George Lucas and Mark Hamill on the Star Wars set in Tunisia. Photo: LUCASFILM LTD
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Want to understand Star Wars fans? Start here

It’s junk cinema but, like the Millennium Falcon, it’s fast junk – and don’t you dare call it junk unless you’re a fan, for only its fans can criticise it.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: the Past, Present and Future of a Multibillion-Dollar Franchise
Chris Taylor
Head of Zeus, 458pp, £20

Trash-talking Star Wars is a favourite occupation of a certain class of cineaste. The accusations are familiar: it turned movies into amusement rides, brought to an end the auteurist experiment of the 1970s and ushered in our endless summer of blockbusters. Without it, Chris Taylor writes, “If we had summer blockbusters at all, they would be more disaster movies in the style of Jaws and less science-fiction or fantasy spectaculars. There would probably be no Star Trek on the big screen and certainly no Battlestar Galactica on the small one. It’s distinctly possible that 20th Century Fox would have gone bankrupt after 1977 . . . and Rupert Murdoch might not control it today.” So there you have it. Star Wars is responsible for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and Rupert Murdoch. Is there no end to its evil?

This is the magic bullet theory of film history, the idea that but for one film we would all be sitting around watching John Cassavetes movies, rolling doobies, sticking it to the men in suits. The problem with this argument is that it gives Star Wars both too much credit and too little: too much as a harbinger of cinematic destiny and too little in terms of its qualities as a film. In reality, New Hollywood directors had been retooling old genres as blockbusters all decade long – The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Godfather. Martin Scorsese had been sniffing around Philip K Dick for years. Brian De Palma had his eye on a sci-fi property. Six months after Star Wars came out, Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters of the Third Kind, using its own version of the Dykstraflex cameras that George Lucas used to liberate the X-wings in Star Wars. Watching rapt in the front row were Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis, John Lasseter and James Cameron. Anyone who thinks that were it not for Lucas’s lightsabers the creator of The Terminator would have upped sticks and called it a day is dreaming.

Taylor’s great achievement is to combine two seemingly contradictory narratives: that Star Wars was an idea whose time had come and that no one had seen it coming. The film was an embarrassment to Alan Ladd, the executive who had shepherded the project, a mess right until the moment when an exhausted Lucas said “print”, at which point a thousand and one hands seemed to guide it into the shape we know today. Taylor does a good job of untangling the spaghetti in Lucas’s head as the film went through its countless iterations, taking us from the “lightsword” in the 1933 pulp story “Kaldar, Planet of Antares” by Edmond Hamilton (the husband of Leigh Brackett, who later wrote a draft of The Empire Strikes Back) to the mention of “some kind of force” in Arthur Lipsett’s short film 21-87, which Lucas saw while at the University of Southern California. (Lucas elaborated on the notion. There were “Ashla” forces and “Bogan” forces, before the film’s producer, Gary Kurtz, told him to simplify it.)

What’s important is that Lucas listened. The 33-year-old director, an introvert, was almost broken by the shoot but he was also stretched and loosened up by it, sucking up the many accidents, improvisations and suggestions that came to him from his production team – a generation of sci-fi geeks who had emerged from the woodwork, including the effects maestro John Dysktra, the sound man Ben Burtt and the conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, who hit upon the combination of samurai helmet and gas mask for Darth Vader and whose juxtaposition of desert sands and inky-black space helped to sell the film to Fox. By the time of the prequels, this porousness to suggestion on Lucas’s part had all but disappeared (“Now he’s so exalted that no one tells him anything,” lamented Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker), which is why those films are what they are: smooth, frictionless dreams of Jedi omnipotence, from which all struggle has been banished; films born of a thousand yeses.

Stars Wars was a battle that landed Lucas in hospital and it shows. There’s fight in the picture. Everywhere you look, you see marvels – hammer-headed aliens, high-speed dogfights, lightsabers and landspeeders, twin suns and an exploding planet – all filmed by a director who couldn’t wait to get from one end of his freshly summoned universe to the other. The characters treated these wonders with the disdain that you or I might reserve for our crappy old cars. “What a piece of junk!” Luke exclaims. “She may not look like much,” replies Han Solo, “but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” It’s a piece of dialogue that provides such a neat summary of the critical opinion on the film that you wonder why critics in 1977 didn’t put their feet up and leave the film to review itself.

Junk is everything in Star Wars. The ­Jawas deal in junk. The droids are sold as junk. Our heroes are delivered as junk into the Death Star’s trash compactor. That the Death Star is the only new piece of technology on display is sign enough of its nefariousness: those serving the empire are the only people in the galaxy not to have heard of recycling. Everyone else tinkers, modifies, retrofits, recycles and retools. If the vast, multibillion-dollar franchise that Star Wars spawned can be boiled down to a single insight on Lucas’s part, it is this: that the slightly crabby, proprietorial fondness that Han Solo nurses for the Millennium Falcon would be something that people would be feeling a lot more in the years to come. They would feel it for their computers, their Ataris, their Apples, their Xboxes, their iPhones and their iPads. That we could have a relationship with technology was, in 1977, news. Lucas took that feeling and on it he built an empire.

And we have come to feel the same way about Star Wars. It’s junk cinema but, like the Millennium Falcon, it’s fast junk – and don’t you dare call it junk unless you’re a fan, for only its fans can criticise it. “Love and hate are the twin verities of every true Star Wars fan,” Taylor writes. “If you run into somebody who tells you they thought the franchise was quite enjoyable and they very much liked the originals as well as the prequels,” he quotes one fan as saying, “these impostors are not Star Wars fans.” He finds an echo of this in something he heard in the halls of Lucasfilm: “To make Star Wars, you’ve got to hate Star Wars.” That means you can’t treat it so preciously as to inhibit you from building on top of it. The makers of the latest instalment, Episode VII: the Force Awakens, out in December, will have to strike a delicate balance. May the force be with you, J J Abrams.

Interleaved into his account of the making of the films – the most accurate and detailed we have yet had – is a series of Taylor’s peregrinations into the hearts, minds and dioramas of the fans. We meet those who formed a stormtrooper legion and got a namecheck in Episode III and the New Zealanders whose campaign to get Jedi accepted as a religion drew 53,715 signatories, making it the country’s second-largest faith. “To shake your head at the folly and still love every second of it is a big part of the idea of Star Wars,” Taylor writes. He is one of a rare breed: the clear-eyed enthusiast who approaches the franchise with an unbeatable mixture of seriousness and levity, effervescence and scholarly rigour. Star Wars is unlikely to get a better book any time soon.

Tom Shone’s “Scorsese: a Retrospective” is published by Thames & Hudson

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist