clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The fight over whether Star Wars is racist reveals more about the media than Star Wars

Melissa Harris-Perry.
Melissa Harris-Perry.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

At what point did the nation succumb to Star Wars mania? Was it when Star Wars–branded oranges arrived at the supermarket? When Carrie Fisher sardonically smashed an interview with Good Morning America? When a fan put forth the theory that Jar Jar Binks is trained to use the Force?

Or was it over the weekend, when MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry declared Star Wars racist because Darth Vader did evil things as a "black man" but was then revealed to be a white man when he crossed over to the good side before dying? Harris-Perry wasn't joking — indeed, she was very serious.

The upcoming release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is a worldwide, monumental event. It's also become an opportunity for people to open their mouths and say really ridiculous things, and for the media to pounce.

"Star Wars is racist"

Harris-Perry's assertion that Star Wars is a racist movie is currently the story that people can't stop talking about. To be clear, the Star Wars franchise has faced plenty of criticism for predominantly featuring white dudes, as Lando and Leia are the only human characters in the original films who are not white men (the prequels made a concerted attempt to include more people of color). But Perry wanted to make a different point.

During Saturday's episode of her show, she was quick to express her frustration with "the whole Darth Vader situation":

The part where he was totally a black guy, whose name basically was James Earl Jones, and while he was black, he was terrible and bad and awful and used to cut off white men’s hands, and didn’t, you know, actually claim his son? But as soon as he claims his son and goes over to the good, he takes off his mask and he is white? Yes, I have many, many feelings about that.

Harris-Perry is correct in linking James Earl Jones to the character of Darth Vader, as Jones provided Vader's voice. And, yes, James Earl Jones is black. But the character was physically portrayed onscreen by a white man named David Prowse. And in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back — the movie containing the scene where Vader chops off a white man's hand — there's a scene where Vader is seen from behind without his helmet. He has pinkish-white skin:

Perry created a false narrative to fit her claim about racism in Star Wars.

Giving Harris-Perry the benefit of the doubt, there is absolutely symbolism in the fact that Vader wears black and is evil. In literary history, the color black has often come to represent evil, with white representing goodness and purity. But Harris-Perry doesn't take into account that the Imperial Storm Troopers are also evil, and they wear white. Plus, she doesn't even mention Senator Palpatine, the scariest and most evil man in the Star Wars franchise who commits lots of bad deeds and is a wrinkly old white man.

Harris-Perry's point doesn't stand up to facts. However, that hasn't stopped it from gaining momentum online, particularly in conservative circles.

"The Bible said Darth Vader is black"

Harris-Perry's piece of flame bait didn't go unnoticed; it was only a matter of time before people started weighing in to disagree with Harris-Perry's argument. For example, former Northern Exposure actress Janine Turner, who's now a conservative political commentator, tried to explain to Harris-Perry that good and evil have traditionally been coded in dark and light and that Star Wars wasn't making a racial point.

"Regarding Darth Vader, please," Turner said on Fox Business News on Monday. "The Bible talks darkness and light. This is about evil and good. Darkness and light. … This doesn’t have anything to do with anything else; this goes back to biblical times."

Turner's explanation wasn't exactly elegant, but her basic point was that throughout history, there have been countless explorations of the themes of good versus evil and darkness versus light in art. She easily could have cited religious texts other than the Bible — as well as Greek mythology, comic books, and many pieces of American literature — to explain that darkness often represents evil.

But RawStory took what Turner said and was a bit disingenuous with its headline, which states: "Conservative actress tells Fox: Darth Vader is black because it’s in the Bible and ‘Jesus talks about it.'"

The site flattened what Turner said into something that sounded dumber than Harris-Perry's initial argument, misleadingly recast it as political, and purposely made Turner sound a little unhinged. The article has racked up more than 900 comments and has been shared again and again on social media.

"The Jedi are a typical wishy-washy Mother Gaia–style progressive cult"

Meanwhile, the conservative site Breitbart and writer Milo Yiannopoulos published a piece on Friday titled "Star Wars Is Garbage," which states that "the Jedi are a typical wishy-washy Mother Gaia–style progressive cult."

The column includes a mention of Jabba the Hutt's murder at the hands of a white woman, a reference to "#greenlivesmatter," and a discussion of Princess Leia's white privilege. It is a true masterpiece of trolly satire, as it paints the Rebel Alliance as ISIS:

They take their lead from mystics hiding in caves and swamps, and want to return the galaxy to a primitive religion that hasn’t changed for 600 years. That’s right nerds: the Rebel Alliance is ISIS.

Yiannopoulos's piece is more self-aware than Harris-Perry and Turner's arguments, but only a little more bonkers. And that's a little worrying.

All of these "Star Wars is racist" discussions are part of a growing trend in how we judge art and conflate politics with quality, something media outlets love to do because it gives them something to say. Earlier this year, Ted Cruz said he'd stopped listening to rock music because it didn't politically respond to 9/11 the way he wanted it to. Over the summer, there were negative critiques of Amy Schumer's Trainwreck because the movie wasn't feminist enough. When a piece of art is popular, it's natural to want to talk about it. But creating a false narrative, as Harris-Perry did, or disingenuously framing someone else's argument, as RawStory did, ignores the original work in the name of creating one polarizing argument for people to love or hate. And Star Wars, like other pieces of art, is so much more than that.

Vox Featured Video

An instance of mass media impacting popular belief

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.