Chatter in the geek-o-sphere for the past few months says that nearly every major character in the Star Wars universe is going to return to the new JJ Abrams flicks, starting with Episode VII. Mark Hamill is to reprise his role as an older Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford is coming back as a grizzled Han Solo and Carrie Fisher will be a more mature Princess Leia. Even the Wookie and the droids gonna be in it. Yet the one character that doesn’t seem to be making it back is the one with the baddest name–Lando Calrissian. So far, despite fan requests, it doesn’t seem that actor Billy Dee Williams has been invited to reprise his role as the daring rogue. But how can this be, when Lando Calrissian saved my young geek life?
Art from book cover of Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, by L. Neil Smith
True story. Staten Island, New York, 197-sumthin. My Mom wouldn’t let me see Star Wars. Why? Because it didn’t have any black people in it. And yeah, it didn’t.
“What are they trying to say?” my Mom asked irate. “That there are no black people in the future? That we don’t make it? A future full of white people?”
I was pretty young at the time. The more abstract and real-life contours of race and representation was a bit too complex for me to grasp. Spaceships and aliens however, I could get with. Everyone around me was seeing this flick. It was all the talk on the playground. The posters and imagery was everywhere. I had to see this thing–I just HAD to.
So I replied to my Mom with some crafty geek wisdom: “But, it’s supposed to be set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away!”
Nuh uh. Mom wasn’t having any of it. “A long time ago?” she retorted. “Then it should definitely have black people. White people didn’t exist before black people.”
Damn. Moms done went evolutionary on me. I was still trying to figure out One Fish, Two Fish. Flummoxed I gave it another try: “But it’s in a whole other galaxy…”
My Mom shook her head. “No galaxy anywhere with white people and no black people. No way. No how. All that fighting and marching in the 60s and things still like this? [insert a good Trini ‘steupse!’]. White people have to learn to stop this nonsense, making movies with only them–like they the only people in the whole world.”
Damn it! I’d been confounded by a mix of West Indian matter-of-fact race logic infused with the remnants of 1970s styled Black Power. A steupse was involved. Not a long really vex one, but a dismissive staccato “stop talking yuh nonsense” steupse. It was a fight I could not win. Not in the same year Roots was coming out. I was beaten and I knew it.
[Note- I didn’t know then about the role of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. And even if I did, my Mom’s reaction to the only black person in Star Wars as a masked voice and the incarnation of evil would likely not have helped my cause.]
It wasn’t that Mom didn’t like sci-fi. This was the person who nurtured my young geekness on a steady diet of old black and white Twilight Zone and original Star Trek in syndication. My Pops had done his bit with the requisite Godzilla flicks. I’d been taken to see lily-white films before and would do so again, as was par the course for Hollywood of the age (and not too sure how much that’s changed). But on this one, Mom was putting her foot down–much as she had insisted that The Dukes of Hazzard (with its General Lee complete with a Confederate Flag even) was never EVER to be shown in our Trini-American household.
What came next is kind of pathetic. If I couldn’t see Star Wars, I could certainly fake it. For the next few years my only knowledge of the flick came from other kids or glimpses from commercials and television. And of course, there was that really really weird Wookie Christmas Special. I sported a Star Wars t-shirt. I had a Star Wars lunch box. I had a model replica of the Millennium Falcon. I picked up bits here and there, and joined in on play and talk about Luke, Han and Leia. All this, and I ain’t seen nann parts of Star Wars. Faking and frontin’ like a BAWSE!
And then in 1980, something happened. Star Wars had a sequel–The Empire Strikes Back. In the commercials was lots of action–spaceships to make my heart ache and light sabers a-swinging. There were all the familiar faces, as white as they’d been previously along with two token droids and a wookie. But wait, who’s that dude with the conk and the blousy shirt? Is that…is that… Billy Dee Williams? The guy my Mom likes watching in her favorite movie Lady Sings the Blues? He’s in this flick? Stop everything! There’s a black face in Star Wars?!?!
Cue the ginormous explosion of a Death Star (along with the deaths of thousands of soldiers, workers and personnel) to express my joy!
I got to see my first film from the Star Wars Universe (Empire Strikes Back) in a movie theater–and had my mind blown. Tauntauns. Asteroid belt monsters. Yoda. Darth Vader is Luke’s FATHER!?! Whhhhhaaaaat? Up to that point in my young geek life- Best. Thing. Ever!
And Billy Dee Williams? He was this suave, charming rogue named Lando Calrissian–a professional gambler turned administrator of Cloud City who also happened to be the coolest guy to walk into Star Wars history. Yeah, Han Solo was a cool white dude–until Lando showed up and sucked all the cool out the room. He had a long Super Fly cape that made him glide when he walked. So much swagger in his step, I kept thinking an Issac Hayes or Al Green track would start up whenever he graced the screen. Turns out, even the coolest ship in the galaxy originally belonged to him–of course. My man was bad!
Yeah yeah, so he kinda betrayed the good guys. Why everybody always gotta bring that up when I say Lando? He was doing it to save Cloud City. Plus he didn’t really want Han to get frozen in carbonite. And, in true anti-hero fashion, he makes the moral choice to help the heroes escape at cost to himself, pays for his misdeeds by getting choked by a Wookie and even gets rewarded with Han’s clothes in the end. Plus, he comes back in Return of the Jedi alongside the rebels as a general. See? Good guy!
My Mom was a bit more low key about the whole affair. Empire Strikes Back was way too loud she thought. The story was fun but silly. Certainly it was no Trek. But for me, it was smooth sailing from there. I was allowed to see A New Hope retroactively on VHS–and was admittedly a little underwhelmed after Empire. The important thing however was that there would be no more faking. No more living a lie. I could come out of the shadows and let my Star Wars freak flag fly! My young geek life had been saved, and all thanks to Lando Calrissian.
