2020 has been…relentless to say the least.
You might not remember it at this point, given the how turbulent this latest period has been, but this year started with Australia catching on fire, and our jack-ass of a president nearly starting World War III. Then shit really began to hit the fan in March, COVID-19 came like a black light in a sleazy motel room and exposed the gigantic chasms we have in our country’s social and economic infrastructure. With 38.6 million people filing for unemployment since March, likely without healthcare, and with a growing number of COVID cases spiking around the country and deaths crossing the 120,000 mark things don’t look to be getting better anytime soon.
You’re missing the point, Luis…
To say there’s a grim outlook not just on the country but the world would be an understatement and it’s hard not feel a little hopeless right now.
But then George Floyd happened and the anger that had been boiling up in this country for decades, no doubt exacerbated by the effects of the virus and the lack of distractions such as live sports and movies, finally erupted like a volcano and perhaps the greatest challenge to the status quo since the 60s began.
I won’t spend too much time explaining my thoughts on the past month-plus of current events, you can read about that in my last two write-ups, but what this period has shown me is just how powerful people can be when they finally stop being apathetic and hopeless about the state of the world and together in unison fight back.
So, why do I want to talk about a Star Wars film that came out four years ago in the middle of all this? Well, this message is central to the theme of the movie and it’s why it remains my favorite of the franchise to date because it too reminds me, in moments like these, that there is victory in simply standing up when the world is telling you to stay down.
I trust that if you clicked on this article you’re already familiar with the plot and story of Disney’s second foray into the Star Wars universe and more than likely you have some strong opinion on it as the film was somewhat divisive among fans when it came out in 2016. There are plenty of reasons not to like this movie, and trust me I’ve heard and understand every grievance about the film, from it’s slow opening half, lack of a proactive hero, underdeveloped side characters, fan service-y bits, and muddled writing in parts no doubt affected by re-shoots. I’m not going to try to explain away all of them, but I’ll just say I hear you and this write up really isn’t about whether Rogue One is objectively a good movie or not.
My resonance for a film like “Rogue One” began as early as my teenage years when I began getting introduced to stories about samurai. These movies from the Land of the Rising Sun are the equivalent of Westerns for Japan, typically following a lone swordsman or group of warriors coming to save a village from marauders or looking to become the best version of themselves possible.
A recurring theme through a lot of them though is how they often end in tragic ways. A film like “Seven Samurai” ends with most of the ronin killed in their desperate struggle against pillaging raiders, the “Tale of the 47 Ronin” (no, not that one) ends also with most of them committing hari-kiri after successfully avenging their former master, and NHK’s early 2000s drama on The Shinsengumi ends with the group disbanded, their leader executed, and the remainder fighting a war they know they’ll lose against the Meiji government.
I know this all sounds moribund and sad as hell to watch, and it is, but my main takeaway growing up wasn’t how sad it was that most of the characters I grew to love and connect with while watching and reading these stories died; it’s that there was victory even in simply fighting to the very end.
For the swordsmen and samurai in these stories it wasn’t about whether these characters would live to see their victory or even live to benefit from it but rather that their willingness to stand up and fight anyways because it’s what they believed in. They could’ve stayed down, they could’ve ignored their growing plight, they could’ve let the more domineering forces rule over them while they kept their heads down into their final days but they didn’t because real defeat was simply ignoring all of that and doing nothing even it meant survival.
“Rogue One” deals with this early on in its two leads, Jyn and Cassian. Jyn is jaded because the Empire took her family away from her and the only remaining father figure she had abandoned her not long after, leading her to accept a life of simply surviving. Though Cassian finds himself a part of the Rebellion, the work he does on their behalf has turned him away from being an idealist to one who deals in a “whatever means necessary” approach to achieve their needs as he has largely abandoned his morals in the process.
As the story progresses from its first half Jyn begins to see the necessity of rebellion, that the alternative of simply living to see the next day is not enough and certainly not a real victory. Through Jyn, Cassian rediscovers his humanity and joins her in her own inhouse rebellion to attack Scarif with a band of other soldiers looking to do the right thing, not content to just simply outlast the Empire.
The supporting, albeit unpolished, characters show microcosms of this theme of apathy turning into defiance. Chirrut’s optimistic demeanor and relentless faith in The Force eventually snaps Baz out of his own cynicism even if it comes in their final moments. Bohdi’s own small but willing act of rebellion is the catalyst for the entire story and even K-2SO for all his cynical behavior through the story commits a selfless act of sacrifice to buy Jyn and Cassian time to retrieve the Death Star’s plans.
They all perish at the end, and though I understood that was probably coming before I saw the movie, I was deeply moved by it. Even if you pretend the original trilogy never happened, there was something quite beautiful about seeing this band of ronin, if you will, sacrificing themselves for a cause they knew they would never get to see finished.
I’ve been a sucker for stories about victory even in death since I was a kid. Besides Samurai films, movies and TV shows like “Glory,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Black Sails,” or “Spartacus” (STARZ) all tell similar stories of a willingness to stand up and fight for what’s right and sacrifice for the greater good.
It’s not just film that tells this story though; history does too. Whether it was black liberation and Selma beginning in 1965, interned Japanese Americans fighting until the 90s to earn redress from the government, or the Chicano movement headed by Cesar Chavez in the 60s and 70s still felt today, these fights for justice are often fought with blood and not everyone gets to see the fruit of their resistance. But it starts somewhere. The seeds of victory are planted and often fertilized by the bodies of people willing to lay down their own for others and this moment in time we are experiencing is not unlike those of the past.
It is easy to want to give in. I don’t blame you, this whole year has been grim and brutal from the start, but whether you liked “Rogue One” or not, it’s biggest takeaway is an important one; fight even if you might not see the end. Jyn, Cassian, and the crew of Rogue One may not have lived to see their rebellion triumph over the Empire but they undeniably ignited a flame that made its revolution and victory possible.
There is a flame burning bright right now and no matter how exhausted you may feel by what’s going on I say keep going. There is a long road ahead to fixing this country’s many issues but it has to start somewhere and if we are willing to go the distance even if we don’t all get to see the finish line ourselves, together there is no limit to what we can achieve.
Rebellions are built on hope, so don’t give up. Not now, not ever.
Solidarity and may the Force be with you all, my friends.