The Star Wars prequel trilogy was not very good. [citation not needed]
You’ve probably heard a lot of explanations for this famous artistic failure: pompous writing; wooden acting; over-reliance on then-cutting-edge CGI which delivered on spectacle but fell apart on realism; George Lucas literally divorcing the only editor who could bring his scattered Sunday-serial narrative impulses to heel, i.e., Marcia Lou Lucas; etc.
Today, we’re going to look at a new culprit. In this essay I will show how the Star Wars prequels were RUINED—
—by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
For a series literally named Star Wars, the films never cared very much about the imagined history of the wars among the stars. Lucas is no Herbert or Cherryh or Palmer, intricately inventing fantastic factions and their evolving animosity to set the stage for epic battle.
No, Star Wars is simpler: it just grabs the cultural memory of a famous war out of the US zeitgeist, slaps some lasers and rockets onto it, and shouts “roll film!”
The real-world inspiration for the original Star Wars trilogy was, of course, WWII. From the transparently-named “stormtroopers,” to the Hugo Boss-inspired, SS-style Imperial uniforms, to the fighter-pilot-vs-battleship climax sequences (directly cribbed from actual WWII combat footage!), the fingerprints of WWII are all over those movies.
The thing is, Americans know what WWII was about: Nazis. Who are bad.
When the time came for the central conflict of the prequel trilogy (the long-awaited Clone Wars) Lucas reached for another actual war, deeply embedded in the US cultural imagination: the American Civil War.
Again, the fingerprints are obvious. In Attack of the Clones, a simmering secession crisis erupts into a shooting war. The unionist faction’s military is the Grand Army of the Republic. The secessionists’ government is the Confederacy of Independent Systems. This is not super subtle.
There’s just one problem. The (white) American public doesn’t know what the Civil War was about.
We don’t know, because our public imagination—our art, our culture, our politics and laws—have all been undermined by a vast, intergenerational propaganda campaign to keep us confused and ignorant about the true nature of the Civil War and our History. A campaign waged in large part by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
A quick review of the history:
The American Civil War ended in a decisive Union victory. Confederate armies were defeated in the field and surrendered, effectively unconditionally. Confederate cities were destroyed, Confederate institutions dismantled, and Confederate states placed under military occupation and reintegrated into the Union. The Confederate States of America ceased to exist as a going concern.
But this defeat did not annihilate what Frederick Douglass (and others)1 called “the slave power”—the social order based on a white planter aristocracy ruinously exploiting the vast majority of Black Americans.
The slave power had written every Article of Secession and created every organ of the Confederacy. But even after the cause of Secession was defeated, the slave power fought on.
Through guerrilla warfare, terrorist violence, political maneuvering, and cultural propaganda, the slave power fought to renegotiate its surrender to the Union to more favorable terms. And by and large it succeeded.
After twelve years of that fighting (the Reconstruction era), the slave power achieved a new detente with the Union (Redemption). In this new arrangement, secession remained impossible and slavery remained outlawed. But the slave power implemented a renewed subjugation of Black Americans: economically, through debt peonage (sharecropping); culturally, through segregation (Jim Crow); and politically, through systematic disenfranchisement and terrorism (Jim Crow again). And the slave power ran the governments of the former Confederacy as one-party Dixiecrat states.
During the subsequent era (Jim Crow and the nadir of American race relations) the slave power preserved the legal right of white people to kill Black Americans with impunity, especially in large groups (lynchings), and erected a bunch of statues of Confederate generals to commemorate their ongoing power.
Nor was the slave power’s influence restricted to the former Confederacy. Other states and the federal government pursued their own segregationist and racially repressive policies. Slave power cultural propaganda was ubiquitous.
And—most relevant for Lucas and his prequel trilogy—the slave power set the terms for how all white Americans across the country would come to understand the Civil War, through both cultural propaganda (pro-slave-power works like Gone With the Wind and Birth of A Nation swept the country) and by seizing control of how (white) schoolchildren throughout the United States would learn about this conflict.
This campaign—the conquest of the (white) national memory of the Civil War—was primarily waged by organizations like the Daughters of the Confederacy, a Klan-affiliated advocacy group composed of the descendants of Confederate soldiers.
They had a name for the dishonest, Orwellian historiography of the war they wanted every (white) child to learn.
They called it “the Lost Cause.”
