandoned as the epitome of African inferiority and physical difference from the standard of the White European female beauty. Prof. Sandor L. Gilman concludes that, ”The antithesis of European sexual mores and beauty is embodied in the black, and the essential black, the lowest rung on the great chain of being, is the Hottentot.” (5) Simply put, the process of othering is a process of “dehumanizing” someone else because of their difference from consensual normality.
Because of Baartman’s large buttocks and protruding genitalia, she was put on display in circus-like freak shows as an example of Black inferiority. The features of her body were so curious to White scientists at the time that at her death in 1815 a full plaster cast was made of her naked body, her vagina and brain were surgically removed and preserved along with her skeleton and placed on display at The Musée de l’Homme in Paris as an example of African inferiority and otherness until 1976. Her body parts remained at the museum until, at the request of the South African government, her remains were begrudgingly returned by the French government in 2002 for a proper burial.
The othering of Saartjie Baartman in the 1800’s is compared here with the othering of Lupita Nyong’o in the role of Maz Kanata as a hideous and heavily veiled Asian caricature because White standards of beauty and talent for women are so often under constant threat from equally beautiful and talented Black women that the process of othering becomes the only means through which Black beauty and talent can be called into question and diminished by Whites. Recall how earlier this year Serena Williams’ incomparable athletic prowess on the tennis court was challenged by comparing her body to that of a man as a means of diminishing her achievement and her beauty under the gaze of Whites.(6) For all intents and purposes the creation of Maz Kanata from the motion capture of Lupita Nyong’o is the perfect metaphor for how the Black female body is appropriated, distorted and exploited by the White gaze.
For those Whites and their non-White sympathizers, who might still be tone deaf and unable to understand any outrage against the Maz Kanata caricature, let me reframe the offense in another way to perhaps trigger your empathy.
Burying the beauty and talents of Black actress Lupita Nyong’o behind an unattractive CGI created caricature would be like burying the beauty and talent of Grace Kelly behind the grotesque costume of the creature from the film, “The Creature From the Black Lagoon;” or hiding Farah Fawcett in her prime behind an ape mask in “Planet of the Apes;” or placing Scarlett Johannson behind the mask of the creature in the film “Alien.” Of course, none of these “otherings” happened to these talented and beautiful White actresses, but such a thing has happened to a beautiful and talented Academy Award winning Black actress in the film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Now of course an objection could be founded on the fact that Nyong’o willingly signed on to perform the character of Maz Kanata and therefore she is somehow complicit in her own “othering” by the White filmmakers. A similar charge of complicity was leveled at Saarjite Baartman also, since she entered into a contract with her White exploiters under the promise of riches to be earned in countries far away from her own. In fact, Nyong’o has publically stated that after her brutal and emotionally draining role in Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave” where her body was the focus of the narrative, ”There was a liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question.”(7)
Yet any debate of complicity is a distraction from the result of the process of othering that transformed Baartman into a symbol of Black racial inferiority that lasted from the 1800’s until her remains were returned in the 21st century – and the process of othering in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which effaced the physical presence of the Black female from the screen and therefore out of the White controlled “fantasy” world of the film. The fact that Nyong’o joked with television talk show host Ellen, that she, ”didn’t even know” that she was auditioning for a part in the new “Star Wars” film, but that she knew it was a J.J. Abrams film reveals how Black actors can so easily be seduced into taking such roles when the promise of future riches, exposure and prestige are used to lure them in. (8)
The great tragedy here is that Nyong’o and the White filmmakers could not see the importance of having a Black female character in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Young Black girls and women of color could have seen someone like themselves playing an important role within the fantasy of “Star Wars” and as an Academy Award winning actress Nyong’o’s unobstructed physical presence within the film could have convinced the filmmakers to give the character more story significance, dramatic agency and greater screen time. Even Abrams has admitted to cutting Maz Kanata from the later scenes of the film at the Resistance base because, ”… we realized that she really had nothing to do there of value, except to have her sitting around…”(9)
As it stands, the heavily veiled Asian caricature of Maz Kanata is left incomplete within this story installment as critic Matt Goldberg has noted, ”… once [Maz] hands Finn Luke’s light saber, the film forgets about her. We don’t even know for sure if she survives the First Order’s assault on her home.”(10) This narrative mystery is yet another means through which the filmmakers can build and sustain Black audience loyalty for subsequent installments because hyper-tokenism instills a belief that the token Black character(s) will be seen again and/or have greater dramatic involvement in later films; but that is a belief not unlike a Jedi mind trick that makes an opponent a temporary tool for those he is fighting against.
