Image taken from John Boyega's Instagram
“You get yourself involved in projects and you’re not necessarily going to like everything. [But] what I would say to Disney is do not bring out a black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side. It’s not good. I’ll say it straight up,” John Boyega said of Disney in an honest interview with British GQ.
Just last week on September 2nd, British GQ published an interview with John Boyega. The interview is described in its description, “During Britain’s Black Lives Matter rallies in June, John Boyega wrote his name in the history of racial justice. Here, in his first interview since finishing Star Wars and that unguarded address from a Hyde Park Stage, our October cover star speaks to Jimi Famurewa about how both platforms inspired him to make a stand, but for very different reasons.”
And while there are many emotional and honest moments in the interview, such as a discussion of Boyega’s speech at a Black Lives Matter protest in London, what really fired up the internet was his honest attack on the multi-billion dollar company and their inability to include proper diversity that matters to all generations, and not just fake woke tokenism.
Boyega speaks of his experience on the newest Star Wars trilogy, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker, and his treatment, or lack thereof, of his character Finn. Finn, a stormtrooper, once formally known as FN-2187, defects from the evil First Order with the help of Poe Dameron, a fighter pilot for the resistance who’s escaping a star destroyer after being captured by Anakin Skywalker’s grandson, Kylo Ren. Finn’s character is our intro to the new trilogy, and a promising one at that. He’s story is set up as a defector, struggling to do the right thing. In the end of the film, he wields a lightsaber which hints at his connection to the force, stalls enough for Rey to arrive, defeat Kylo Ren, and escape the fight. Finn survives which promises viewers Finn’s story of finding identity within oneself and figuring out what’s right and wrong in an ever-changing space civilization. And yet, the character is sidelined in the next two movies.
In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Finn is afraid of the horrors of war and decides to flee the rebel alliance. Ultimately, he’s caught by Rose Tico, a resistance maintenance worker, and they go on an adventure to take down the shields of the First Orders flagship, which is hunting down the last of the resistance. In the end, though, they are betrayed and forced to flee the flagship. The Journey doesn’t amount to anything, Finn tries to sacrifice himself to destroy another pursuing superweapon after the resistance crash lands on a planet, and Rose Tico ends up saving him. Tico’s character insists the way to save the galaxy is not to destroy those they hate, but to protect the ones they love. The two share a kiss, they escape and live to fight another day, setting up the next movie for Finn and Rose to battle the tyranny of the First Order together.
What happens in the next movie? Not much. Rose Tico is thrown to the side, Finn is reduced to a side character with so little dialogue that I genuinely don’t remember what his character did in Rise of Skywalker, and all the time is spent running around searching for the way to a Sith planet as Rey, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, are given all the backstory. Which is a damn shame because a defected storm trooper joining the resistance, struggling to discover his own identity and realizing he has force powers could have been a really strong piece in a film wrestling to find its own identity amongst two other popular trilogies while still connecting to its roots would have fit right in.
“Like, you guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver,” John Boyega says. “You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marrie Tran [the actress who played Rose Tico], when it came to John Boyega, you know fuck all. So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, ‘I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience…’ Nah, nah, nah. I’ll take that deal when it’s a great experience. They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let’s be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I’m not exposing anything.”
During his time as Finn in all three sequel movies, John Boyega received backlash for his character in the film specifically, for the color of his skin. In an article published as early as October 8th, 2015, two months prior to Star Wars: The Force Awakens release, Boyega went vocal with the amount of racial hate he received for his casting.
“You either enjoy it or you don’t,” Boyega responded in an interview with V Magazine. “I’m not saying get used to the future, but what is already happening. People of color and women are increasingly being shown on-screen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn’t make sense.”
Similarly, Kelly Marie Tran received the same backlash for her portrayal as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, many fans citing her character as “unnecessary” and “useless” to the plot. But despite making valid critiques of The Last Jedi, fans decided to attack the actress directly on her social media accounts. The incident prompted her to leave social media for a while.
“It wasn’t their words, It’s that I started to believe them,” Tran said in an opinion piece published in The New York Times.
“Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.
“And those words awakened something deep inside me – a feeling I thought I had grown out of. The same feeling I had when at 9, I stopped speaking Vietnamese altogether because I was tired of hearing other kids mock me. Or at 17 when at dinner with my white boyfriend and his family, I ordered a meal in perfect English, to the surprise of the waitress, who exclaimed, “Wow, it’s so cute that you have an exchange student!”
Understandably, joining the cast of one of your favorite franchises, only to be mocked and ridiculed for the color of your skin leaves an impressionable scar on someone, leaving them angry and frustrated.
Boyega says, “Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper.’ Nobody else had that experience. But yet people are surprised that I’m this way. That’s my frustration.”
And much of that frustration and energy can be seen in Boyega’s speech in London, Hyde Park—the frustration of being not judged based off the merit of your character or your talents, but by what people perceive about you based off the color of your skin and to deny that reality is to deny a person’s experience.
Luckily, both Boyega and Tran have made peace with much of the hate they received for their characters in the Star Wars franchise. But still, their experiences and portrayal of these characters as POC actors should remind us that not every character, not every story is made for white cis, straight people and that it’s okay if you can’t relate to a character because you don’t share the same experiences. What’s important is to listen to those stories and experiences that are unlike our own and understand that life is more nuanced and intersectional than what any one individual can experience.