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When the first major casting announcement for Star Wars: Episode VII dropped, more than a few people started to question whether the diversity of the cast was as reflective of the modern film scene as it could have been. I've never been worried about J.J. Abrams' casting, simply because he tends to cast his projects the way they should be cast and uses everyone to their full advantage, regardless of race, gender, or even species. The fact that he's reverent to the original style and look of Star Wars, while starting to assemble a diverse cast of younger actors to take their places alongside the series' stalwarts, is something that was readily apparent since day one – if you knew where to look. To some, the casting of Lupita Nyong'o and Gwendoline Christie is Mr. Abrams' attempt to answer his criticisms with action. But looking back on his career, I'd say they fit a pattern he established a long time ago.
It all started with Sydney Bristow, the super spy played by Jennifer Garner on Abrams' hit TV show Alias. Right from the first episode, Sydney displays attitude under pressure, while flipping the gender trope of avenging a slain loved one. With the surprise death of her fiancee, Ms. Bristow would embark on a five year long journey of personal development, familial crisis, and her on again/off again relationship with her handler at the CIA. While the series did focus heavily on the "will they or won't they" nature of Sydney and CIA agent Michael Vaughn, Abrams never took the teeth out of his lead heroine. When your main character can still kick ass after getting married and revealing she's pregnant, you're already head and shoulders above most romantic comedies.
When J.J. Abrams made his jump to feature films with Mission: Impossible 3, his balance of romantic subplots and action-capable female leads followed with him. Not only did the IMF team have Maggie Q's Zhen Lei to break up the manpower John Woo had reduced the team to in Mission: Impossible 2, but Abrams was able to have a romantic lead in Michelle Monaghan's character of Julia. The romantic lead and the action lead didn't have to mix for a change, and as an added (and most impressive) bonus, we got to see Keri Russell reunite with the man who co-created Felicity -- the show that gave her the big break her career needed to sustain itself. That reunion lead to a short, but memorable role where Ms. Russell showed us what she'd been up to since then.
Of course, this list would be severely incomplete if I were to leave off Zoe Saldana's portrayal of Lt. Nyota Uhura. While she was console bound in the first Star Trek film, she was allowed to play a more central role in Star Trek Into Darkness. Particularly in the scene where she acts as a negotiator between Federation forces and a Klingon "delegation." With her chosen skill of linguistic sensitivity, as well as a personal demeanor that showed Kirk and Spock both that she was to be taken seriously, she doesn't cry for help when she's overpowered. She waits for a tactical advantage, and then when the moment is right, she attacks her Klingon aggressor with his own blade.
Lupita Nyong'o and Gwendoline Christie are huge assets to the Star Wars: Episode VII cast, and I'm excited that the two of them have been brought on to make this cast an even more well rounded bunch. Of course, this could all change depending on how J.J. Abrams uses his new lead actresses. Judging by his career though, I'd say his willingness to overturn traditionally white male heavy genres and include more gender and ethnically diverse characters in his projects has been more than readily apparent. We can breathe a little easier after today, guys.