Why Kelly Marie Tran's "Last Jedi" Character Is a Step Forward for Asian American Representation in Mainstream Blockbusters | 2 or 3 Things I Know About Film >> Film Film reviews, essays, analysis and more Film | 2 or 3 Things I Know About Film >> Film Film reviews, essays, analysis and more
Why Kelly Marie Tran’s “Last Jedi” Character Is a Step Forward for Asian American Representation in Mainstream Blockbusters

On April 14th, the teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi dropped on YouTube. And just like that, my social media feeds exploded. The teaser was being shared and reblogged left and right, gifsets already made, and the pure enthusiasm and excitement from the franchise’s fans were nothing but cathartic. Soon enough, fan speculations started pouring in along with theories and analysis all across the internet. It was truly an exciting weekend for Star Wars fans around the world.  As thrilled as I was to view the new footage, there was something else that I was looking forward to so much more, mainly an update on a new character. A year ago, the studio issued a casting announcement for a new actress for Episode VIII, who reportedly had a leading role alongside the new trio of Rey, Finn, and Poe. To my surprise and delight, it was an Asian American actress named Kelly Marie Tran. My first thought: How utterly fantastic it is that more Asian people were allowed to be in space!

It was a strange moment. I had never heard of this woman before in my life, and yet I was so thrilled to see her be a part of the Star Wars universe. How rare is it that an unknown actor gets cast in a blockbuster franchise these days, let alone a woman of colour. Two years ago, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega soared to international stardom after their debut in The Force Awakens quickly becoming fan favourites. Their castings were inspired, and it was proof that fresh talent is out there. However, Disney still had ways to go. Rogue One featured probably the most diverse main cast the franchise has ever had, but if one had seen the movie, they would have seen that diversity was a rather short-lived moment. Nonetheless, watching a huge blockbuster where several of the cast members are of Asian descent was a welcoming sight. Although we will not get to see them in any future installments, characters like Chirrut, Baze, and Bodhi left a strong impression on fans. The inclusion of Rose, the new character to be played by Tran, is welcome an in industry so often lacking in Asian American representation.



Described as “the new biggest part” of The Last Jedi by director Rian Johnson himself, Rose is a maintenance worker who gets pulled into an adventure with Finn. Those brief descriptions alone were enough to make me look forward to seeing her in action even more. As an Asian person, I don’t get to see people like me a lot on the big screen in Western media, at least not prominent roles anyway.  Of course, the people back home don’t think of this as a problem because they already have representations of themselves in their media. With me, it’s a bit of a unique case. Being a Vietnamese person studying abroad in Canada, I have learned so much about social justice issues, and it's been quite an eye opening experience. As a lover of film, media representation is a subject that I hold dear; there are times where I feel disconnected to a movie because of who I see onscreen. This is not to say that I need every role to be played by Asian actors for me to relate. However, it'd be good to see more than just white faces in cinema. It goes beyond providing opportunities for actors of colour, it’s about representing people from different backgrounds, embracing the diversity of their respective cultures, and the nuances that come with them.

Media holds enormous power––whether or not we admit it. We consume what we see, and it plays a big part in shaping our views and beliefs. When presented with such a limited scope of perspective in mainstream media, the average person will most likely buy it as representative of reality. This is why it is important to offer diverse points of views, to create characters of colour, to give them dimensions and true depth instead of reducing them to mere stereotypes. How many times will I have to keep seeing people like me depicted as nerds, as martial arts experts, a sexualized objects, or as the comic relief who speaks broken English? 

Frankly, I wager Rose's appearance would barely register in the enormity of the Star Wars universe, but this isn't to say that she doesn't matter, nor does it mean that Asian people do not deserve to be seen and heard. As far as I am concerned, Rose’s ethnicity is not a key part of who she is, but she is still sending a message that Asian people can play roles that don't adhere to stereotypes. Recent whitewashing controversies in mainstream productions (including Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange) show that Asian folks are refusing to remain silent. We are speaking up and demanding our stories to be told correctly, free of bastardization and whitewashing. For that, having an Asian woman playing a prominent role is worth celebrating in itself. We still have ways to go concerning representation, but Rose is already significant to me. To see an Asian person, or to be more specific, a Vietnamese person in a blockbuster franchise is both moving and validating. If The Force Awakens could make stars out of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, it stands to reason that Kelly Marie Tran could also get her due.

“This possibility that any of us could step up and become a hero, that’s where Rose comes from… She’s not a soldier, she’s not looking to be a hero.” stated director Rian Johnson. So far, every little glimpse fans get of Rose indicates incredible promise. Perhaps we'll see more films with Asian protagonists in the future? Hopefully we won't have to wait long. Perhaps there will come a day when Asian folks can represent people like me without the help of Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone, or Tilda Swinton. Tran's casting gives me hope that blockbusters will continue to aim for diversity and accurately reflect the world we live in, the many untapped talents it boasts.