This was originally a fanzine article, back when that was the only way to foist my blatherings on anyone. Then it went on my old site. And now, a bit rewritten, it be here. But Scottie did ask.
The Dr has a thing about Darth Vader. She cries at the end of Return of the Jedi when he [spoiler] dies – and actually starts crying midway through the Ewok battle, just because she knows what’s coming. Quite freaked me the first time that happened. She ran away from meeting Dave Prowse once, too.
The thing about Vader is he’s tall, dressed in black and you impose your own emotions on his blank mask of a face. The Star Wars prequels have entirely changed what we thought was going on in there. The moody stares he gives in the original movies now suggest less “I’m very cross!” as “I’m very conflicted…”
There’s also his voice. Of all the fret about casting for the prequels, one thing was made clear - James Earl Jones’s husky, gravely tones would be back. How could it not be him?
It's staggering that Jones was a last-minute casting back in 1977. Originally, Orson Welles was front-runner to do all that heavy breathing. He was a name of the same generation as Dr Peter Cushing and smiley Alec Guinness, and there'd then be three established “names” to support newcomers Ford, Fisher and Hamill.
Now there’s two stories why Welles got dropped. One goes that his voice was just too recognisable. Which is odd, because that’d surely be the same for both Cushing and Guinness.
Alternatively, there’s the rise in racial consciousness that had led to the boycotting of films in the mid 1970s which failed to feature - let alone represent - black actors and/or characters. Writer/director George Lucas was in post-production on a film with an entirely white cast.
Vader, therefore, got voiced by a black actor. An established, award-winning actor with a fantastic voice. And, in time for the sequels, Han's rogueish but redeemable chum, Lando, was cobbled together.
(Orson Welles later did voices for other hokey sci-fi. His last film role was as the voice of a, er, planet in the Transformers movie.)
So what's this got to do with Ackbar - fishy fellow from Return of the Jedi? (That answer your question, Scottie?) Well, the reasoning behind the boycotting was that cinema was pretty much ignoring black people. Sure, Poitier was working, and there were no end of bit parts as noble savages and hoodlums going. But that wasn’t really good enough.
Science-fiction, for all its claims of being a progressive, thought-evolving, looking-to-the-better-future-earnestly happening, was just as guilty as everyone else of excluding and misrepresenting racial groups. And since SF was making all the pious claims about visions of the future, the continual prejudice was all the less forgivable.
2001 - A Space Odyssey, for example, may well be a hugely impressive, convincingly “realistic” (whatever that might mean when you're talking about fiction, let alone SF) bit of cinema. Yet, now the real year 2001 is old history, one of the most jarring things they got “wrong” is that it's not only the space programme that’s exclusively populated by whites. So, it seems, is the whole Earth.
There were efforts made: the Planet of the Apes films have been seen by many as dealing with civil rights, and in Soylent Green Charlton Heston works for a black man.
Star Trek's Uhura might now seem a mini-skirted honey who answered the white man's telephone, but for the late '60s her position of “equality” was terribly broad-minded. Her character and position wasn't seen as sexist or demeaning - she was a black character with a role to play. She was a role model. Even Martin Luther King said so.
(She snogs Kirk at one point, the first inter-racial kiss on US television. It was so shocking it wasn’t shown in the UK for decades.)
But despite these small steps, the consensus in SF had always been that SF heroes are white, Beautiful People, governed by white Beautiful People - albeit older and beardier ones. Ugliness, off-whiteness and anything that even vaguely hints at “the foreign” is not merely relegated to the status of alien, but is seen to be determinedly “evil alien”. Just ask that Ming The Merciless – Darth Vader's cultural forefather. (He had a bolshy daughter that pirates fell in love with, too.)
So when a bright scarlet fish-person with boggly great eyes takes the role of highest serving officer in the rebel fleet, things are pretty bloody cool.
Ackbar gets his name from the 16th century mogul, a dynamic military leader. “Allah akbar” means “God is great”, and since “Allah” is the God bit, Ackbar then is great. This is another example of Lucas’s anthropologically mythic resonance. Or his riding rough-shod over other people’s cultures.
So Ackbar is the man. Sure, an old bloke with a beard and some whiney woman in a cape (the hallmarks of any civilised authority) may have talked us through the plan, but it's Ackbar who takes the troops out. It’s him who must make the most difficult decision in the whole series of films - whether to run the trap that they all end up in, or run away never to return.
Beard and whiney woman wouldn't have stood a chance, but Ackbar does the rebel alliance proud.
And who pilots the Millennium Falcon while our regular cast of Beautiful people are playing with the teddy bears? It's our pal Lando, and accompanied by some really frightening looker of a co-pilot. Oh, and the evil Emperor's a white guy.