Let’s start with this: I think Rogue One and Martin Luther King Jr. are both great. (For very different reasons, of course.)
But I think the new Star Wars movie and the holiday celebrating a civil rights hero might have something else in common. So let’s see if I can explain this without sounding a few shots short of a Stormtrooper.
Although I genuinely enjoyed Rogue One for the great acting and payoff on plot promises, after I walked out of the theaters, I asked myself two questions:
Why can’t I remember any of the characters’ names except Jyn?
And why am I only mildly sad?
(Spoiler Alert: Bail out here if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.)
The movie’s suicide mission was, in a surprising twist of realism, actually a suicide mission. Our heroes got the Death Star plans, but died in the process. And yet, while Rogue One is darker than Star Wars IV-VII (those are the only other movies in the franchise I acknowledge), it didn’t feel like a tragedy.
Maybe because Princess Leia calls the plans “hope” to save the galaxy…and we cheer when she shows up. We know her. That’s our heroine, the one who gets the happy ending, the guy, the glory. It’ll all work out in the end, we are reminded, and all those tragic deaths are a part of the bigger picture.
And maybe also because the movie pulled punches with character development. Meaning, all the characters are essentially orphans, or at least that’s the conclusion we’re supposed to draw since their backstories (except Jyn’s) are only vaguely hinted at. Their only goals are entirely contained in the success of the mission.
We’re hopeful at the end of Rogue One because our one-shot characters sacrificed to achieve victory for the real protagonist: the Rebellion. They got what they wanted, and so did the audience.
Again, let me say: this is not bad or lazy writing in my opinion, although I know some people who disagree. To me, it’s what you do if you want to create a standalone war movie where everyone dies and the audience feels sad but triumphant in the end (and you want to spend time on cool action scenes).
As I thought about the movie, the next thing that came to mind as was that Rogue One reminds me of African American History Month. Which led me to ask two other questions:
Why do I only remember the names of a few headliners like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.?
And why am I only mildly sad when they fight and live and die without seeing their dreams of justice realized?
Maybe that’s not the way you were taught in school or the impression you get from commemorative articles or books or memes that come out tomorrow or in February, but I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with black history and how it’s been presented.
It’s like I’m hearing these people’s stories, but they don’t always seem very real. They’re taken out of context, presented without backstory, and given a few snippets of action and some great, quotable lines. My emotions aren’t engaging like they should be in this standalone segment of our history, and it’s hard for me to understand why.
Just like with Rogue One, you can look at Martin Luther King Jr. Day and African American History Month and say either this:
“I’m glad this story has a chance to be told. The main plotline of history is oversimplified and dominated by familiar (usually white, usually male) heroes. It leaves out the sacrifices of many unknown characters who made significant contributions, and this is a chance for people to hear them.”
Or this: “I worry about the fact that these men and women aren’t really presented as people, just inspiring illustrations of principles that we pull out in a one-shot side-story kind of way. They say their few lines and fight for good and die, and we leave it there. But it feels like something is missing.”
Or maybe you say both at the same time.
Back to our movie parallel, after watching Rogue One, you could shrug and say, “Hey, stuff exploded, and also that one droid was funny!”
Or it could make you think, when you see the “happy” Star Wars movies, “There was a cost to this.” It could force you to feel worse about all those pilots who die after only three lines because they might have a story too. It could give you hope that maybe some future Star Wars standalone might show Jar-Jar Binks’s violent death.
(Kidding about that last one. Mostly kidding.)
In the same way, you could breeze past days like tomorrow and say, “Hey, black people did stuff, and also some of them said profound things!”
Or you could take it a little deeper and remember that there are other stories you should listen to and seek out, not just in February, but all year around. You could reject simple explanations from either side of the political spectrum that overgeneralize and accuse. You could be reminded that all people are made in the image of God and are just as complex as you.
I’ve heard a lot of debate about whether African American History Month is a terrible example of affirmative action, a victory for civil rights, or yet another example of segregation. There are points to be made on all sides.
But here’s a more important question: How do I treat other people and listen to their stories?
Here’s the deal: what you think about the new Star Wars movie doesn’t matter. What you think about how the stories of minorities are told is only important in how it informs how you treat others (unless you love abstract cultural analysis like I do).
But there’s something here we should all care about.
Whether these connections make sense or not, wherever you are on the political spectrum, whichever order you use to watch the Star Wars movies, I think there’s a takeaway we can all agree on: don’t reduce people. Don’t forget that they are not causes or archetypes or walk-on roles in a saga starring you. They are people.
Let’s pray for the grace to truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves and see what changes.