At the end of April, when Disney announced the initial core cast for “Star Wars: Episode VII,” I, along with plenty of other observers, was discouraged that the company seemed to be backtracking on the franchise’s long history of terrific female characters. So it was lovely to hear today that Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o and “Game of Thrones” star Gwendoline Christie will join the movie.
This is good news for anyone who thinks that science fiction and fantasy stories deserve absolutely tremendous acting. But that is not the only reason these developments are so heartening.
Rumors about both actresses’ involvement in “Star Wars Episode VII” have circulated as a mix of wishful thinking and hard evidence for quite some time now, so I am happy to extend credit to director J.J. Abrams for recognizing Nyong’o’s and Christie’s talent. We will probably never know why these casting announcements came later than the initial rollout. We can only hope that it was for good reason — like Nyong’o negotiating for the salary she deserves after her Oscar, or Christie negotiating a “Game of Thrones” filming schedule that will allow her a prominent part in both projects — rather than because Abrams was lukewarm on both women.
But whatever the cause of the delay, it is hard not to feel today as though audiences had some role in demonstrating that there is a strong market for both women. As audiences have become more attentive to the mechanics of Hollywood, there has been great tension about what role Nyong’o might take after winning her Academy Award for “12 Years a Slave” and what her trajectory might mean for other talented black women.
On “Game of Thrones,” Christie has a role that could be easy fodder for stereotype: As Brienne of Tarth, she must play humorless, honor-bound and uncomfortable with her womanhood. Despite these obstacles, Christie’s performance has made Brienne as much a fan favorite as the quick-witted Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) or the conquering heroine Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), both much more conventional tropes.
So often, it feels like the power to make stars resides with movie studios. These entities decide who they will turn into a commodity who can sell overseas, who should get another shot at toplining a franchise even after a string of flops, who deserves a production deal. Such choices can seem awfully arbitrary, especially when it looks as though a company is ignoring the dollars that audiences are waving at studios, begging to spend in support of their favorite actors.
Disney may have independently reached a conclusion that Nyong’o and Christie have the strength to help carry the future of “Star Wars” on their very different shoulders. But however Disney and Abrams arrived there, these roles for Nyong’o and Christie feel like a small victory for fans who insist that they are serious about supporting actresses who look different and who seek out different kinds of work.
Beyond the simple joy of getting to see Nyong’o and Christie together on the big screen, there is also something exciting about the fact that these particular actresses are taking their first steps into this particular world.
Because Nyong’o made her international reputation in a socially significant historical drama, she easily could have been stuck there, relegated to playing characters whose experience of abuse is their most salient characteristic. That she is joining “Star Wars” instead, and has optioned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah,” a contemporary story about Nigerian immigrants who return home, suggests that Nyong’o will not let herself be limited to stories about the American past. Instead, she will stake out territory for herself that stretches from a galaxy far, far away to a part of the present with which many American audiences are unfamiliar.
Similarly, Christie is building a résumé that makes her stature and physical strength an advantage, rather than a deficit or a joke. In “Game of Thrones,” she is the only person who actually lives up to the ideals of knighthood. In the final two movies in the “Hunger Games” franchise, Christie will play a powerful military commander. Now, presumably, she will get another opportunity to put her considerable fight training to use. If the “Star Wars” franchise does not tie up Christie forever, she could be a kind of inheritor to the best parts of Sigourney Weaver’s legacy of fascinating female action heroes in the “Alien” franchise and “Avatar.”
For a long time, the people behind science fiction and fantasy franchises have failed to exercise their imaginations when it came to the work that women and people of color might be allowed to do in worlds very different from our own. “Star Wars: Episode VII” is part of a big, corporate effort to wring profits from huge, carefully managed franchises. But for today, at least, that the people involved in it had the vision to cast these fine young actresses in roles that contribute to their unconventional career paths feels like a fantasy come true.