In a lot of ways Star Wars has always been an analog for life.
It didn’t start out that way. It started as a George Lucas penned homage to a 1950s samurai movie, The Hidden Fortress. Of course it has become so much more than a tribute. It’s become an actual universe in a way that Lucas never could have foreseen in the 1970s and Marvel can only aspire to. (Though, fueled by Disney dollars, they are aspiring their asses off!)
One of the paradoxes that exists within Star Wars takes place in the first seconds of the first film episode, which would later be renamed Chapter IV: A New Hope. Even before the iconic text crawl, the film starts with the words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” And then everything we see beyond this is not ancient to us, but futuristic and fantastic. The “long time ago” narration is forgotten instantly, and permanently, other than when we were forced to watch the prequels AFTER the original trilogy and then the new trilogy after the original characters were AARP members.
You can trace the actual production timeline in terms of the sophistication of the computer generated images of each movie, but you can also trace it in the themes and directorial decisions which are clearly influenced by what’s going on right here on earth in real-time. Case in point is the decision to acknowledge modern day sexual behaviors and values in the context of a cinematic universe that's as big as an actual one.
First there was “The Kiss,” in which two female (if we’re allowed to make that judgment, I’m not 100% sure anymore) characters share a victory kiss in The Rise of Skywalker. Considering the number of people who went ape-you-know-what about the movie itself for virtually every decision JJ Abrams made, it’s kind of a nothing move. Most of us live in cities where you can see same-sex displays of public affection every day and, regardless of where you are on the spectrum of being cool with it, it’s not so much a point of contention. Not nearly as much as it would have been a long time ago, right in this here galaxy.
Now there’s blowback, apparently, because one of the screenwriters of Solo, who happens to be the son of an original trilogy screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan, has confirmed that the dashing smuggler/pirate-turned-mayor-turned-imperial-stooge-turned-rebellion-hero) Lando Calrissian is "pansexual."
Side note: Isn’t it funny that absolutely everyone in the Star Wars universe has to be related to someone else in the Star Wars universe? I’m just sayin’.
The concept of pansexuality trips me up just a little, I have to admit. According to Dictionary.com, the definition is, “not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender, or gender identity.” As someone who grew up thinking there were precisely two options with regard to gender and no real wiggle room to speak of, I have to remind myself that this is different than being bisexual because there are people who are transgender, and people who are gender-fluid, and people who just kind of reject the idea of gender as an identifying trait; they would rather just be who they are without any biological or social mandates imposed upon them.
This is confusing and I mess up fairly often but I believe people are more important than ideas and ideas are more important than habits, so I keep trying and my daughter assures me that’s the important part.
The reaction of the two actors who have portrayed Lando could not be more different and, like the timing of the movies themselves, are best explained by how old they are. Billy Dee Williams, who originated the role in The Empire Strikes Back, literally defined 1970s cool, like a space age Huggy Bear (go watch Todd Phillips’ feature homage to Starsky and Hutch. Right now.) He wore a cape, for Christ’s sake. He hit on Princess Leia. He was smoother than malt liquor. That isn’t racist, by the way, that’s history. Billy Dee actually shilled for Colt 45 malt liquor! Look it up!
Now, there’s nothing in Empire that indicates to me that Lando is playing for – or recruiting from – multiple teams. He’s just a Ladies Man.
Donald Glover, on the other hand, had Billy Dee’s legacy to protect and expand upon when he played young Lando in Solo, an origin story. And Glover, who is 37 and looks 27, has no issue with the pansexual label. There are two reasons: One is his age, of course, and the fact that he came of age in a generation that did everything they could to take back control of sociosexual identity. But the other is an artist’s appreciation for the material: Star Wars takes place in a universe populated not by men and women, but by men, women, giant slugs, droids, aliens with butts on their faces – every type of organism you can imagine and some you probably couldn’t until you saw it on screen and said, “Hmmm. Wow.”
In an interview about the question Glover said, “There’s so many things to have sex with. It just didn’t seem that weird to me ’cause I feel like if you’re in space it’s kind of like, the door is open! It’s like, [not] only guys or girls. No, it’s anything. This thing is literally a blob. Are you a man or a woman? Like, who cares?”
In my opinion this kind of freewheeling attitude is less about Glover being the world famous Childish Gambino and more about being an artist who thinks about his craft and believes in crafting a portrayal that’s authentic. When Billy Dee was Lando, the character was him. It was like casting Jeff Goldblum in any movie; whatever the role, you know you’re getting Jeff Goldblum.
But when Glover took on the role, he had the opportunity to create a character from source material, legacy, canon, context, script and, yes, current cultural themes. To think that one’s sexual preferences would be limited to gay or straight in a reality in which thousands of species interact, live and work together is rationally insane. But think about it: In 1977, the famous cantina scene in Star Wars showed us we weren’t in Kansas anymore; but it didn’t give the actors or the audience license to consider having sex with something that was gender indeterminate.
Even the scene in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi (1983), which hinted that a huge, corpulent worm could get it up for a hot Carrie Fisher, was played to be flat-out gross, not a thoughtful exploration of pansexual practices on other worlds.
Plus, there was never a doubt in anyone’s mind that Jabba is a dude.
Similarly, Chris Pratt very casually admitted to getting down with a whole range of species as Peter Quill/Starlord in Guardians of the Galaxy, generations later. But the two actual onscreen depictions of him hooking up, or attempting to do so, were with a red-skinned honey wearing his T-shirt in the opening minutes of Guardians; and, of course, Zoe Saldana’s character, Gamora, who – apart from being green – is an alien for whom any straight, red-blooded male could achieve lift-off.
So it’s funny. Here on Earth in 2020 we are far less diverse than the universe depicted as existing “long ago.” And over the decades our own social tolerances have evolved slowly compared to our filmmaking technology. As a result we find ourselves trying to explore and align behind values-based plot and character decisions based in toto on how we – as filmmakers, actors and humans – choose to live our lives.
Does life imitate art? Does art reflect life? Yep. What can we learn from the worlds we create as entertainment, and what will it mean for the next blockbuster franchise?
I, for one, trust the process and look forward to the popcorn.