The Downtrodden and The Oppressed: Social Class and Canto Bight

—this piece contains major spoilers from The Last Jedi

essentialguidetoclasswarfare

Deep in the Corporate Sector lies the world of Cantonica. A desert wasteland of a planet where the rich and the powerful have managed to create a paradise for those able to afford it, a city called Canto Bight. A cocktail that’s equal parts Monte Carlo, Casablanca, and Dubai. A place where the bright lights hide a layer of pain and sorrow, a pit from where the new hope for the galaxy might end up emerging.

Class struggle is a concept that’s always been pretty much foreign to Star Wars. We’ve seen it used as flavor in a few galactic settings, like Anakin’s (pretty comfortable) slavery at the hands of Watto or the Naboo’s elitist disdain for the Gungan ethnic minority, equals part speciesism and classism. The supplementary material, both in Legends and in canon, has taken a closer look and how the rich and poor live in the galaxy and how they interact with each other, but it’s never been something to take much prominence. The conflict between the Republic and the Trade Federation, although later on explored as having its roots on a long conflict between a rich Core and a poor Rim, is never portrayed in the movie as anything other than a clash between two monolithic powers, a corporation and the government, over taxation.

But we’ve rarely seen the oppressed of the galaxy.

The Skywalker Saga

Last September I wrote a piece discussing the often-complicated relationship between Star Wars and fascism, and one of the things I lamented is that the galactic saga had never really shown how the different social classes interacted. “The Rebellion is led by Imperial Senate members and monarchists, and they sure seem to see the lower classes of the galaxy—relegated to places like the Mos Eisley cantina or movements like Saw Gerrera’s populist revolution—with a certain degree of mistrust and disdain”, I wrote back then.

It’s easy to argue that the saga we love has always upheld some ugly themes of elitism. It’s also easy to realize that this conservative streak came from the fairy tale origins of the saga: Star Wars is a story that from the very start, from “your father fought in the Clone Wars”, has focused on a very special lineage of powerful Force users, a breed of beings superior to the rest of the galaxy from childbirth. Even Luke Skywalker, who we first meet as a nobody farmboy raised on a desolate planet, becomes the one to save the galaxy only because Obi-Wan wanted to train the son of Anakin. We call it “the Skywalker saga”, after all. Even the other main characters, Leia and Han, are eventually rolled into the Skywalker family. Even Artoo and Threepio, our proverbial Hidden Fortress servants, turn out to have been serving the Skywalkers for decades.

This aristocratic depiction of the heroes doesn’t stop there. The good guys, the Rebel Alliance, are led by the scions of a few powerful dynasties like the Organas or the Mothmas. Their movement is not revolutionary, but strictly reformist: they want a return of the old values of the Galactic Republic but there’s never any talk about structural inequality. We assume that they fight for the weak, but we never really see it. And the Expanded Universe took this to the extreme, not only thanks to its pretty strong militarism (watch a conflict between an EU soldier and an EU politician and the soldier will always end up being in the right) but by having almost any character worth any significant page-time be a Skywalker, Solo, Antilles, or Fel. Our beloved heroes were entitled to excellency because of what they had inherited, not because of what they were.

And then The Last Jedi came along to dynamite all of this.

The Essential Guide to Class Warfare

We will be talking in future essays about how the revelations about Rey’s parentage show a very changed narrative structure, but today I’d like to take a look at what is perhaps one of the most divisive settings in the movie: Canto Bight. A sizable contingent of fans, including many who have loved the film, consider it little more than an afterthought, an annoying side trip with little to offer, or even more cynically, just an excuse to have another cantina-like set piece. But Canto Bight ends up being the first time where we see how oppressed and oppressors relate to each other in the Star Wars galaxy.

canto2When Rose Tico talks about a city populated by the worst the galaxy has to offer, we are instantly reminded of Mos Eisley, of the “scum and villainy” that Obi-Wan mentioned. We probably expect to see a new Nar Shaddaa, another dirty den of iniquity. Yet what we find is considerably different: for the first time, we actually see high galactic society. In Canto Bight we finally meet the galactic one-percent, or perhaps the zero-point-one-percent. Finn, who as a mostly blank slate stands in for the audience, is entranced by the luxury, the music and the extravagance he sees around him. The social strata of Canto Bight are portrayed pretty literally, with no time for much subtlety. On top, in the Casino, we have the powerful. Rose explains to Finn—and thus to us—that the reason these people are so powerful is because of a trade that is unsurprisingly lucrative in a narrative universe called Star Wars: war profiteering. For the first time we have a look at the galactic military-industrial complex.

