I recently woke to the news that the new Lando Calrissian had been cast for the upcoming Han Solo project. As a big Star Wars and Lando nut, I pretty much lost my shit. I was curious too because I have to confess I’d not heard of Donald Glover, the man assigned to the part. I decided to look him up.
It turns out Glover is the kind of person that makes you start dwelling on your own misspent youth. He’s done a bit of everything, enjoying success as a recording artist, a writer and as an actor, his latest project being FX’s new comedy-drama, Atlanta, which officially starts this Friday on Fox in the UK.
Glover has already proved his comedic credentials as a writer for 30 Rock and as an actor in Community and from what I’ve seen of him in Atlanta, he seems to possess a raw emotional edge and swagger too, the perfect combination of traits needed to play the loveably flawed space scoundrel. A good thing too as, in my opinion, Lando Calrissian is one of the most important movie characters of our generation. Here’s why.
After the release of A New Hope, John Landis famously pointed the finger at George Lucas, asking: “is everybody in outer space white?” The man made a very fair point and Lucas must have agreed as he later cast Billy Dee Williams as Lando for Empire Strikes Back. In 1980, this was a huge deal. For the first time ever, a black actor was going to a play leading role in a globally popularised science fiction drama, something that had never been done before.
It remains one of the most significant forward steps in the fight for ethnic diversity in film – particularly poignant given we were dealing with a Universe that saw countless different races integrating together in relative harmony. Sadly though, a bit like Darth Vadar’s deal during the occupation of Bespin (sorry had to get a little bit nerdy), it was a false bargain. Williams’ appointment was ultimately a ruse for progressiveness rather than the genuine article – a great shame because his outstanding performance should have accomplished so much more.
Growing up with the original Star Wars Trilogy, I was innocent of the silent war that raged in Hollywood. As an eight-year-old watching Empire and Jedi, it didn’t once cross my mind that one of the leading characters was black, and truthfully, I didn’t care. ‘Really, why would something like that make a difference?’ I foolishly thought.
My perception as an eight-year-old perfectly summarises the impact that Billy Dee Williams’ breakout role should have had at the time. This was a role model that all kids of my age grew up admiring that just happened to be black. It should have changed the way a whole generation would think about diversity in the future. In essence, the concept of ‘diversity’ should have ceased to be a thing.
I have no doubt that Billy Dee did provide a platform to other black actors that broke out in the 80s such as Eddie Murphy, Samuel L Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington, but the progression has been too slow. For the most part, ethnic minorities are still typecast as the same old stereotypes and too few are given leading roles in certified blockbusters. And the ones that do are seemingly unacknowledged at the big award ceremonies, which leads me to wonder if we are any closer to a position of equality.
But there’s hope.
John Boyega’s leading role in The Force Awakens has brought balance back to the Star Wars universe and – to some extent – to the Hollywood blockbuster. It took me back to Lando, the significance of the role and what it should have meant for ethnic diversity in film at the time – a promise from Hollywood head-honchos that was never quite delivered on.
With Boyega set to continue as Finn for another two films (at least) and a promising future ahead of him, not to mention Marvel’s first ever film in Black Panther that will see a black character take the lead, I say with some optimism that things are looking up.
But going back to Lando Calrissian, it’s clear just what a task Donald Glover has ahead of him, being handed the responsibility of playing a character that means so much to the fight for ethnic diversification in Hollywood. It’s because of this that I hope Glover absolutely kills it as Lando. If he does, it could help solve a problem that Billy Dee Williams’ standout performance should have achieved as the original Lando back in 1980. After all, the problem is bogus. It shouldn’t exist. I hope that it doesn’t take another four decades to stamp it out.