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finn stands on the first order star destroyer still wearing his stormtrooper armor in star wars: the force awakens Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

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John Boyega is doing what Star Wars wouldn’t

A franchise about resistance has repeatedly overlooked the Black experience

In 1977, two years after the Vietnam War and a decade’s worth of protests, Star Wars was a clear comment on violent resistance. But George Lucas’ perspective didn’t see Blacks as prominent revolutionaries, even as voices like Malcolm X and Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of leading Black Panther member Eldridge Cleaver, shaped the rebellion. Instead, the two most recognizable Black entities in the first Star Wars trilogy are James Earl Jones, voicing the authoritarian Darth Vader, and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who — though he eventually sides with the resistance — would rather not rock the boat because he’s a businessman, not a revolutionary. The prequel trilogy featured two more Black actors: Ahmed Best, under CG that erased his Blackness and made him reviled by the fandom for over a decade, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, who only really took shape in expanded texts. While Star Wars as conceived by Lucas had a message about resistance through conflict, the Black resistance of the 1970s, in which activists called for liberation through armed self-defense, wasn’t present.

The strength of Star Wars is in its idea of unity, how disparate cultures and species can band together no matter their individual differences. Its greatest weakness, time and time again, is shading over identity so that unity can flourish. Lucasfilm’s sequel trilogy, spearheaded by J.J. Abrams with The Force Awakens in 2015, introduced fans to Finn, who many hoped could be a fully dimensionalized Black character in the Star Wars universe. But he was a former stormtrooper first and foremost, built on the mythology of Lucas’ original universe, and eventually clicked into a part of a greater quest and became homogenized. Once again, the storytellers behind Star Wars could not detect the Black revolution, while the world — along with star John Boyega — prepared for the actual resistance.

Disney first announced plans for a Star Wars sequel trilogy in October 2012. A few months later, the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin prompted Black activists to use the term #BlackLivesMatter. In July 2014, Eric Garner’s death due to a fatal chokehold by police sparked further protests. The movement grew as Abrams and Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan developed and wrote The Force Awakens, with seismic events like those in Ferguson, Missouri — where activists protested the murder of Michael Brown amid looting, curfews, and further police brutality — made the phrase common parlance. In the yearlong lead-up to Rian Johnson’s 2017 film The Last Jedi, police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shot and killed Alton Sterling; then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during “The Star Spangled Banner” in protest. By the time the trilogy concluded with Abrams’ The Rise of Skywalker in late 2019, we had witnessed the death of Jocques Clemmons in Nashville, Tennessee, and many more.

finn holding a lightsaber in star wars: the force awakens Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

Despite emerging in this hotbed moment, The Force Awakens and the subsequent sequels never found a way to say “Black Lives Matter” — only that all lives matter, too. While Abrams might have hoped to address the diversity issues of Star Wars’ past through Finn, in practice, the results are disappointing. Through casting a Black actor, Abrams thought Finn’s Blackness would be apparent. But Blackness is deeper than skin color. It’s activism. In that regard, Finn isn’t Black. Not to those in the world of Star Wars.

Even so, Abrams might have been on to something. In The Force Awakens, Finn seizes his freedom from the First Order by escaping from the clutches of Kylo Ren with Poe Dameron. He discovers an identity by discarding the white stormtrooper helmet that erased his skin color and dropping his slave name, FN-2187, to become “Finn.” When Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Finn capture Captain Phasma — Finn’s former commanding officer and master — he taunts her with the phrase, “I’m in charge now,” which expresses his embodiment of Black resistance.

When heroism is corporatized by a conglomerate like Disney, a Black character like Finn sees his power diminished, since the greater good is often defined by white comfortability. After liberating himself from the First Order, Finn transitioned from wielding a lightsaber against Kylo Ren to searching for love and becoming part of a different greater whole: the Resistance. As he assumed hero status, his sense of revolution faded away. In The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson turns him into the MacGuffin love interest — whose romantic importance is teased but never fulfilled — opposite Rose and Rey.

