On Martin Luther King Day, it's worth recalling that the first Star Wars film evoked the Civil Rights movement in its now-famous cantina scene.
Soon after Luke and the droids enter the cantina, we realize that the droids are treated as second-class citizens. For a US audience in 1977, the snarling bartender’s refusal to serve the droids evokes the context of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. These lines are one of the ways in which Star Wars establishes the system of values that will operate in the course of the film and its successors. The droids are one index to the system of values within the films: the “good guys” treat their sentient droids as persons.
In the “Technophobia” chapter of Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe, I discuss the importance of the droids to the Star Wars universe. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) shaped the immediate horizon of expectations for science-fiction films when Lucas was putting together the first Star Wars film, and Lucas’s depiction of robots and artificial intelligence is one of the ways in which he challenged that horizon. Indeed, this portrayal marks a departure from his own science-fiction film THX 1138 (1971), which featured robot police who were cold and mechanical.
Lucas signaled the difference by calling the robots in Star Wars “droids,” in order to avoid the negative connotations that have tended to accompany the word “robot” since its first appearance in the 1921 play R.U.R.: Rossum's Universal Robots by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek. The word was coined by Čapek’s brother, Josef, from the Czech word robota, which means “forced labor” or “servitude.”
The droids C-3PO and R2-D2 are the only characters who appear in each of the nine films of the Skywalker saga, and the films use C-3PO, R2-D2, and the sequel trilogy’s BB-8 and D-O as an ethical index: the good guys treat their advanced droids as sentient individuals worthy of respect and protection; the bad guys use their droids as interchangeable and disposable robots.
The droids are able to escape to the planet Tatooine with the Death Star plans because the Imperials aren’t looking for droids: “An escape pod was jettisoned during the fighting, but no life-forms were aboard,” an officer tells Darth Vader, who realizes that the plans must nonetheless be hidden in the pod. But the first words that we hear Threepio utter when we see him and Artoo on the planet indicate that he, at least, considers himself to be a “life-form”: “How did we get into this mess? I really don’t know how. We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.”
The comic interplay between Threepio and Artoo in the scene above was a crucial way of drawing viewers into the Star Wars universe. Indeed, in his foreword to Anthony Daniels’s autobiography, I Am C-3PO (2019), J. J. Abrams argues that the presentation of the droids he “first met when [he] was ten years old” was crucial part of the film’s effect on its first audiences. Describing the first scene aboard Leia’s Blockade Runner ship, Abrams writes that “what happens next is what’s most important. We fall in love”—with the droids: “Nearly the instant we meet stalwart droids C-3PO and R2-D2, we laugh. They become are our way into a galaxy we’re so desperate to be a part of.”
As I argue in Lucasfilm, the portrayal of droids becomes one of the crucial ways in which Star Wars storytelling dramatizes the power of the margins in any cultural formation.
Next Issue: Valentine's Day
For further discussion of Star Wars and my book Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy, and the Star Wars Universe (Bloomsbury), check out the following: