In early October, EA released Star Wars: Squadrons, a shiny new, VR-ready homage to classic early Star Wars-branded space sims like LucasArts’ Star Wars: TIE Fighter and others. Squadrons’ single-player campaign, which has you fly as a Rebel and Imperial pilot both, is set in the years immediately following the events of 1983’s Return of the Jedi, offering a new installment in the never-ending conflict between the resurgent New Republic and the creaking old Empire.
But the Empire of Squadrons looks, admittedly, pretty different from how it was depicted in Return of the Jedi, or any of the rest of the films from which it bases the majority of its aesthetic. The uniforms may be as crisply and meticulously arranged, the enormous hangars swathed in the same metallic gray durasteel, but its soldiers, and its officers in particular, rather than the wrinkled old white men we’ve come to expect, are mostly young people of color.
Titan Squadron, the Imperial unit the player spends half the campaign flying in, is led by Captain Terisa Kerrill (Peta Sergeant), an Asian woman with a buoyant blonde pompadour, who reports directly to Grand Admiral Rae Sloane (Dionne Aduain), a Black woman. Though the New Republic is just as diverse, if not more so, and the character options for both sides of the conflict feature more minority characters than not, it’s particularly striking to see the classically white, male Empire being run by women of color, commanding diverse squadrons and answering to no one but themselves.
When picturing the Galactic Empire, it’s difficult to imagine anything besides Admiral Tarkin’s grim visage or Emperor Palpatine’s wizened old mug. It’s thus downright dissonant, particularly within a structure so tied to violence, power, and masculine authority to see such a multicultural cast proudly taking on the Imperial mission.
When, in the first few moments of the trailer for 2015’s The Force Awakens, a familiarly white-suited stormtrooper removed his helmet to reveal himself as the Black British actor John Boyega, parts of the internet exploded in uproar. The hashtag #blackstormtrooper racked up posts on social media as users registered their disbelief at the idea that a Black man could ever serve as a stormtrooper. Despite the noxious racism behind these complaints, they contained an unintentional kernel of truth. It has, after all, only ever been the rainbow-coalition Rebellion that’s been allowed to showcase any form of diversity in the Star Wars films. The sole named Black character in the original trilogy, Lando Calrissian, played by the remarkable Billy Dee Williams, may have done deals with the Empire, but he is remembered most of all as a hero of the Rebellion. That pattern continues to today. Boyega’s FN-2187 in The Force Awakens soon adopts the more humanized moniker “Finn” after joining up with the righteous New Republic. Finn and Lando’s ethical realignments are further reenacted in Squadrons’ campaign: Captain Lindon Javes (Phil Morris) betrays his protégé Kerrill and switches sides to join the rebels, citing his principled objection to the Empire, preempting, surely, complaints of his being a poor cultural fit.
While the problematic nature of Black and brown folks proudly participating in an organization steeped in bold-faced fascism may be superficially self-evident, Squadrons also finds compelling ways to highlight and address it. Squadrons spends much of the Imperial side of the plot unraveling the warring ideologies duking it out within the remains of the Empire. At several points throughout the game, Kerrill’s group runs up against the calcified holdovers of the Empire’s past glory; old white men who look directly transplanted out of the late-'70s casting calls the original trilogy’s olive-suited bureaucrats were staffed from, down to their posh accents and thinning blond coifs.
In the mission, “The Trail from Desevro,” while stealthily trailing a fleet of New Republic engineers, Kerrill’s Titan Squadron is interrupted by a belligerent and bellicose Captain Amos, who thrusts his battered Star Destroyer into the middle of the fray, sneering that “snuffing out this New Republic is the only mission.” He ignores all of Kerrill’s warnings, succeeding only at blowing her cover right before getting himself blown to bits by the alerted rebel fleet.
A few missions later, after narrowly escaping from the New Republic’s dreadnought, Skyhawk, Kerrill’s Star Destroyer, the Overseer, finds itself stranded in a backwater system administered by yet another disrespectful old bureaucrat, Colonel Grolm. Grolm practically press-gangs Kerrill into assisting him with his own petty squabbles with local rebels, referring back to orders from the Emperor (who is dead at this point). When Kerrill reminds him that she answers to Admiral Sloane, Grolm retorts gleefully: “Admiral Sloane isn’t here.” It seems that whenever Kerrill, in her desperate attempts to forestall a superweapon from entering enemy hands, comes across men like these, so used to flaunting their power and authority, her priorities rarely ever overlap with theirs. Instead she must do her job in spite of them, cleaning up after their messes, dragging them behind like petulant, pouty children.
