I write readily about the value of popular culture and media literacy to shape critical discourse amongst students. As students are entrenched within the mediated space, it’s a moral imperative for educators to leverage their sanctum to construct, like media itself, an opportunity to explore the realities of today. Just as I walked into the school today on a busy Monday leading into the final week of classes before the Christmas break, students were entrenched in deep conversations relevant to consumption. From Netflix to sports (which in an all-boys school where I teach invites rich conversation about the codification of masculinity), students (like all of us) are entrenched within the great experiment of popular culture – a mirror into our shared values.
At the top of the conversation was the opening weekend of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. From students who didn’t like the humour or to those who didn’t understand the connection to the original trilogy (spoiler free here – but particular imagery that speaks to Luke), its safe to say that students, generally, read less and consume visual and audio more. Excitingly, I’ll have the pleasure to watch the film with one hundred students or so, at a private screening this Friday – a great way to share in some pre-Christmas movie cheer and casual conversation about why the force remains so topical and relevant – breaking away from mere consumption.
Looking at the growing popularity of Star Wars and of the bridge between the original trilogy and prequels now connect with the young audience of today, there’s a great opportunity to leverage the story of Rey to facilitate meaningful learning as it pertains to religion and violence. As I wrote in the Catholic Film Reader available from The Catholic Curriculum Corporation, the original Star Wars was culturally responsive (nothing new within the critical realm when looking at the film through the cultural lens of the 1970s), but importantly the search for “hope,” within the guiding nature of the “force” overtly speaks to the need for faith and spirituality to provide guidance at times of chaos. It is with the chaotic in the forefront, that the new series is grounded in an urgency that was lacking with the prequels – a cultural need to explore the potential relationship between violence and religion within a relevant socio-political milieu.
Just look at the opening scene from The Force Awakens below. As Kylo Ren is introduced as a Dark Vader wannabe, co-writer and director J.J. Abrams plants the narrative within real world conflict – particular the realm of the child solider. These soldiers, faceless, act based not on their own beliefs but by those in which they were bred. They’re shaped by the evil appropriation of a religion – distorted and exploited. Importantly, as the opening conflict takes place on dessert terrain, the landscape evokes the realities of conflict in parts of the Middle East and Africa. As such, whereas the prequels lacked a cultural urgency (other than revisiting the brand), the new series (although commercially driven, as well), is grounded within a rich cultural study of violence today.
By no means do I want to give away any spoilers as it pertains to Rian Johnson’s epic and ambitious entry into the series with The Last Jedi, however, the conflict between good and evil grows as Luke is in battle with his Jedi religion (discerning) and struggles to understand it’s purpose and his role within it. As Luke’s story takes shape and the connection between him, Rey and Kylo Ren are bridged, the connection between religion and violence grows, echoing to the major conflicts of today. The canvas is not simply painted with the good and the bad but rather the complex narrative between all characters – forcing the viewer to explore religion beyond their respective institution and importantly how they live with their faith in their day-to-day (looking through a lens of purity and connection, rather than distortion or difference).
It is with the need to intentionally provide students with an opportunity to be active citizens, knowing and critical responsive to the realities of today, that a film like The Last Jedi provides for an authentic opportunity to teach to and from popular culture and media literacy.
May The Force Be With You.