The simple fact of the matter is: the Confederacy had rebelled against the Union to preserve the institution of slavery. But the institution of slavery was transparently abhorrent and had been universally abandoned—which made the slave power look evil—and the Union had crushed the Confederacy in fire and blood—which made the slave power look weak. How could the Daughters of the Confederacy rescue such a humiliating reputation?
Their strategy had two pincers.
First, glorify and romanticize the Civil War, as a sort of ecumenical adventure. Flowing locks! Rugged beards! Daring cavalry charges! Strange new weapons—ironclads and machine guns! Etc.
The function of this pincer was to frame the war as a sort of mass spectacle—a thrilling but ultimately two-dimensional backdrop for individual adventures.
Second, replace public understandings of the cause of the war with specific slogans (memes, thought-terminating clichés) designed to give the impression that people understood what the war was about, while not actually meaning anything at all.
This strategy may justly be called Orwellian, but a more precise sci-fi example comes in Philip K. Dick’s “The Mold of Yancy,”2 where the corporate overlords of Callisto brainwash the population with continuous broadcasts from the fictitious Yancy.
Dick puts it like this: “All Yancy’s beliefs are insipid. The key is thinness…We’ve come as close as possible to no beliefs…without a viewpoint…but with the illusion of a viewpoint.”
What was the Civil War about? The Lost Cause has answers, rote phrases you’ve probably heard before: “states’ rights!” (states’ rights to do what?); “economic differences!” (the Union and Confederate economies differed how?); “clashing cultures” (the cultures clashed why?).
These slogans seem to be answers. Instead they obliterate answers. They are clichéd and analytically sterile; historical dead ends that point away from every source of truth.
This is, of course, exactly how the Clone Wars are depicted in the Star Wars prequels.
Why were the Clone Wars fought? The prequels will not say. Indeed, they do not seem to know.
Which is kind of weird. We viewers actually spend quite a bit of screentime with the political leaders of the nascent Confederacy! (Contrast this to the original trilogy, which utterly fails the political Bechdel test—no two characters ever exchange any dialogue about their ideologies or values.) But even though we literally eavesdrop on their councils, hiding in the rafters alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi, we get nothing. The corporate factions moan about tariffs and trade. Dooku sermonizes incoherently about democracy and corruption. The Senate debates whether mobilizing an army is ipso facto a provocation. It all adds up to basically nothing.
The prequel trilogy even loves to talk about slavery specifically! Anakin Skywalker is born into intergenerational chattel slavery; both the Republic and the Confederacy field overwhelmingly unfree armies. But the films contrive for the issue to remain neutral in the Clone Wars: Anakin’s slavery is (somehow) outside of both Republic and Confederacy; and the droids and clones alike are CGI pawns, carefully balanced between sides.
Even the exposition itself buys into this frame of meaningless equivalence. The opening crawl to Episode III explicitly states “There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere.” (Try, for a moment, to imagine those sentences shoehorned into The Empire Strikes Back!)
All of that means that when the war explodes, we viewers have no sense of the stakes. The Clone Wars are ideologically and morally incoherent—and thus narratively unsatisfying.
Quite the opposite happens in the original trilogy. Not through exposition-dumps or elaborate debates, but just as the natural result of clear characterization. The Star Wars original trilogy is about fascism and its enemies. The Empire is a recent fascist state; the Rebel Alliance opposes it because fascism is intolerable to free people.
So within ten minutes, we learn from Darth Vader that the Emperor has dissolved the organs of democracy. We see fascism’s supporters—the dehumanized and dehumanizing military—violate the laws of war by bombarding a consular ship. Throughout the films, we see the Empire employ torture, mass reprisals against civilians, and casual displacement of indigenous populations.
The depiction of fascism’s enemies is equally precise. Who opposes fascism? People of principle (Leia Organa). Idealistic youth (Luke Skywalker). Oppressed minorities (Chewbacca). Black marketeers—if they have a conscience (Han Solo). Religious leaders (Obi-Wan Kenobi). Royalists (the Organas, offscreen). Provincial leaders with local autonomy (Lando Calrissian). Elected officials of the prior democratic regime (Mon Mothma). The dramatis personae of the original trilogy reads like a goddamn slideshow of the Allies’ “This man is your FRIEND. He fights for FREEDOM” poster series. It’s not an accident that Princess Leia’s rescue from the Death Star plays out as a fantasy of saving Sophie Scholl from the Nazi guillotine.
But the Clone Wars, deprived of this outsourced—yet effective!—moral clarity, descends into banal meaninglessness.