In The Rise of Skywalker, he’s at best the comic relief opposite Poe, and at worst an accessory to the action. Early on, when our heroes are sinking to what might be their impending deaths on Pasaana, Finn tries to blurt out his last words to Rey. From the tone and directorial conventions, it seems like a declaration of love — but it’s never revealed. After the film’s release, Abrams tried to be more definitive for audiences, saying that Finn hoped to confess his Force sensitivity. But the text is the text: When given the choice between asserting Finn’s power or muzzling the character in triviality, Abrams chose the ambiguously saccharine route. Though even the word “sensitive” reads as nullifying and patronizing.

Like Lucas in the prior trilogies, Johnson and Abrams didn’t connect Finn to the struggles that Blacks face against real-world oppression. Instead, bringing Black activism into the franchise was left up to Boyega, not Finn.

John Boyega speaks through a megaphone to a large crowd of protesters
John Boyega speaks during a Black Lives Matter protest in London’s Hyde Park on June 3, 2020.
Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Over the past few years, Boyega has fearlessly used his platform to call out racism and racist dog whistles. It began with his introduction into the Star Wars universe, when fans angrily decried the casting of a Black man as a stormtrooper, and has continued through his comments on the worldwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. On Wednesday, the actor joined a protest in London and delivered a speech to the crowd. “I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing,” he said, “and that isn’t the case anymore. That was never the case.”

But the Star Wars sequel movies never acknowledged Finn’s race enough for the hardships that Boyega faced, or the macro view of the world he navigated, to cross over in a meaningful way. There was no fulfilling moment where he could declare to the First Order, as a response to their enslavement of him, “I really fucking hate racists,” like Boyega tweeted last week. Instead, The Last Jedi has the Canto Bight scene, where Rose explains to Finn, a Black man, how Imperial money adversely affects oppressed worlds by profiting off death. As a reflection of Black Lives Matter, and the conversations America was having on race, a deeper, more representational film might see Finn deliver the exact same speech. But he doesn’t. Rose doesn’t see Finn as Black in the way Black audiences might expect, in a way that acknowledges how his past trauma deeply informs their current conversation. To Rose, he’s foremost a former stormtrooper blinded to the repressive actions of the First Order.

Later in The Last Jedi, when the Resistance is cornered by the First Order, Rose saves Finn from sacrificing himself. “I won’t let them win,” Finn angrily spouts to Rose. But his emotional complexity — a rage governed by the scenes on Canto Bight and his experiences as an enslaved stormtrooper — is whittled down when Rose responds, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.” Rose’s words sound like a plea to filter anger into peaceful and unifying actions rather than violent recourse. Or, as Yoda once warned, “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

jannah and finn in star wars: the rise of skywalker Image: Lucasfilm Ltd.

When viewed through the lens of Black Lives Matter, Rose’s statement is an unrealistic wish we hear often from white voices. It’s seeing both sides. Rose gives Finn this message because she doesn’t see him as a Black man. If she did, she wouldn’t filter his anger toward the oppressively white First Order. She wouldn’t treat him as a part of the whole, confining him to the proto-wisdom of Lucas’ previous trilogies. If the new Star Wars universe had reached to represent resistance in the modern age, it wouldn’t have left it to Boyega to bravely tweet, “The oppressor doesn’t give you time to talk about self love before they shoot you.” Thankfully, Boyega isn’t Finn.

A fulfillment of Finn as a revolutionary doesn’t actually arrive until he teams with the other disaffected stormtroopers during the final act of the final film of the trilogy. By that point, the promise of these newer chapters addressing race and representation, taking relevant cues from Black Lives Matter in the process, were all but extinguished by the franchise’s previous entries. There’s no time for Finn and Jannah to bond over their identities, to share experiences with Lando, to explore how young Black voices look toward movements of the past for guidance today. Finn, Jannah, and Lando don’t get to be Black.

The white creatives that have powered Hollywood for 100 years are familiar with the slave narrative, but have never been great at telling the story of what comes after. From the Black revolutionaries of the Vietnam War to the voices of Black Lives Matter, the real-life Black people who fight racism and oppression are continually lost in Star Wars’ larger parallels. Now Boyega is left to pick up the unrealized pieces of a Black revolutionary in a tentpole film franchise. He’s what Finn could have been: a hero acutely translating his anger, and the era’s unfettered outrage, into actionable support for those suffering most, no matter the comfortability of those around him.

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