The way some racists reacted to John Boyega’s face popping up in the first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens reminds me of the Dave Chappelle sketch where Neil Brennan’s head explodes after the blind black klansman takes off his hood. One thing confuses me though; are the racists upset that there’s a black stormtrooper or that there’s a black actor in the film at all? If it’s the latter, they’re even dumber than I thought they were, because that ship has sailed long ago. If it’s the former, I think I understand the nature of this idiocy, which I’ll explain below.
Let me first say, though, that there’s also no evidence I’ve seen to suggest for a certainty that John Boyega’s character is even a stormtrooper in the actual film. I suppose no one remembers that whole big chunk of New Hope where Luke and Han disguised themselves as stormtroopers to rescue Leia. Let’s assume for the time being that he is indeed a stormtrooper in this film. Why would that upset a racist fan? Consider the image of a stormtrooper; homogenous, literally identical men in suits whose real faces are never seen. Such a uniform, blank canvass allows the racist to imagine whatever image he wants for what lays underneath the helmet, or rather, perhaps no image at all. Such an open-ended image allows one to place stormtroopers in a universe devoid of the challenge of diversity. Say nothing of the fact that the universe of Star Wars is populated with not only people of color but aliens and robots. Considering stormtroopers as one uniform blob allows one to cast whatever characteristics one desires upon them. So, if one is inclined to default to whiteness than of course everyone behind a helmet in a universe that makes sense to you is white.
If one is disinclined towards diversity or finds it challenging, one may default to an imagining of a universe where this challenge doesn’t exist. If one sees the prospect of diversity as a problem rather than an imperative or an opportunity, they may well retreat to an imagined place where this challenge doesn’t exit. The problem for myself applying this line of thinking to what’s happened with the reaction to John Boyega is that he’s not the first black actor to appear in a Star Wars film. It should be noted however, that he is widely rumored to be the lead of this particular installment. That indeed would be new and if it’s the case I believe JJ Abrams should be applauded for it.
So, let’s say John Boyega is the lead in The Force Awakens. If these same imbeciles who reacted negatively to him appearing for a mere moment in a teaser trailer lost their minds over that, how exactly are they going to tolerate his presence for an entire feature? I suppose one could boycott the film, but I somehow doubt that many would take that approach. I read one tweet with the “black stormtrooper” hashtag complaining of a “political correctness” he believes will now infect this upcoming Star Wars. By “political correctness” I’m assuming he meant that black actors of any kind have no actual merit to justify appearing in a Star Wars film and therefore the inclusion of one is a concession to so-called political correctness. I’m not sure what reality this individual lives in. There exists no popular or pervasive ethos in Hollywood dictating the inclusion of underrepresented groups of any kind. Actors of color remain largely invisible in mainstream cinema, so I’m not sure what politically correct agenda the filmmakers would be following with the inclusion of John Boyega or any other actor of color.
Some others seem to be trying to make a logical case against a black stormtrooper. This tack is misguided and erroneous on several levels. Do they think black people wouldn’t be able to get the suit on? I’m not even sure I understand what the real complaint is. Most of all, any complaint on the basis of logic for this universe is itself illogical. I’m reminded of Idris Elba’s response to similar complaints about him playing a “Norse god” in Thor, to which he said, “Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s okay, but the color of my skin is wrong?”
The more I think about it the more I think people are upset that a black face is the first face they see in the first official footage from the new Star Wars. It appears very possible to me that a large amount of people have used Star Wars as a way to reinforce and ratify their whiteness. In a universe populated with Wookies, Droids, Ewoks, and myriad other creatures, it has always been “white people” cast as heroes. And not just people who happen to be white, but white people as we know them; white people with American and British accents. If you’ve fixed your white identity to a series of films or even used them to help define your racial identity and all of a sudden that series’ universe is thrown into flux (or so you think) by the inclusion of a black actor or character, I suppose that can be quite disorienting. Probably a good reason for caution when tying your racial identity to a piece of fiction. The exceptional thing about Star Wars is that its the story of a young “everyman” become great through acts of heroism. That heroism and the qualities of an “everyman” should read as white to anyone is really the heart of the problem here. It’s worth noting that this is one of the argument executives in Hollywood use as an excuse not to put people of color in their films; the “average” person can’t relate. The argument is essentially that they can’t market “black” to white and overseas audiences. If this were really the case, someone would have to explain the success and subsequent mainstreaming of hip hop.
Cultural events like this teaser, Michael Strahan being picked to co-host with Kelly Ripa, and the Cheerios commercial with the interracial family are all instances that serve as ways to highlight the absurdity and illogicality of racism by the way detractors react online. That someone can react so venomously to the visual representation of something that exits in myriad phases of reality exposes them as cretinous and ridiculous. Despite inequities, segregation, and racial tensions that still persist, people of different races coexist in our culture. Especially in countries like the US and the UK, where Mr. Boyega is from, diversity is not a wish or a political mandate, it is a simple reality. On the other hand it is absolutely pathetic that we live in a media culture where the appearance of a black actor in a teaser for a major motion picture warrants any kind of reaction at all. But the truth is that even if it’s a welcome sight, as it was for me, the presence of a black actor in a Star Wars trailer is quite simply jarring. We are quite simply unaccustomed as an audience to the presence of people of color in American science fiction and pop culture in general. Black people are not a new presence-we have been here the whole time and in great numbers. The cinematic record however, does not reflect that fact.