Corporate Armies vs. Galactic Governments
For weeks, people all over the world stood in line for the May 16 release of Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones (AOTC). Most of them came for the good time -- to see a high-stakes galactic drama, to watch suspenseful fight and chase scenes, and to be dazzled by computer-imaged special effects.
But is this all the fans will get? Or do the Star Wars movies also deliver a political agenda, of which audiences will be passive and largely willing consumers?
The 1999 release of Episode One: The Phantom Menace generated a flurry of criticism that Star Wars creator George Lucas and his production team were promoting racist stereotypes in their depiction both of humans and of aliens. Joe Morgenstern wrote in the Wall Street Journal that "Gungan" trickster Jar Jar Binks was little more than a "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen."
Michael Dyson, Columbia University professor of African-American studies, also weighed in for the fight, telling CNN, "There was something about his demeanor that suggested blackness and that suggested, more specifically, stereotypical blackness."
Lucas, for his part, has rejected such criticisms. Asked by a Salon.com writer about Jar Jars Caribbean patois ("Yousa Jedi not all yousa cracked up to be!"), Lucas responded (perhaps missing the point), "Just because somebody has an accent doesnt make them a stereotype of a particular kind of thing."
But criticism stuck to more characters than just the annoying Jar Jar. Fred McKissack, in a 1999 issue of The Progressive, pointed out that the greedy, manipulative officials of the Neimoidian-dominated Trade Federation tended to speak with stereotypical Asian accents.
And the white guys get all the good roles. Mace Windu, played by Samuel L. Jackson, doesnt to do any fancy "Jedi heroics," McKissack points out. Those are reserved for the white people -- Obi Wan Kenobi and his teacher, Qui-Gon Jinn. Windu, sadly, "looks more like a frustrated professor." (although judging by the trailers, this, at least, will be soundly corrected in the new film.)
Even the primary bad guy -- Senator Palpatine, who aspires to be emperor -- speaks with a refined English accent.
"Oh please," said Lou Tambone, who maintains the popular fan site StarwarZ.com, when asked if Jar Jar was a racist stereotype. "Hes played by a black man and Im sure if for one second Ahmed [Best, the actor who played Jar Jar] thought Lucas was playing with him racially, hed walk off the set."
Indeed, Best himself subsequently stated strongly that he didnt feel Jar Jar was a racist caricature.
Then theres Chewbacca, who appears violent and ferocious, while underneath he is sensitive and benevolent. Perhaps demonstrating one cant judge a Wookie by his cover?
Still, compared with ongoing Star Trek movies and T.V. series, some feel Star Wars places a poor political second.
"The Trekkie universe," said McKissack, "no matter how obnoxious and improbable at times, at least lends itself to equality."
McKissack contrasts Phantom Menace with the popular Deep Space Nine series. "The (Deep Space Nine) station is commanded by Capt. Benjamin Sisko, an African American, whose executive officer is a woman, Maj. Kira Nerys. The stations doctor, Julian Bashir, is played by an Arab American. The chief engineer is Irish. His wife is a Japanese biologist."
Carl Matheson, professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba, says Jar Jar is certainly a racist stereotype. But this, he adds, may not complete the whole picture.
"Critics will look at things with almost a myopic vision of what racial group on earth is being dissed," Matheson says. "Thats important, but its not the only thing if you want to get at what political or moral message is in the work."
"You know, it could have been that Jar Jar Binks was just a huge miscalculation," he adds.
Other critics suggest the Star Wars films advance certain political and economic ideologies. Mark Thorton, of the right-wing Ludwig von Mises Institute, calls Phantom Menace "one of the finest allegories on classical liberal political economy to ever appear on screen."
"The Galactic Republic is falling apart," Thorton argues, "due to taxation, protectionism, bureaucracy and corruption."
The "centralist" Dark Side seeks to "enforce its franchise on trade taxes by trying to intimidate a small, peaceful planet (Naboo) that believes in free trade, peace and republican virtues," says Thorton. Naboos queen, Amidala, tries to appeal to the Galactic Senate, only to discover it is "dominated by bureaucrats and yammering special-interest groups."
Left-leaning critics might very well agree with much of this critique -- though theyre likely to differ as to just who represents the real "Dark Side" in The Phantom Menace. Especially since the film explicitly shows that its the Trade Federation, not the Naboo, who objects to the taxation of outlying trade routes. In a pretty clear-cut case of high-stakes intergalactic military bullying, the Federation blockades the peaceful Naboo peoples planet, not to get their "tax franchise" back, but to force the Republic to repeal its profit-reducing taxes (which doubtless get spent on generous but unprofitable social programs across the galaxy). And when the Trade Federation subsequently launches an invasion and herds the planets population into concentration camps, its the corrupt, bloated Republics Jedi Knights that save the day.
Progressives and left-wing activists might find that the villains of Attack Of The Clones are even more reminiscent of their own globalizing foes. This time out, the Jedi are surrounded on all sides by greedy, scheming trans-galactic corporations like the Commerce Guild, the Corporate Alliance, the Inter-Galactic Bank Clan, the Mining Guild, the Techno Union and, back to cause yet more trouble, the Neimoidian-dominated Trade Federation.
Politics may always be somewhat confusing, but some AOTC fans, looking for a "dark side" in the context of our own world's politics, may be disappointed. For all of the movie's byzantine political murkiness, it too often fails to convince, perhaps reflecting Lucas' limitations as a political thinker. When drawing lines between good and evil, he does very well -- as the first three movies demonstrate -- but when he tries to make matters more muddy, more "real," his storytelling skills miss the mark.
Perhaps the greatest difference between fact and fiction is that our worlds capitalist institutions are far more developed, organized and dangerous.
Tambone thinks its a lot simpler than that. "There are probably things Lucas didnt even mean to parallel. But someone will dig them up and make comparisons . And thats cool, too."
Matheson, however, thinks the Star Wars series, in contrast to Star Trek, isnt even worth analyzing.
"Star Trek was about the plot. Sure, it was science fiction, but it seemed to be trying to work through a character-driven science-fiction narrative seriously," Matheson says. "I could never approach Star Wars in the same way . Its a corporate entity. And by the time you get to Phantom Menace, its more corporate entity than anything else."
"It seems to be just a lattice-work upon which to suspend fairly great special effects, fairly cardboard characters and fairly feeble humour."
The disagreements will surely continue, but theyre not likely to stop the fans coming out. The Phantom Menace earned $431 million in the U.S. alone. To avoid falling short of this success, Lucas is said to have spent $110 million on special effects for Attack of the Clones.
Indeed, not far from where the footprints of Darth Vader and other Star Wars characters rest embedded and immortalized in concrete, hundreds of fans spent days camping out in front of Graumans Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, hoping to get into the AOTC premiere.
But AOTC isn't a love-in for everyone, least of all employers. The figures aren't in yet, but Chicago-based recruitment firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas has estimated that the U.S. economy will lose more than $300 million due to worker absenteeism, from the millions of sick days taken to watch the new release.
Reports say technology firms, so unstable since the NASDAQ drop, will likely be the hardest hit. Take that, Trade Federation!
Ed Janzen lives in Winnipeg, Canada. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.