Moff Gideon, Blackness, and Nuance in The Mandalorian

Curator's Note

In an interview with British GQ, John Boyega lamented the lack of development of and nuance in characters of color in Star Wars. Indeed, though his character Finn was an important part of the recent trilogy, his centrality and development diminished with each subsequent film.

The franchise’s black heroes unquestionably have been underdeveloped and underutilized. However, its recent black villains—most notably Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) of The Mandalorian—exhibit some of the nuance and development that Boyega found lacking.

Moff Gideon remains a mystery, which itself lends the character a degree of nuance. What viewers can discern from his appearances in Chapters 7-8 is that he operates with a level of agency not yet afforded to black characters in the franchise. Gideon is a former Imperial officer who had been tried for war crimes, managed to escape captivity, and has become a leader of one of the remnants of the Empire after its defeat in Return of the Jedi (1983). He wields great power and intellect. Regarding the former, he not only leads advanced troops that are more efficient than the Imperial garrison on Nevarro (where the conflict in The Mandalorian occurs) but also wields the Darksaber, the rare lightsaber traditionally held by the Vizla clan of the Mandalorians. As for the latter, Gideon exhibits tactical acumen—as shown by his ability to outwit The Mandalorian and his allies—and knowledge, including of The Mandalorian’s birth name and of the The Child's importance.

Moreover, Gideon’s portrayal by Giancarlo Esposito lends the character a great deal of gravitas. Esposito has carved out a niche as a cold, highly efficient, complex villain in series such as Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and Better Call Saul (2015-present), where he has portrayed restauranteur/drug kingpin Gus Fring. Esposito recently was nominated for Emmys for both Better Call Saul and The Mandalorian.

The hallmark of a classic villain is the ability to shape the world around him/her/them. Gideon has shown the capability for doing so, thus evidencing the nuance and agency that villainy provides black Star Wars characters that heroics has yet to deliver.


This seems right about Esposito, a performer of slow burns and sudden intensities, which raises the quesiton of Carl Weathers, his generational gravitas, and the ethically compromised middlemen of the SW universe. Is he less interesting to you because the character moves are more familiar, especially since they echo so many of Lando's? 

I certainly don't mean to demean either Greef Karga or Carl Weathers (whose career resurgence here I'm rather enjoying). That said, as you note, we already have seen the morally gray black character in Lando. 

If there was space, I would have drawn in Agent Tierny, one of the antagonists in the Star Wars: Resistance cartoon. In perhaps the most compelling story arcs in that series, Tierny--a black woman who is an officer in the First Order's security force--persuades a disgruntled starship mechanic Tam Ryvora (herself a black woman) into becoming a TIE Fighter pilot in the First Order. It's another instance in which you have a black character who is a villain who operates with some degree of agency.

I think Giancarlo Esposito was an excellent choice for the role. It is important to see black characters (heroes or villains) with nuance and agency within the narrative. I am wondering how much of that has to do with the actor's expertise and power. After playing Gus in Breaking Bad and before that working extensively with Spike Lee, I would bet that Esposito's experience gave him more agency over his role as Moff Gideon than Boyega was given as Finn (as he is still new in the Hollywood industry). I would also argue the same case for Billy D. Williams, who also had a more established career adding onto the fact that Geroge Lucas wouldn't have let Finn be portrayed the way he was through Disney since Lucas even gave development to Jar Jar Binks. If I remember correctly, Samual L. Jackson only asked for a small part in the first trilogy and was given the role of Mace Windu. He also asked for a different color lightsaber and was granted a different colored lightsaber. In his interview, Boyega talks about how he barely had control over the costume he wore. 

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