At the premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend, Disney CEO Bob Iger said, “It is not a film that is, in any way, a political film. There are no political statements in it, at all.” That cannot be true. Star Wars is, and always has been, inherently political.
It’s impossible to look at any Star Wars film and not realize that it’s packed full of allusions—some subtle and others really really not—that make it clear that the franchise is saying things about what’s good and what’s evil. The Empire is evil in Star Wars, that much is abundantly clear. The mere set-up of a totalitarian state, run by a dictator who has no problems with subordinates being murdered for failure or who approves the building of a space station that can destroy a whole planet, versus a band of rebels trying to restore justice to the galaxy is a political statement. Unless Rogue One isn’t actually about the desperate measures the rebels will take to defeat the Empire, it’s going to be making some sort of political statement.
The Empire, from its first appearance, was clearly meant as a stand-in for fascism. “Stormtrooper” is a name that comes from German troops in World War I and comes up again in Nazi Germany as the Sturmabteilung (“Storm detachment”), the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.
Costume designer John Mollo has said that his directive for the Empire’s uniforms was all about that kind of message. “First of all, he wanted the Imperial people to look efficient, totalitarian, fascist; and the Rebels, the goodies, to look like something out of a Western or the U.S. Marines,” Mollo said of Lucas’ instructions. “He said, ‘You’ve got a very difficult job here, because I don’t want anyone to notice the costumes. They’ve got to look familiar, but not familiar at the same time.’”
In the old expanded universe, writers picked up on the obvious parallels in the movies to expand the ideology of the Empire. The Empire, as outlined in the books, persecuted and enslaved non-humans, declaring them lesser beings. It also had a high degree of misogyny in it. Even though it may no longer be canon, these ideas were, at the time, Lucasfilm approved and, even more importantly, logical extensions of the Empire presented in the film.
Lucas always envisioned the Emperor as a political evil. In 1981, Lucas said that Palpatine “was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.” In 2005, talking about the prequel trilogy, Lucas repeated the Nixon comparison, saying, “It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
In the prequels, Lucas said that one of the questions he was looking at was, “How do you turn over democracy to a tyrant with applause? Not with a coup, but with applause? That is the story of Caesar, Napoleon, and Hitler.” That’s the origin of Padmé Amidala’s infamous “This is how liberty dies: with thundering applause” line.
This is just a smattering of the Star Wars history that makes it clear that it’s always been political. Is it possible to write a movie set in the Star Wars universe that isn’t political? Maybe. But Rogue One isn’t it.
Rogue One’s whole premise is about a ragtag team of insurgents stealing the plans to the Death Star, a space station with the sole purpose of keeping people in line with the fear of genocide. It’s a prequel to Episode IV, which started with an opening crawl about “a period of civil war,” “the evil Galactic Empire,” “the Empire’s sinister agents,” and “stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.” A group of people choosing, at great personal cost, to rebel against what is technically the legal authority because they see a great wrong being committed.
“[Rogue One] has one of the greatest and most diverse casts of any film we have ever made and we are very proud of that, and that is not a political statement, at all,” Iger contradictorily told The Hollywood Reporter. While it shouldn’t be a political statement to have a multi-ethnic cast, that’s not the world we live in. It’s a choice that the filmmakers made, on purpose. It has to be on purpose, because the default in Hollywood films is still mostly white. Filling out the hero roles with a diverse cast is a political statement and one completely in keeping with the politics that have always been a part of Star Wars.
Iger’s comments that there aren’t political statements in Rogue One are related to two deleted tweets from Rogue One writer Chris Weitz and former Rogue One writer Gary Whitta. On the Friday following the election, Weitz tweeted “Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization.” Whitta added, “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women.” The response to these almost completely objective truths about Star Wars swelled to last week’s call for a boycott of the movie and the by-now standard hashtag (#DumpStarWars). Iger probably wants to defuse the controversy, which he is at least right in calling “silly.”
However, it’s not silly because there are no political statements in the movie; it’s silly because if you’re just now realizing that there are politics in Star Wars, you have not been paying attention. It’s silly because all of Star Wars is based on the idea of rebelling against an evil authority. It’s silly because of course being anti-genocide, anti-facist, anti-misogynist, and anti-racist shouldn’t be political statements—they should be the default. But they’re not, so Star Wars remains political.