But that’s not the only thing we see in Canto Bight. Rose helps us see closer—literally. Through the telescope on the Canto Bight balcony, looking several levels down, we see the galactic underclass. It’s not the first time we see it: we’ve seen slaves before, we’ve seen the homeless like Jira in Episode I, Rey is first portrayed as little more than a wage slave, and of course we have that massive contingent of slaves that is the droid population. But this is the first time clear cause and effect are portrayed, and it’s the first time the characters talk out loud about how unequal the system is. In Canto Bight the system is explicitly sustained at the expense of the underclass: child laborers and abused horse-creatures known as fathiers. We see a brutal slaver raise the whip and a nameless kid recoil back, his eyes alight with both fear and defiance. A far cry from the happy family life that Anakin lived in The Phantom Menace, and almost like a dark reflection of it.

Not bad for a side trip without substance.

Wretches of the Galaxy

There’s something else we learn in Canto Bight: for the first time ever we are told that the Resistance stands for what Admiral Holdo calls “the downtrodden and the oppressed”, an almost socialist declaration (“wretches of the Earth”, the American lyrics to The Internationale call them). This time we are told that the symbol of the Resistance is not just a war flag: is a symbol of hope for the galactic underclasses. Their intention when the movie begins is restoring the New Republic but, by the end of the film, Poe Dameron seems more focused on vanishing the fascist horror of the First Order. Pay attention to the way he repeats Holdo’s speech, but this time changing the final line: the Resistance is no longer the spark that will light a flame that will guide us back to a glorious past, but a fire that will consume evil. And now we are aware of who suffers under that evil.

temiriThat’s why, at the end of the movie, we are told that it doesn’t really matter that the whole Resistance can fit inside the cargo hold of the Millennium Falcon: the downtrodden and the oppressed are still out there. Even if the fabled allies from the Outer Rim are too scared, the weak know both the symbol of the Alliance and the legend of Luke Skywalker. That’s why that final image completely conveys the surprisingly political message of the whole movie: the nameless young child—“no one”, just like Rey—who isn’t the son of a legend, who has been discarded by the upper echelons of Canto Bight, uses the Force to pick up a broom and brandish it like a lightsaber. He’s not a Skywalker. “The Force does not belong to the Jedi”, Luke tells Rey during his first lesson; he didn’t need to add that it didn’t belong to “that powerful Skywalker blood” either. The Force also connects the galaxy to this child with no glorious destiny that looks at the stars, holds close the symbol of hope that the Alliance Starbird has finally become, and dreams of a better future.

10 comments

  1. Mario A. Escamilla says:

    While not as pervasive, some of that class inequality was put in the prequels in the form of the senators, like the fat Orn Free Taa compared to the slender profiles of the Twi’leks that live a normal life in Ryloth… Even the Separatists, who supposedly mock the inequalities of the Republic, have their own aristocracies like the Bonteris.

  2. Jay Shah Jay Shah says:

    Even the main Force user plot is anti-aristocratic, with the obsession over bloodline associated with Snoke and Kylo rather than the protagonists. It’s a very anti-aristocratic, very socially leveling film: at least by Star Wars standards.

    And yet in all the complaints about the film not being real Star Wars, people focus on irrelevant nonsense like Luke Skywalker being haunted by his failings (perfectly reasonable) instead of the film demolishing the royalist traditions that the Star Wars universe is based on.

    Won’t somebody please think of the royalty?

    • John says:

      And to think they cut the Princes’ cameos, too!

