Immediately following the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Jacobin published Kate Aronoff’s review of the film titled Star Wars Goes to the Countryside. Jacobin is known for speedily publicizing analyses of events before any other leftist publications do. However, the review misses some crucial aspects of the film and would have benefited from more thorough reflections.
While Aronoff correctly identifies the film’s underlying motifs that are patently political and relevant to the creeping surge of fascism in the U.S represented by Trump, she argues that a real world parallel of the film is not “anti-Trump resistance” (which is broadly a continuation of street-based Black Lives Matter protests and riots in response to police killings), but the Spanish Civil War. While there are arguably some parallels between the Rebel Alliance and the young Spanish Republic besieged by fascists, her claim that there is no parallel between the film and contemporary struggles on the U.S soil is false.
For one, it smacks of nostalgia so common in the left which tends to spend much energy and vehemence on debating what went on during the Civil War than what is going on here and now. Her assertion is also ironic when we consider her reference to an old Maoist slogan “Down to the countryside!” in her review’s title. Despite this obvious reference, Aronoff misses the most crucial aspect of the film which underlies its theme and makes the said Maoist slogan appropriate.
The film’s radical politics is most clearly expressed in its emphasis on contradictions within the Rebel Alliance that made Jyn Erso and her comrades rogue in the first place. In particular, the Rebel leaders’ defeatism and characterization of Saw Gererra’s faction as an “extremist” deviation that need to be controlled is a clear parallel of the real world revisionism and compromising attitudes of self-appointed leaders of contemporary social movements from NGOs in the ecology movement to civil rights groups controlled by the comprador Black bourgeoisie that sought to contain the militancy of the Black youth on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. Hell, is the Democratic Party not the most obvious example here? Even if we were to pick a historical example, the Russian Revolution would have been more appropriate than the Spanish Civil War. In any case, Aronoff consciously or unconsciously misses this point altogether.
In spite of this flaw, Aronoff does make some interesting observations such as the fact that the film has less to do with aristocratic values represented by the superhuman Jedi and the Skywalker lineage than ordinariness of Rogue One that consists mostly of outcasts and more closely resembles a people’s army than holy warriors, and that the film is ultimately about collective struggle rather than personal development.
However, even these points do not fully make sense if we don’t take these contradictions into account. For instance, Jyn and her comrades do not only become “rogue” and splinter off to do their own things as they please, but triumph over opposing factions and lead the entire Rebel Alliance to a victory. Similarly, Jyn’s choice to sacrifice her desire to avenge her father and ultimately her survival for the Rebel victory can only be understood against the backdrop of rebellious individualism common in many recent Hollywood films like Inglorious Basterds and The Hunger Games series that valorize vengeance as the ultimate expression of their rebelliousness.
Its comparison with The Hunger Games (Mockingjay Part 1 & 2 in particular) is especially an apt one. While both films follow a very similar story line, their protagonists reach opposing conclusions. Katniss Everdeen remains a reluctant revolutionary (or dare I say revolutionary by chance) until the end. Her actions are motivated by moral indignation and personal desire to avenge her friends and relatives murdered by the regime rather than political goals of overthrowing the regime and instituting a new social order. Once her job is done, she retreats into a private life of marriage and family. Katniss’ desire for revenge is therefore de-politicized as her participation in the rebellion is a means to her self-fulfillment.
In contrast, Jyn Erso makes a conscious decision to defy the Rebel leadership, leads a vanguard splinter faction and the entire rebellion to an opposite direction, and ultimately sacrifices her own life for the cause. Interestingly, the film consciously militates against the common revenge fantasy near the end when Cassian dissuades Jyn from executing an imperial officer who is responsible for her father’s death. For Jyn, her ultimate revenge is not the death of an individual officer, but the defeat of the Empire and liberation of the Galaxy at large.
These are all interpretations, and I do not mean to suggest that Rogue One is a leftist film per se. As Arnoff points out, the Star Wars franchise tends to appeal to people of all political stripes including the far right. Yet, the figure of a woman who overcomes her own trauma and sexism of her comrades to exercise revolutionary leadership, and choose to subordinate her personal desire to a broader political goal is a significant one that sharply differentiates Rogue One from faux leftism of The Hunger Games and other Hollywood films.