Becoming the System
When Kamala Harris squared off against Mike Pence in this year’s US vice presidential debates, a strikingly similar dynamic was at play. In employing a bevy of meme-able smirks and side-eyes, and in assertively claiming her right not to be interrupted by Pence, Harris “drew a chorus of amens from women on Twitter, since most of them could relate to being put in the awkward position of having to maintain their poise as someone tried to undermine them,” as Jemele Hill put it in The Atlantic. Thanks to centuries of American racism, sexism and exclusion, Harris’ defensiveness on the debate stage reflects the precarious novelty of her position. Just as Squadrons represents a more recent departure and diversification for a previously homogeneously white Imperial military, the halls of American executive power have only recently opened their doors a crack for anything other than masculine whiteness to gain entry.
Yet Harris’ rising star within these oppressive structures of state power has not always followed a morally benevolent trajectory. Hill ends her piece stating that “Harris’ success will help a lot of Black girls and women feel seen.” And while that is undoubtedly true, it ignores the profoundly negative impact Harris had on a not insignificant number of Black girls and women during her tenure as California’s attorney general, where she helped push through a draconian anti-truancy bill that criminalized the parents of children who missed more than 10 percent of the school year. Instead of working to support the often deeply marginalized families who were having trouble maintaining a stable attendance rate, Harris used her role as a cudgel, trying to effect change using the state's endless capacity to punish. “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids,” Harris explained during her inauguration, “we are going to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.” We can almost imagine Darth Vader’s leather-clad fist tightening threateningly as this is said.
Though Harris has since somewhat softened her anti-truancy rhetoric, it remains an inextricable part of her legacy and a notable example of how even those who have traditionally been marginalized by oppressive and unequal systems cannot necessarily be relied upon to effect positive change by working within those same systems. Jeff Adachi, who served as San Francisco’s chief public defender from 2003 until his death in February of this year, saw Harris as a person who thought she could “change the system by becoming the system.” But, as he explained in a radio interview on KQED in January, “You can have some influence. But it’s a system because the people in power act according to the design. And if you’re a prosecutor, your job is to charge people with crimes.”
Likewise, if you’re an Imperial officer, your job is to enforce Imperial order through violence and intimidation. Kerrill’s role is a lot less nuanced than Harris’ to be sure; Squadrons doesn’t spend much time trying to provide moral justification for the multiple war crimes you commit during your time spent in the TIE cockpit. Instead, it centers the Imperial pilots’ motivations around notions of order and loyalty. Any other political view, or persuasion, is folded into and subsumed by these dominating drives. The pilot Varko Grey, who is coded as Asian and queer, speaks warmly of retiring somewhere peaceful with his husband, right after a mission in which one of his objectives is to destroy unarmed and undefended fleeing civilian transports.
But this is often how things go. Grey also lets you know that before he was a pilot for the Empire he was a cop. In America, Black police officers and Black police chiefs have not been able (or willing) to substantially impact the racist and militarized nature of their police forces. When Carmen Best stepped down from the Seattle Police Department this year, the president of the City Council, M. Lorena González, told The New York Times that Best’s failure was partially “because of the systemic oppression that pervades policing,” adding that “even leaders of color within those systems are not immune from that oppression.”
Who Do You Serve?
Stopping short at representation has never been enough. Captain Kerrill and her admiral, Sloane, may face a sympathetic battle against the recalcitrant and obstructive legacy of the Empire and its Navy, but their goals are not our goals. Cleaning up and organizing the Empire is as unhelpful to the marginalized and the underserved of the galaxy as Civilian Review Boards and lip-service attempts at police reform are to the Black and poor communities that suffer under America’s policing system, and as petty and cruel as jailing Black moms who are having trouble raising their children with vanishingly little support from the state. Black and brown Imperial officers may face racism and unfair treatment as part of their jobs, but that does not mean that they feel any obligation to extend that same sympathy to others who may fall within their crosshairs.
One such target is Javes, the man who deserted from Titan Squadron in the beginning of the game and switched sides to the New Republic. In one of Squadrons’ final Imperial missions, your pilot enters a dogfight with Javes’ X-Wing as Kerrill looks on from the Overseer. In response to Kerrill’s gloating, Javes ruefully admits: “I underestimated you. Not just your talent. Your willingness to be used … by an Empire that will destroy you.”
It’s tempting, as people of color, stymied in so many ways from getting our feet in the door to begin with, to embrace power and privilege no matter what shape it comes in. We are often told that working from the inside can be even more effective than throwing useless barbs from outside the castle gates. But power is seductive, and it can easily blind you from doing what is right.
To Kerrill and the pilots of her squadron, there is rarely any doubt or discomfort at what they are asked to do. Sitting within the massive hangar of a seemingly invincible Star Destroyer, gifted endless resources and devoted troops, it all surely looks just and legitimate. After finally being allowed to sit alongside those who had previously hoarded all their wealth and privilege, it’s natural to want to drown out the questions, the conflicts, and the divided loyalties that inevitably arise. But it is also important to ask yourself the question Javes poses to Kerrill just before his X-Wing succumbs to laser fire: “When this is over, look at the Empire you serve. And ask why.”