Fun fact: if you eliminate all the characters with facetime from the Original Trilogy (Obi-Wan, Anakin, Palpatine, the Lars family), all the characters related to them (Shmi and Padme Skywalker), and all the characters playing decoy for said characters (Padme’s decoys)…you get a staggeringly diverse cast for the prequels. Do most of the women not have speaking roles? Yes. Are there very, very few women? Also yes. Should Swan never be allowed to make collages again ever? Yeah…
But despite all of this, you can see that the casting crew–Lucas in particular–really tried to diversify.
Two major props have to go to the casting of Jimmy Smits and Temuera Morrison (and by extension, Rebecca Mendoza and Daniel Logan), who became Bail Organa and Jango Fett: one of them was the unseen-but-very-significant foster parent of Leia, and the other was the template for the most notorious background character in cinematic history. These two were icons who excited everyone with their presence in the prequels, and they went to non-white actors.
Samuel L. Jackson got to be the Jedi Master who stood beside Yoda and was only killed by the combined efforts of Darth Vader and the Emperor; Ahmed Best was cast as one of the first fully-CGI-characters in history (the discussion of the disastrous backlash from THAT is a topic for another post), Captain Panaka was the stalwart protector of Naboo, and most of the more memorable background Jedi were women. The roles of non-white characters were extremely limited by the central cast, and Lucas’s desire to expand the diversity of the Star Wars universe itself beyond human boundaries further limited a lot of these actors’ facetime (one arguable misstep is that Qui-Gon could have been played by a non-white actor, but…).
There is an admittedly surprising lack of Chinese and Japanese actors to be found here–especially considering everything Star Wars owes to Japan–but the fact remains that there was clearly an aggressive movement to diversify the Star Wars universe. The franchise would then, of course, fight to close the gender gap with The Clone Wars–Ahsoka Tano and Asajj Ventress played central roles, while many of the once-background Jedi had their roles expanded to become major characters. Rebels continued the franchise’s quest to diversify the universe, and now The Force Awakens has taken yet another step with Rey, Finn, and Poe.
I believe it should be noted, then, that the expansion that is being accomplished with the latest movie is not a dramatic change for Lucasfilm or the franchise, but instead the most notable step forward. Is there still work to do? Yes, but Star Wars is nothing if not tireless.