'Star Wars' and a New Hope for Inclusion

J.D. Dillard - Getty - H 2020
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Lucasfilm has hired J.D. Dillard and Matt Owens to develop a new project, which could become the first feature set in a galaxy far, far away overseen by filmmakers of color.

Another week, another Star Wars project in the works at Lucasfilm. But this time, it's something different.

On Friday we learned that J.D. Dillard and Matt Owens are developing a Star Wars feature. This is one of several projects in the works at Lucasfilm, including features from Kevin Feige and Rian Johnson, as the company maps out the future of the franchise after The Rise of Skywalker and outside of the Skywalker Saga, which has made up nine of the eleven live-action Star Wars features. Details are scarce at the moment, and it's unknown whether the film will be a traditional theatrical release or break new ground on Disney+. But whatever this film is about, and however it's delivered to viewers, the talent behind the project is worth getting excited about.

Matt Owens is best known for his work as a writer on Luke Cage and Agents of SHIELD, while J.D. Dillard is a recent breakout talent in the genre film world with two under his belt: the sci-fi drama Sleight (2016) and the survival horror Sweetheart (2019), both of which premiered at Sundance and were picked up by Blumhouse. While neither men are household names yet, they are making major strides in the world of genre filmmaking. Dillard, in particular, has a filmmaking quality that's not unlike J.J. Abrams early in his career, focusing on strong, deeply human characterizations and the element of mystery and spectacle within a budget. Not long ago, after the premiere of Sweetheart on Netflix, I commented that Dillard was the perfect person to direct the next Cloverfield entry. Little did I know that it wasn't the Cloverfield films in Abrams' filmography that Dillard would be following but the one that takes place in a galaxy far, far away.

Though Dillard and Owens have been hired to develop a script, with no director set, it's possible Dillard could find himself in the director's chair should the project move beyond the scripting stage. In terms of both writing and directing, this would mark the first time that people of color have been behind a Star Wars film.

While there are undoubtedly circles of the internet who would strive to convince you otherwise, putting two black men in charge of a Star Wars film is a very big deal. Since Disney's acquisition of Luscasfilm in 2012, one of the biggest complaints lodged at the company, overseen by Kathleen Kennedy, is the property's lack of inclusivity behind the scenes. Onscreen, Star Wars has made great strides in that department, with The Force Awakens (2015), Rogue One (2016), The Last Jedi (2017), Solo (2018), and The Rise of Skywalker (2019) all delivering on inclusive casts. And why shouldn't it? It's the responsibility of our biggest franchises to not only tell good stories but reflect the world they exist in and the people whose imagination they capture. But Lucasfilm's track record for hiring people of color and women as directors and writers is virtually nonexistent.

On the Disney+ side of things, thanks to The Mandalorian, we've seen Lucasfilm's initial efforts to broaden its talent pool, with Rick Famuyiwa, Deborah Chow, Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi directing episodes of the first season. Waititi has also been approached about a Star Wars feature. As much as blockbuster filmmaking has changed in the last two decades, it's still been a struggle for people of color, women and particularly women of color to be hired on these major properties. Waititi, Ryan Coogler, Patty Jenkins, Cathy Yan, F. Gary Gray, Chloe Zhao, Destin Daniel Cretton and Ava DuVernay are just a few directors who represent inclusivity in a star system of white males. And even those filmmakers, like Famuyiwa, who do get hired for major projects like The Flash, are too frequently sidelined by creative differences and studio politics. No doubt the usual chorus will chime in with "just hire talented filmmakers and don't worry about gender and color," but for too long we've been conditioned to believe that white men are the baseline through which to consider talent, while the opportunities for women and people of color are too scarce for many to even get a chance to prove they have talent.

As a black man who grew up loving Star Wars, I know that the potential for Dillard and Owens to broaden the reach of this franchise is nothing short of immensely gratifying. And both filmmakers have pushed for strong and complex roles for people of color, and women, within their respective worlds, making their potential perspective within Star Wars all the more exciting.

Lucasfilm has a perfect opportunity to redefine the franchise and make it clear that the series belongs to more than just those who fell in love with the property in 1977. While we won't be entirely satisfied until the project goes into production, Dillard and Owens involvement, at this point, feels like a new hope.