Solo: A Star Wars Story is not soaring at the box office as expected. It collected $103 million domestically in its first weekend release, plus about $65 million overseas. The film is estimated to have cost $400 million to make and market, and now looks set to fall $40 million short of studio domestic hopes over Memorial Day weekend—a huge disappointment for a franchise that is used to mega intergalactic success.
Any or all of these could have played a part in the disappointing sales. But there is one major choice that has certainly contributed to the film's aesthetic and financial shortcomings: Disney landed Donald Glover for the movie, but didn't make him the central character.
The studio had one of the most electrifying, charismatic and celebrated young performers in Hollywood signed onto the project, and they cast him in a side part, as Lando Calrissian. Instead, they gave the role of Solo to Alden Ehrenreich, a relative unknown who never quite earned a high level of buzz for his portrayal.
Glover is a bigger name and would likely have been a better Han than Ehrenreich—and even had fans years ago calling for him to play the title role. But it appears Ehrenreich was chosen over Glover for a key reason: He's white. The need to find a white actor trumped the need to find the best actor. And as a result, both studio and audiences suffer.
Back in the 1970s, big-budget major studio adventure films almost always featured white actors in the marquee roles. Star Wars was no exception; the main roles all went to white people, including Harrison Ford as bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold space smuggler Han Solo. Since Ford is white, Disney looked for a white actor to replace him. That no doubt seemed like a no-brainer.
But if you think about it for a second, the logic becomes a lot less obvious. Ehrenreich is, after all, different from Harrison Ford in a lot of ways. Both of his parents are Jewish, while Ford is only Jewish through one side of his family. Ford's hair back in the day was brown; Ehrenreich's is black. You can, moreover, tell at a glance that Ehrenreich is not Ford, and Ford is not Ehrenreich. Because, again, they're different people.
Star Wars assures us that, in a world with green aliens and purple aliens, nobody will notice the color of your skin. But imagining those green and purple people is easier than imagining a Han Solo who isn't white.
If Star Wars dealt with racism, or engaged with issues of discrimination, there might be an in-universe reason for seeing Han's skin color as important. But the series is quite careful never to do that. Star Wars occasionally suggests that droids are an oppressed class. But humans in the canonical films never mention or seem to notice skin color. Earth's racial categories are, apparently, irrelevant long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
If those categories are irrelevant, though, why is Glover playing second banana? The casting punctures the Hollywood post-racial pretense. (Ehrenreich has downplayed rumors that the studio brought on an acting coach mid-production to work on his performance.) Star Wars assures us that, in a world with green aliens and purple aliens and droids, nobody will notice the color of your skin. But it turns out that imagining those green and purple people is easier than imagining a Han Solo who isn't white. Even in that distant galaxy, your skin color determines which jobs you get.
Looking to skin color to fill a role means that you're not looking to merit. The reason Han Solo is a beloved character is because Harrison Ford is a magnetic and inventive actor, not because he's white. But the studio ignored a magnetic and inventive actor they had staring them in the face, and instead chose another dude—albeit one who was memorable in smaller previous roles, including his part in Hail, Caesar!—for, apparently, a single, depressing reason.
Choosing the white guy was, supposedly, the safe choice; there certainly would have been racially charged backlash and protest if the studio picked Glover to be Han. But if you look at the box office of Black Panther next to that of Solo, you have to wonder whether the safe, no-brainer decision to cast Ehrenreich was actually needed.
Glover just created a media frenzy with his latest Childish Gambino video. Hooking up his charisma and fan base to Solo could have launched the film into hyperspace. As it is, the movie has been left stuttering on the launch pad. “You know, sometimes I amaze even myself," Harrison Ford declared in one of his most famous lines as Han. It seems likely that Solo could have amazed even more people than it has by teaming Glover with Chewie in the cockpit.