B. Patrick Porter is a lifelong Star Wars fan.
Our mom took us to see The Empire Strikes Back on May 21, 1980. I was 4 years old. My sister was 3. All three of us have the same memory from that day.
Random Rebel Officer: Your Tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker…
Han: Then I’ll see you in HELL!
Pretty sure Mom wasn’t too pleased with that. She knew I loved Star Wars, the innocent space fantasy with laser swords and dog-men and Darth Vader. But within the first few minutes of Empire:
- Luke gets waxed by a Wampa
- Han curses
- Luke is visibly bleeding out his face.
- Luke cuts the Wampa’s arm off with his lightsaber. (Don’t we think the lightsaber would cauterize a wound? Why is there so much blood?)
- Luke is wandering around in the snow, facing certain death.
- Han and Luke are locked out of the base for a night.
- Luke hallucinates.
- A Tauntaun dies screaming.
What the — ahem — hell is this?!? What happened to Stormtroopers with the inability to aim a blaster, chase scenes in relatively safe environments and the good guys winning? Where is my Star Wars?
The shared memory continues:
Han: Not much time
Han: Ah, uh … <fires up lightsaber>
My sister, loudly in silent theater: MACARONI!!!!!!
That broke my mom’s “hell”-induced frustration for the time being, at least.
For me, Joe Johnston’s Tauntauns are some of the most memorable work he did in the entire saga. According to J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, they’re designed to look like “dinosaur ostriches” — an interesting idea for sure, at least on the outside. Luckily we lost the “Wampas in the base” cut sequence, or we’d have seen an interesting deleted scene where the medical droid, 2-1B (who helped Luke after his wild Wampa attack), examines the bodies of other dead Tauntauns to try and figure out what was killing these creatures. More macaroni.
If you’ve seen those deleted scenes, you will understand why they removed them: They are terrible and unintentionally hilarious. The Tauntauns look great, but Wampas in motion? Well, if you haven’t seen them, go watch them on YouTube right this second. Yeesh.
With its violence, profanity and (creature) gore, Empire had smuggled something to the children’s audience that wasn’t very common until that time. But it also introduced an audience of kids in my small-town Indiana movie theatre in May 1980 to something historic: an African-American lead in a big-budget science-fiction kids’ movie. I had no idea how big a deal it was in the grand scheme of things; I just loved Lando.
But it’s given me a lot to think about over the decades.
A few months after Star Wars: A New Hope was released, the Los Angeles Times published The Great White Void — written by Raymond St. Jacques, who had a very long career on the silver and small screens. You may remember him as the first African-American actor to become a regular on Rawhide (as Simon Blake) or from his appearances in the landmark TV miniseries Roots. He was all over television in the ’60s and ’70s. He even had an uncredited role as abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass in the movie Glory. Or you may not even remember him at all because those TV shows are old, and so is Star Wars.
St. Jacques posited that science-fiction movies like Star Wars had a racism problem — all sorts of crazy creatures from different worlds (cue the Mos Eisley Cantina band), but no diversity in the character roles. They were all basically white characters. St. Jacques liked Star Wars. He’d seen it five times. He was not suggesting a boycott, only pointing out the plain truth of the situation: Despite appearing filled to the brim with clear commentary on America’s political situation in the late 1970s, Star Wars was ivory white and not remotely representative of the country whose post-Watergate tensions it helped soothe.
A series of letters to the editor were subsequently published after St. Jacques’ initial piece, challenging the issues of race with Star Wars and with its creator, George Lucas. Other works from Lucas, like THX 1138, were also criticized for similar issues.
The issue spread across the country and the culture, and thank goodness it did: It led to the creation of one of the greatest damn African-American characters in American science-fiction:
You can see Willrow Hood for a few seconds fleeing Cloud City with his safe of personal belongings after the Empire had taken over the city. And when I say his safe, I of course mean his “camtono,” in Star Wars speak. You can actually see a “camtono” in the third episode of The Mandalorian.
Just kidding … it’s Lando.
Billy Dee Williams was hired to play Baron Landonis Balthazar Calrissian III, or Lando for short (his full name has been canonized by Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker). Lando is cool, he’s suave, and he’s every bit the cool scoundrel Han Solo is. The two go toe-to-toe immediately. Williams was a bona fide star at the time, most notably having starred in Brian’s Song (and was later set to play Two-Face in Tim Burton’s Batman movies).
There are definite issues with his portrayal as a black character who betrays the white heroes, issues picked apart in much better essays I’m not qualified to write. The point I want to make is that at the time, you just didn’t see characters like Lando in this kind of movie. He was so damn cool.
He was a hero. He didn’t betray them because he was selfish or cowardly. He betrayed them because he had to take care of Cloud City. I know, I know. I’m not arguing any larger points — just saying what always made me like him as I spent the rest of my life watching Star Wars movies.
Something you need to remember before they started writing Empire: Harrison Ford was only inked for two movies. The “What are we supposed to do with Han Solo” question was real and created a lot of pressure on the team writing and producing Empire. Stuffing him into that Carbonite crate apparently was a great way of encouraging contract negotiations.
If Ford didn’t return, you still had Williams — charismatic, daring, ambiguous — to potentially fill Han’s shoes if he didn’t get back for Return of the Jedi. Lucas had tried to create this love triangle between Han, Leia and Luke in Star Wars and even into the writing of Empire. Basically, Lucas wanted to keep that dynamic alive — this was before he decided to make Luke and Leia brother and sister — and needed his third leading man in place to keep it steady if they chose to go that direction.
Would Lucas and company have been brave enough to pair up their leading lady with a black man, creating a high-profile interracial couple in 1983? Hard to say, but think about this: They considered casting African-American actor Glynn Turman as Han Solo during the production of the first movie. The behind-the-scenes story of Star Wars is filled with moments where they could’ve jumped forward but only stepped.
Imagine if history had gone in that direction. Interesting to consider: What if Star Wars had been on the forefront from the start? What if it hadn’t taken a public outcry to get us Lando in the first place, whose return is now being used as a key marketing point for The Rise of Skywalker? Williams now holds the record for the longest period of time between performances of the same character in Hollywood history (1983 to 2019, although he did provide voice work for video games and cartoons in the interim).
So I’m far from saying that including Lando (and Willrow in the background!) solved the racism problem in Star Wars as described in The Great White Void. Lucas’s second trilogy included Samuel L. Jackson as the Champion of the Jedi Order, as well as Hugh Quarshie’s Captain Panaka as a member of the Royal Guard. But it still had trouble introducing main characters even on the level of Lando. Worse, they included this guy …
… whose character is often accused of playing into racially coded movements and inflections for the sake of humor. Evan dove into that some in his entry on The Phantom Menace.
In the sequel trilogy, Star Wars seems caught up with the modern world. It features a main trio of characters, and a lot of side / background characters pulled from diverse backgrounds. None of them feels as token as Lando sometimes does in hindsight or as reliant on stereotypes like the prequels.
It does seem odd that Finn, the Stormtrooper who starts his journey by betraying his Order, is the second major black actor in Star Wars to be introduced as a traitor, although now his actions are in the service of our leads rather than antagonistic. Finn is a hero, one of the main characters of his part of the saga. On the surface, it makes you blink twice. But in some ways it only shows how far the saga has come.
There are other, more in-depth essays to be written about race in Star Wars, with perspectives I can’t capture. All I can say is that The Empire Strikes Back was a mind-blowing experience for me, a 4-year-old Hoosier kid, in ways small and large. And it keeps blowing my mind to this day. I figure that I’ll think about it forever.
Also: Lando is awesome …
… and macaroni still sometimes make me think of Tauntauns.