Which is why I join so many other fans of the character in asking Abrams and the producers of Episode VII—WTF dudes? Where the hell is Lando? How can you make a Star Wars that takes place after the events of Return of the Jedi and bring back every major surviving human heroic character and forget about Lando? After Luke, Han and Leia, who exactly is left? I don’t get it. Where is he?
And it’s not like the guy who played him isn’t asking.
In April 2013 Billy Dee Williams, responding to rumors that he’d been contacted but had not yet considered whether to take the role, hopped onto Facebook to let the world know–Nobody called Lando:
“I am in the dark with the actual plans that Disney and Lucasfilm have for the future of the Star Wars universe. I have heard the same rumors that the fans heard, that a new trilogy is being made, that spin-offs may be made, that we all [Mark, Carrie, Harrison and myself] are going to be reprising our roles in these projects. At this point in time, nothing has been confirmed about my participation and I have signed no contracts. I assure you that I would absolutely love to reprise my role of Lando Calrissian.”
There you have it. Williams makes it plain that he wants to reprise the role. He even turned to fans for help:
Want to see how this gets really weird? According to the blog The Geek Twins, in their handy timeline, A Brief History of Lando NOT being cast in STAR WARS EPISODE VII, Abrams and Lucasfilm even went looking for actors to reprise the role of minor characters. Dennis Lawson, who played the role of Wedge Antilles, was approached to take up his old role.
You remember Wedge Antilles? No? Yeah, that’s because only the more dedicated of Star Wars fandom instantly recognizes the name. He was a pilot who appeared in a very minor role among the Rebel Alliance in all three flicks. His character is much expanded in the book universe, but in the films we’re talking limited screen time. That guy was invited back to be in Episode VII, but not Lando Calrissian. Again, WTF Abrams?
Incidentally, Dawson turned down the offer, claiming, “it just would have bored me.” Damn! Not only did he say no, he pretty much expressed little desire to be part of the Star Wars universe. Compare this to Billy Dee Williams, who regularly attends conventions, does voice overs as Lando and even what-ever-the-hell this was on Dancing With the Stars. Williams sees himself as a member of the larger Star Wars community, an ambassador that has helped the franchise continue to flourish. To ignore him like this seems downright shameful.
Look, I’m not going to tell you that as a black kid growing up I wanted to be Lando. That’s rather cliche. And it ain’t even true. As a kid, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker–he was the hero after all. Same went for most of my black and Latino friends. That Luke was a white guy didn’t really matter. Most of the heroes we saw–from comics to books to films–were white after all. And unlike fanboys who can’t seem to imagine their precious characters bending race or gender, we had to do it All-The-Time. So it’s not like Lando was my identity.
BUT, his identity did matter. Took me years to realize it, but my Mom was right. What the hell was up with that lily-white universe that first graced the screens in 1977? Where were the black people? The Asian people? The Native Americans? Latinos? How did George Lucas and company, just under a decade shy of the tumultuous 1960s, where issues of race figured so prominently, utterly and so stupendously miss the boat? If Trek could get the diversity thing back in 1966, how could none of them get it in 1977? How had we regressed? Looking back, I’m glad Mom made the choice she did. It was a valuable lesson that taught me the need for diversity in the created worlds of speculative fiction, and its all to common glaring absence. I’ve always imagined that she wasn’t the only black mother to do so, and that perhaps their voices caused a “disturbance in the force” for George Lucas that made him say–“hey! black people exist!”
Not only did Lando help me personally enter the Star Wars movie universe, he brought some much-needed color that made the space welcoming. I didn’t need to think of myself as Lando. Him being there, playing a prominent role, was enough to make me know I wasn’t an outsider. The Star Wars universe, which could imagine up a diverse set of fantastic other worldly aliens to fill the Mos Eisley Cantina, had finally dared to dream that people who look like me could exist there as well. And that made a profound difference–not to mention some redemption for a film series that began looking less diverse than a GOP convention.
This go around, Lucasfilms is being more forward-minded, with actors like John Boyega and the stunning Lupita Nyong’o playing characters in the flick. So episode VII should be a vast improvement from Episode IV in the diversity department. Of interest, Billy Dee Williams actually auditioned for the role of Han Solo in 1976–only to lose out to Harrison Ford. Can you imagine if it had gone the other way? If Billy Dee Williams had been Han Solo? Damn right he would have shot first! Of course, that had a fireball’s chance on Hoth of ever happening. A black lead as a major character in a Hollywood science fiction blockbuster in 1977? And as a romantic figure opposite Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia? Ha ha ha! Keep dreaming! This is America boys and girls. The very thought of that interracial sexual imagery would have likely sent white audiences fleeing to their fainting couches en masse.*
But nobody’s even asking for all that. Not asking for any race-bending on Luke, Leia or Han. (We aren’t quite there yet.) Just looking to see a fan favorite and popular character written into the storyline. One that held great importance to the Star Wars universe becoming a much more open one. We’re just searching for Lando.
*Update (11/21/2014): After writing this I came across a Toronto Star article from 2011 (here) that claims Billy Dee Williams never auditioned for the role of Han Solo, which he states in an interview, and is a rumor. Just about every other source, from IMDB on down, says he tested/auditioned for the role. Not sure what to make of all that. I still think tho, “Black Han Solo” would have been the best thing ever.
*Update (01/13/2015): So looks like Lando is finally returning to the visual Star Wars universe–on the cartoon Star Wars Rebels. Does this foretell his possible return to the films? We’ll see… Billy Dee Williams to return as Lando Calrissian on ‘Star Wars Rebels’