      I have difficulty taking class commentary from Hollywood seriously…

      • I tend to agree with what my friend Kate (who didn’t like the movie) said: as long as one kid sees that X-Wings and TIE Fighters are being sold by the same person and starts making some questions, it will have been worth it.

  3. chriswerms says:

    The thing I loved about this movie, and the point that you drove home, is that finally, the Good Guys (here, the Resistance and the Jedi) can finally stand for the downtrodden and oppressed. Previously, the Republic protected institutions and banks while people had to trumpet their suffering to the Senate for any semblance of action (I’m thinking of Tekla here). The Jedi trained guerillas to fight for themselves (Ryloth and Onderon) while they protected Republic interests (Hissrich, Ord Mantell, Bothuwai). The Prequels showed that class interests can even affect the “best” organizations as the Jedi’s priorities shifted gravely.

    The New Republic, even, wouldn’t free Kashyyyk as it was not a strategic enough location for their efforts. They later ignored Ryloth again, even though dealing with their issues would have pre-emptively dealt with the First Order. Now the Resistance, under Commander Dameron, shaped by Holdo and Leia, can look to the Canto Bight kids as their future. Temiri was inspired by the Jedi, watching Holdo’s sacrifice, meaning the Jedi would finally be forced to help them.

    Great piece – lots to think about and a refreshing new take on the franchise.

    • Jay Shah Jay Shah says:

      Not sure I agree on the New Republic. Mothma didn’t want to intervene at Kashyyk because she didn’t want to make aggressive moves while peace talks were at hand, and because of the implication of favoritism.

      The New Republic has consistently been portrayed as having an egalitarian ideology. The TFA VD noted Leia’s status as princess didn’t mean as much anymore, and Bloodline discusses the egalitarianism of the new Senate.

      I think we can also conclude the NR failed to live up to its ideology, too. The privileged of Canto Bight were living in an NR-controlled galaxy. They supposedly got rich due to an association with the same old defense conglomerates which were around in the Empire and Old Republic days. They turned a blind eye to affiliates illegally selling to the FO.

      But I also think that the NR’s egalitarian ideology is what informs some of the TLJ characters. Not all of them — Rose, the biggest champion of the downtrodden, grew up outside of Republic space. But the younger members of the Resistance who are ex-Republic? I could see it.

      But I guess I can also see the “New Republic, same as the Old” argument too — they just don’t live up to their rhetoric, perhaps.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        On top of the NR being generally more skeletal than the OR, Canto Bight being in the Corporate Sector could mean they have no authority there. It’s like that offshore island paradise Peter Thiel to build.

  4. James M says:

    The kids name is Temiri Blagg. And you call yourself a Star Wars fan May the Schwarz be with you.

  5. Eric J Brown says:

    My two main qualms with the Canto Bight sequence are as follows:

    1 – It was way too simplistic. I don’t want to think about economics in the Star Wars universe if the only way anyone gets rich is via arms dealership. Especially when the “master codebreaker” is there as one of the wealthy… of course, Maz is doing some violent Union busting, so, who knows? But if you want to say “Rich people BAD” you probably need something a bit fuller than kids working in stables at space- Churchill Downs.

    2 – It hit the slightly wrong target. Okay, yes, ultra rich bad, if you want to go that way fine. But there’s a bigger problem… why is the First Order bad? Seriously – other than “they are the bad guys who blow stuff up” – okay, but where do we see on screen their oppression?

    Imagine if Canto Bight weren’t just a Switzerland-Vegas mishmash that is supposedly apolitical (with semi-Darth Vader cops), but a world controlled by the First Order — where we could have seen on screen what the First Order DOES when it conquers. You could even have had it be a Casino planet, but make the underbelly dark and dominated – that the rich are knowing collaborators. I think that would have made for a more ominous scene.

    + + + + + + + + +

    All that being said – the Canto Bight book did a great job making the place seem seedy and corroded underneath the glitz and glamour – which I dig. But there were thieves and mobsters and all that – not just “these people all sell weapons”. I know in the movie you don’t have the time for that build – but if you only have one shot to get an impression – the wealthy military-industrialists wouldn’t have been the shot I would have taken.

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