Rogue One: May the Force Be Global

Global merchandise sales drives “Rogue-One” casting.

I watched “Rogue One” yesterday. I didn’t think the plot or acting was very good, and I did not find the film’s multicultural cast as impressive as I had hoped they would be, but rather distracting.

I am no Star Wars devotee, and it was in fact the international cast that had compelled me to the cinema for an early screening. I am a big fan of the actors in “Rogue One”, which was the main reason I was so eager to watch the film in the first place.

I had become acquainted with Mexican actor Diego Luna in the 2001 Mexican film “Y Tu Mamá También”, English Rose Felicity Jones in the 1998 English-Canadian television series, “The Worse Witch”, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen in the 2012 Danish drama “The Hunt”, Pakistani-British rapper and actor Riz Ahmed in the 2016 HBO TV series “The Night Of” where his cultural background was a key plot driver; Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn as a sociopathic member of a Melbourne crime family in the 2010, award-winning Australian film “Animal Kingdom”; Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen in the 2008 Hong Kong film “Ip Man”; Chinese actor Jiang Wei in the 2010 Chinese film “Let the Bullets Fly”, and African-American actor Forest Whitaker when he played African despot Idi Amin in the 2006 film “The Last King of Scotland”.

My media-saturated mind had embraced these actors because they had so excellently portrayed characters from within their own cultures. They had often chosen scripts that were unconventional and intelligent, and they had a wonderful way of bringing the subaltern to life on screen. For me, this made them stand out and rise above their American Anglo-Saxon Hollywood A-lister (AAHA) counterparts – the Tom Cruises, Brad Pitts, Jennifer Lawrences and Julia Roberts whose names have become synonymous with box office cha-ching.

However, watching “Rogue One”, it seemed to me that these thespians whom I so respect had somehow deracinated themselves to become universal citizens of planet Hollywood, possibly aspiring to higher ranks of mainstream stardom.

I left the cinema feeling let down. I felt like my idols and Star Wars had sold out. I don’t hold it against the actors of course, how can anyone resist having their name associated with one of the most popular Sci-fi narratives, and with the Star Wars brand?

I certainly wasn’t the only one disturbed by the film’s unusually un-American, un-Anglo-Saxon cast. A slew of netizens have been calling “Rogue One” anti-white, and despite the fact that it was in production way before Trump was elected, many see it as a backlash against the protectionist sentiments of the Trump presidency and Brexit.

Neo-Nazis and far-rightist called the film “anti-white social engineering”. Bloggers on American neo-Nazi news and commentary website wrote: “It looks as if the Jew run company of Disney is going to pump out as many of these awful multicultural Star Wars films as possible”. The members of this anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, alt-right site complained that “nearly all of the major characters are non-White and the main character is an empowered White female…the film should be boycotted”. blogger David G. Brown writes, “this new installment reiterates Disney’s hatred for white males”.

Thankfully, I was distracted and disturbed by the multicultural cast for very different reasons. I don’t think that forfeiting the dollars of male, white racists was what Disney had it mind. Something less vicious than racism and sexism, but perhaps more pernicious to the Force of good art was at play – global economics.

Walt Disney Studios earned US$1.97 billion in the U.S. domestic market compared to US$3.05 billion internationally in 2016 box office takings. Disney has also long been the world’s number one global licensor, cranking out copyrighted toys, t-shirts, mugs, computer games etc. In 2015, the company made a whopping US$7.2 billion in retail sales from their movie merchandising alone. However, sales of Disney movie merchandise in the U.S. only contributed to only 27 percent of the market share, which means 73 percent of money made from Disney movie merchandise came from outside of America. That’s huge, pretty much a company’s bread and butter!

Like any wily and pragmatic multi-billion dollar empire, Disney has obviously prioritised merchandise sales over winning the Oscars.

Casting decisions were most likely made with an eye on emerging markets where the largest growths in disposable income have been forecasted.

The strongest of these markets are China (Jiang Wei and Donnie Yen, the Force is with you, you are one with the Force), Brazil (why don’t we get rid of Irish actress Genevieve O’Reily and cast Rodrigo Santoro in drag as Mon Mothma instead – he was so good in his breakout role as Lady Di in the 2003 Brazilian prison film “Carandiru”, and every child, regardless of sexual orientation would buy a Santoro doll, não?), Mexico (Diego, did you know that the strongest growth area in the Mexican toy industry is licensing?) and Russia (maybe Mikhail Baryshnikov could have filled Jimmy Smits’ role as Bail Organa, oh, but wait, isn’t Smits’ half Puerto Rican, lets check the stats on Puerto Rico first).

At present, the Asia Pacific region is one of the largests markets for traditional and digital licenced toys globally. In June 2016, Disney opened its theme park in Shanghai, and two of its biggest franchises in China are Pirates of the Caribbean and you guessed it, Star Wars. Certainly a good reason to make sure that cast-wise, China is covered – not with one but two Chinese actors – one from the People’s Republic of China and one from Hong Kong to keep both Mainland and Special Administrative Region happy.

So haters, relax already, I doubt Disney is on a mission to demonise the white man. It simply made good marketing sense to put together a cast that guarantees large audiences from Latin America and Asia. It worked, I’m Asian, I live in Asia, and I got suckered!

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