There is room for a more ominous interpretation here. After all, if the secession crisis in Attack of the Clones is the secession crisis of 1860, then Palpatine (aka Darth Sidious)—the unexpected leader from a rural backwater who rises to power on the eve of battle, who preaches peace but secretly courts war, who exploits the conflict to amass his own tyrannical power, who threatens the liberty of the entire galaxy—the Dark Lord of the Sith is Abraham Lincoln.
Or rather, he is the tyrannical vision of Abraham Lincoln that motivated John Wilkes Booth to assassinate the Great Emancipator.
With this interpretation in mind, all six Lucasfilm Star Wars movies descend into obsessive crypto-neo-Confederate propaganda of the strangest, basest type. The hero’s journey is to restore the Confederacy! A more elegant weapon, for a more antebellum age! The South and/or Jedi will rise again! Etc. Etc.
But, for my money, all that is a bridge too far. Lucas hasn’t suggested any secret Confederate sympathies; nor have actual neo-Confederates drawn the parallel themselves. No, Lucas isn’t the intentional author of secret slave power propaganda. He’s just another victim, regurgitating the same lies we’ve all been fed.
The real tragedy is: there was room to do better.
Rian Johnson (director of Star Wars: Episode VIII, The Last Jedi) memorably defended the prequel trilogy as follows: “Lucas made a gorgeous 7-hour long movie for children about how entitlement and fear of loss turns good people into fascists.”
He’s not wrong about what Lucas seems to have been trying to do. But the foundation Lucas built upon—(white) America’s cultural memory of the Civil War—had been compromised by the slave power’s propaganda, and the message became muddled and lost.
There were better ways. Lucas could have leaned into the parallel. Anakin is born into slavery—and the Confederacy is seceding to preserve those institutions of exploitation. Qui-Gon’s body lies a-mouldering in his grave, but his soul goes marching on! And so on. (The only issue there would be the slight awkwardness of either having the victorious Republic descend into Imperial tyranny, or writing to an alternate history where the slave power won.)
Other works of sci-fi have handled these periods and themes of American history far more thoughtfully—works like Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, or the recent Watchmen miniseries. The key ingredient seems to be observing the war and the tyranny from the perspective of Black America—clear-eyed about oppression, possessed of moral urgency, uncontaminated by slave power propaganda.
Alternatively, Lucas could have reached for another historical inspiration; Caesar crossing the Rubicon and marching on Rome would be an obvious choice, if a bit obscure to modern audiences. Perhaps more compelling would be the Spanish Civil War, the most famous instance of a 20th-century fascist regime being established through open warfare. This war’s story later served as the deeply effective frame narrative for Pan’s Labyrinth, which won over American audiences at the same time the Star Wars prequels were losing them.
Lucas could have leaned into the critique of the War on Terror that he occasionally fumbles towards. He could have remixed Vietnam and Watergate—surely every male Boomer director has at least one Vietnam movie in him! He could have looked at the Delian League’s descent into Athenian thalassocracy; the end of Taishō Democracy; the collapse of the French First Republic into Empire. He could have followed in the footsteps of the great space operas and struck out for something genuinely novel—following droids and clones and what they mean for life and for war. Any of these options would have taken Star Wars in an interesting, enlightening direction—and the American moviegoing public along with it.
But at the end of the day, he did none of that. Instead, he lazily recycled the slave power’s propaganda. And so the Star Wars prequels have a hole in their hearts; and so the lies of the Daughters of the Confederacy—of wars without meaning and without purpose, of a history that cannot tell the difference between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis—got yet another day in the twin suns.
This was bad for Star Wars. But, despite my quarter-century love affair with the Galaxy Far, Far Away, I am forced to admit: it was worse for America.
The slave power—both its dead hand and its all-too-living manifestations—is the enemy of American liberty and American democracy. It’s the crack in our national foundation that strikes at every American dream of freedom and of justice.
We deserve better.
And as science fiction fans and creators—as the lovers of the literature of the imagined future—we can do better and we must do better.
America needs us. The future needs us. Where Lucas has set down the work of Reconstruction, we must take it up ourselves! By the rotoscopic flashing of our ancient laser swords: the truth is marching on!
1 Wilson, Henry, and Samuel Hunt. History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. Boston, J.R. Osgood And Company, -77, 1872.
2 Dick, Philip K. “The Mold of Yancy.” The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. Volume 4. The Minority Report [1954-1963]. Burton, Mi., Subterranean Press, 2013.
© 2022 Louis Evans