One of the most exciting things about the new Star Wars films, other than the fact that they’re new Star Wars films, is that they’re slowly becoming inclusive. Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is the first major South Asian character in the series (following the queen of Naboo in Episode II and a war room general in The Force Awakens – yes, we keep count of every instance), but perhaps the most interesting thing about him and about the new characters in general is the lack of out-and-out good guys. Star Wars isn’t just for white dudes anymore, but it’s also not only about moral extremes.
What we know to be Star Wars is the Skywalkers treading either side of dark and light. We’ve seen Anakin’s journey from Jedi to Sith, no matter how (in)effectively played, and we’ll likely see the opposite with Kylo Ren, but The Force Awakens was our first cinematic foray into straight-up defection, as Finn – raised and conditioned to fight for the First Order – shakes off his mental chains and joins the Resistence. Ahmed’s Bodhi follows a similar path, albeit more organically. Once a pilot for the Empire and now a fighter for the Rebellion, he refuses to shed his Imperial insignia, not out of leftover loyalty, but rather refusing to hide his journey, constantly reminding himself of what he owes.
EW’s Anthony Breznican (the conduit for all new things Star Wars these days!) likens the logo to a sprocket. I’m sure he isn’t the first, but when it comes to Bodhi Rook, the symbolism runs deeper. He’s a “cog in the Imperial machine,” the equivalent of an Earth trucker going through the motions, a likely impetus for him to question his allegiance. This is the sort of stuff that makes me excited for more Star Wars, and while Rogue One is still adjacent to the main story, it’s set at a pivotal turning point for the saga, amidst the culmination of spiritual journeys in the galaxy’s equivalent of Mecca. We’re likely to see more stories outside the traditional ‘good’ and ‘evil’ binary, starting with Rebels introducing Force users who don’t fit that paradigm, and it’s an exciting time to have new material on the horizon.
It’s especially exciting because of my initial point – I’ve been waiting for someone like me to show up in Star Wars since I was four – but not just because we’ll be seeing an underrepresented demographic embodied by a spectacular performer. The series has always drawn from Eastern mysticism, even inadvertently naming its Mecca-equivalent after Jeddah, one of the gateways to the actual Mecca, and its "coding" has traditionally been Western/American/British-centric in terms of normalcy, despite being a global phenomenon. The leads have always sounded British or American, whereas alien characters like Jar Jar, Nute Gunray and Watto were based on Caribbean, East Asian and Middle Eastern stereotypes.
We saw the first major undoing of this skewed perspective in the last film, with Indonesian actors from The Raid getting to show up sans alien makeup and speak a mixture of their native languages. That’s not the same as having non-English as primary dialogue – I don’t think anyone will argue for these films to not be in English – but it’s a step for how cultures foreign to America and Britain are seen, and the beginning of a trend that will continue through Rogue One. China’s Jian Weng, Hong Kong’s Donnie Yen and Mexico’s Diego Luna will the be the first major characters to go against the ‘norm’ of British and American accents, and since they’re playing ‘human’ characters (maybe even heroes!), it’ll mean they won’t be portrayed as exotic, but rather discernibly normal. That’s a pretty big deal for a franchise whose first entry featured ‘sand people.’
As for Ahmed himself, I don’t want to put pressure on him should he ever read this (he won’t), but it’s a big deal for the world to see a brown Muslim man play a hero, and a complex one at that, amidst an American election narrative dominated by fear of ‘bad Muslims’ on one side, and conditional acceptance of ‘good Muslims’ on the other. Islam may not be a thing in this universe, nor is "East Asian", "South Asian" and what ever else have you, but Star Wars has always been a reflection of our culture, a constantly expanding one, and seeing our world filtered through the fantastic lens of a galaxy far, far away has brought comfort to so many – it’s only fair that it brings comfort to many more.