Neither cute, loveable nor integral to the story beyond handing off a light saber to another character, Maz Kanata is a CGI creation that anyone can replace the voice behind if there is any need for it to return in future installments because in this role there is absolutely no resemblance to Lupita Nyong’o in body, face, or personality.
The erasure of the Black female from the fantasy world of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” serves a dual purpose: 1) It removes any dramatic and visual competition between the more talented and beautiful Lupita Nyong’o from the less well known White actress, Daisy Ridley, and her White character’s place as the Heroine of this installment; 2) By using a Black actress to voice the Asian caricature, the Asian stereotype upon which the CGI character is based can be doubly obscured allowing the filmmakers and fans of the franchise to easily dismiss any charges of Asian stereotyping or caricature.
It is here that we can reiterate our previous definition of Hyper-Tokenism. Hyper-tokenism is ultimately the effort of any White controlled studio and it’s White filmmakers to give the appearance of racial diversity in a film franchise or television series but – and this is very important – full dramatic agency is reserved and exercised by the White characters at the ending of an installment of the franchise or the finale of the series or franchise. The accusation is clear and simple: Lupita Nyong’o was cast as Maz Kanata directly after her Oscar win as a direct means of securing Black audience loyalty and feigning racial diversity in the “Star Wars” franchise, but her physical presence was erased to insure spectator identification with the White heroine of this installment of the “Star Wars” franchise.
If it is true as so many “Star Wars” fans and zealots are fond of repeating – that the “Star Wars” saga is really the story of the Skywalker family, and since we know that the family is White – then no matter how racially diverse the filmmakers attempt to make that galaxy so far, far away and such a long time ago, it will always be a White fantasy of White “intergalactic” supremacy.
We people of color have only contributed to the billion dollars that a White controlled studio has gained to make sure that that fantasy ultimately remains White.
Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.
(1) Announcement of Lupita Nyong’o to be in Star Wars: The Force Awakens : http://www.ew.com/article/2014/06/02/star-wars-episode-vii-casts-lupita-nyongo-and-gwendoline-christie
(2)Announcement of CGI character: http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/05/star-wars-force-awakens-photos
(3) J.J. Abrams discusses his inspiration for the character of Maz Kanata http://movieweb.com/star-wars-force-awakens-maz-kanata-inspiration-jj-abrams/
(5) Gilman, Sander L. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature.” Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12, No. 1. (204-242) “Race,” Writing, and Difference (Autumn, 1985). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1985.
(6) Please see Elizabeth Newman’s article for Sports Illustrated : “No Room For Body Image Criticism in Serena Williams Grand Slam Chase” http://www.si.com/tennis/2015/07/14/serena-williams-body-image-wta-tennis
(7) Please see Kelley L. Carter’s article for BuzzFeed News “Why Lupita Nyong’o Didn’t Want to be Seen in “Star Wars” http://www.buzzfeed.com/kelleylcarter/lupita-nyongo-didnt-want-you-to-see-her-face-in-star-wars#.lf2okaAo7
(9) See: “Maz Kanata: 6 Questions about The Force Awakens Character” by Alice Vincent. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/star-wars-the-force-awakens/maz-kanata-facts-theories-questions/
(10) Please see Matt Goldberg’s article: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The Many Problems With Maz Kanata” : http://collider.com/star-wars-the-force-awakens-maz-kanata-problems/#character-design