Tag Archives: Oola

Disney and diversity: Thandie Newton on the BFI trainees with Solo: A Star Wars Story

24 May
Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton as Val in Solo: A Star Wars Story

With diversity the current buzzword in Hollywood, there is one major studio that is actually walking the walk. Disney, previously pilloried on social media for churning out pretty princesses who need saving and villains whose inner ugliness is telegraphed through physical deformity, has undergone a radical change of philosophy: making inclusive animations such as Moana, and even feature films with black leads such as Queen of Katwe and, having acquired Marvel Studios, Black Panther. These are the films which, watched by children now, will shape the global citizens of tomorrow. The importance of Disney using its enormous influence for social good can hardly be overstated.

The Star Wars franchise was desperately in need of such a makeover from its new parent company to banish the shuddering memory of Jar Jar Binks. The latest, Solo: A Star Wars Story, always had to feature Lando Calrissian (played by the multi-talented Donald Glover), since one of the few canonical pieces of Han Solo’s back story is that he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando in a card game. It also throws in the magnificent Thandie Newton as partner in crime to Woody Harrelson’s cynical, “trust no one” adventurer.

Even more impressively, Disney is also seeking to effect change behind the camera. At a special preview at BFI Southbank last night, Disney fielded an impressive panel composed of Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of Fleabag fame, playing an independently minded robot) and producer Simon Emmanuel, together with the BFI’s Ben Roberts and Gaylene Gould. They were there to talk about the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme, which aims to counteract decades of under-representation by attracting trainees who might otherwise never have considered a career in film: 75% of their intake last year were women, 45% BAME, 68% from outside Greater London, and 36% from poor households that received free school meals.

“If you live in the North of England,” said BFI CEO Amanda Nevill in her opening speech, “the notion of working in the film industry is quite fantastical: in fact it’s far more than a galaxy far, far away.”

“Diversity always has a huge impact,” said Waller-Bridge. “We instantly grow from a diversity of voices. It results in less stereotyping, better characters, and the truth can sing.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Thandie Newton with BFI trainees Nathan Lloyd and Maria Moss at the preview screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thandie Newton brought her own personal experience to bear on the subject: “Growing up in Cornwall, I didn’t see other people like me anywhere. I grew up deeply insecure as a result. My sense of self-worth was crippled by not seeing other people like me, because the characters of films and television are our heroes, they are a way of feeling less alone.

“I have three children,” she continued, “and they’ve always played with dolls, and when they do it’s important they are exposed to diversity. I will go in with felt-tip pens and change the colour of characters’ skins in story books!”

There was an emotional moment when Newton mentioned Oola, “one of the few people of colour” in the original Star Wars trilogy: Oola was a Twi’lek slave who was killed by Jabba the Hutt when she resisted his advances. “She’s here in the audience!” someone shouted out. “I know,” Newton shot back. “I invited her!”

It transpired the actress, Femi Taylor, had also played Newton’s mother in her debut movie, Flirting. (Newton was so good in that 1991 Australian drama, incidentally, aged 16, that I insisted on running an interview feature with her in Time Out at the time).

But starry as the panel was, the greatest applause was reserved for two young trainees in the BFI Film Academy Future Skills programme. Neither had known during their interviews, indeed not until they walked on to the set, that the film they would be working on was not some indie drama but the latest behemoth in the Star Wars franchise.

Nathan Lloyd, a black youth from Birmingham, was inspired at being put to work as a camera trainee for Bradley Young, only the second black cinematographer ever to win an Oscar, and has since worked on Sky One’s Bullet Proof and Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light. Maria Moss, a half-Filipino girl from Manchester who said how surreal it was to take tea to “Chewbacca” and have him respond in a Liverpudlian accent, will be working as assistant director on the Wonder Woman sequel over the summer.

It was an inspiring evening. And following the success of the pilot scheme, in which 28 trainees were put to work on Solo, 30 more youths are to be given a new hope (see what I did there?) by working on the next main Star Wars film, Episode IX, from July.

Change won’t come about through talk and good intentions. It will come about through training a new generation with the necessary skills. Big up the BFI, and Disney, for starting the ball rolling.

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