The Fight Over Star Wars and Racism in 1977

Unless you’ve been living under a rock that is located underneath another rock, you’ve probably heard that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens this weekend. For many of us, this means a week of living dangerously and hoping to avoid Star Wars spoilers on every social media platform. For others, though, this means a different kind of week, one spent arguing in comment sections about the modes of representation in the new Star Wars movie. As long as there has been a Star Wars movie to watch, there have been arguments in newspapers and film journals worth following, none quite as entertaining and illuminating as “The Great White Void,” an opinion piece that ran in the Los Angeles Times in July of 1977. For the next two weeks, the Los Angeles Times would play host to a variety of arguments about race and gender in Star Wars and other science fiction, putting even our best modern comment sections to shame.

While the original article included only the name and city of the author, it is worth noting that “The Great White Void” was written by black actor Raymond St. Jacques. St. Jacques had already earned a reputation in Hollywood as an actor who helped break down barriers. In 1965, St. Jacques appeared in the eighth (and final season) of Rawhide, earning the distinction of becoming the first black actor to appear in a Western television series. In 1977, the same year that Star Wars was released, St. Jacques would also appear in two episodes of Roots; he would go on to spend almost his entire career playing non-recurring characters in popular television shows (one notable exception being the 1973 crime film Book of Numbers, which St. Jacques both directed and starred in).

In his letter, St. Jacques took issue with science fiction stories that refuse to acknowledge racial diversity in (what he misidentified as) the future. “If ever there is to be a time that we can create without having to worry about acceptive norms of our present racist society,” St. Jacques wrote, “it must be the future.” Rather than draw the line at Star Wars, however, the actor also singled out popular seventies science fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run as films that omit black actors and actresses completely. “[B]y not acknowledging us at all, the film creator is worse than any racist.”

Who better to notice the absence of black actors in Star Wars than a black actor who had been in everything? That did not stop St. Jacques from seeing the film, however; while his letter is openly critical of the way race is represented in the Star Wars universe, he ‐ unlike black activists who would publish articles in newspapers across the country later that year ‐ did not suggest that the best course of action would be to boycott the movie. Quite the opposite: the letter began with St. Jacques noting that he had “just returned from seeing Star Wars for the fifth time,” openly acknowledging that Star Wars was a film that should be seen as many times as possible.

And although times have changed since 1977, publishers could still recognize the potent mix of fanboy culture and political consciousness present in St. Jacques’s article. On July 24, a week after originally running the article, the Los Angeles Times published a wide selection of letters to the editor in response to St. Jacque’s piece. The first batch included another Hollywood insider, screenwriter Robert E. Thompson, who spoke from his own experiences in the industry. Thompson had previously co-written the screenplay for the award-winning adaptation of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and was by his own admission currently working on a television adaptation of Brave New World.

In his letter, Thompson admitted that he had struggled with the challenge of tackling racism in an alleged technocratic utopia, but drew on his own experiences with St. Jacques on the set of Rawhide as an argument in favor of a more well-rounded portrayal of the black population onscreen. “As I remember it,” Thompson wrote, “he rightly complained that the scripts kept making him supergood and supermoral ‐ not as would befit merely a western series hero, but very pointedly a black western series hero.” For Thompson, this kind of representation was something to be wary of, which is why he did his best to write characters of all kinds of both white and black actors and actresses. Turning back to the challenge that his screenplay for Brave New World represented, Thompson wrote that he supposed “one point that may validly be drawn from it will be that women and blacks are just as capable of mucking things up as the WASPiest males.”

While Thompson’s letter can be seen as a positive and productive response to that of St. Jacques, the rest of the week’s published letters were a decidedly more mixed bag. One person wrote in only to thank the Los Angeles Times for publishing the original article and also to once again target Logan’s Run as a racist film; another, identified only as Joy Byrd from Los Angeles, was one of the first to identify a key snub of Chewbacca that would become a Star Wars punchline for decades to come. “I’m also concerned with the Wookie,” Byrd wrote. “If he were good enough to risk his life along with the other and talented enough to copilot the space ship, where was his medal at the end?” Unfortunately, not every letter was as supportive. A man from Irvine opened the letter by addressing the “poor, oppressed Raymond St. Jacques, who, I notice, lives in Beverly Hills,” while another pointed out that Star Wars “makes no pretensions to social relevance,” thereby making the entire discussion surrounding racism (at least in his eyes) a moot point.

Even after they published seven responses to St. Jacques’s original letter, the Los Angeles Times was not done. Two weeks after the original letter ran ‐ one week after the first batch of responses ‐ the Times published its second (and final) group of responses in the July 31 issue of the paper. While these writers lacked the overt connection to Hollywood that Thompson shared in his piece ‐ implying that the conversation had shifted away from a series of editorials to the more traditional mailbag format ‐ these writers also represented a wonderful and frightening combination of social criticism, film criticism, and overt racism that made the entire section well worth the read.

The best of the bunch is a letter from a woman named Linda Buzzell, who also claimed to have seen the film five times, and expanded St. Jacques’s original accusations of racism to include sexist overtones as well. Buzzell shared an anecdote of seeing Star Wars during an early morning matinee and staying in the theater for another screening. As the credits rolled, she and her friends discussed the lack of prominent female characters in the film, noting that “there are no women pilots, soldiers, or other professionals,” and that Leia is only in a position of prominence in the story “because she’s somebody’s daughter.” Buzzell’s story ended with a young black man ‐ the only one in the theater, according to the author ‐ interrupting their conversation to angrily point out the lack of black characters. “He was furious,” Buzzell wrote, “but he was also staying for the second show.”

While Buzzell concerned herself with Star Wars, two other people wrote in to counter the argument that modern science fiction films (or Lucas himself) were overtly racist. A man named Hill pointed out that THX 1138, Lucas’s first full-length film, featured black actor Don Pedro Colley in a major roll; “How soon we forget!” Another writer, Paul Bond, pointed out that the criticism of Logan’s Run was missing one of the larger points surrounding the film. “Anyone who did not fit the accepted idea of utopian perfection was simply left outside the city to die,” Bond wrote. “The movie was not racist, it was about racism.”

As insightful as these comments may have been, they did little to offset some the racist commentary of the last few letters shared in the article. One man argued that Star Wars intended to harken back to an era of 1950s filmmaking and, “in the interest of authenticity,” had chosen to follow that decade’s “practice of excluding blacks and other minorities.” Another saw St. Jacques’s original letter as a “vehement plea for the quota system,” a not-so thinly veiled criticism of affirmative action which he then rebutted by saying that Lucas had instead made a “free artistic statement.” Finally, one final writer played perhaps the worst card of all, referring to St. Jacques’s criticisms of the Darth Vader voice and asking if a black man is “supposed to have a different type of voice than anyone else?”

It’s tempting to say that these talking points seem sadly familiar, proving how little we’ve advanced since the original Star Wars film was released in theaters. It’s also tempting to point out that a major newspaper like the Los Angeles Times was ready to leverage Star Wars conversation to tell weekend editions of the paper, making our current wave of Star Wars clickbait seem charmingly antiquated in the process. What I choose to take away, though, is the fact that all of these people were criticizing a film that they not only enjoyed, but also chose to see in theaters multiple times. When we discuss Star Wars now, we are careful to protect its sacred place in our collective memories, the time that we spend in line waiting for the movie to start or the number of visits we took to our local multiplex. What the Los Angeles Times proved nearly forty years ago is that you can love Star Wars and criticize it at the same time; there’s room for both in how we talk about the franchise, and that is something to keep in mind in the week to come.

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Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.