The Force Awakens in all of us, even the “nobodies”
I’m a Star Wars geek, and I have been for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of watching Star Wars with my first grade class, writing reports on what it meant to be a Jedi, and it was that from which I drew my first coherent life lesson.
You see, by then, I’d already started to internalize the many voices telling me that the worst thing I could be — as a black man — was angry. Anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side.
I came to understand Luke over the course of that year, to empathize deeply with him — his journey as a hero, his struggles with the dark side, and yet ultimately, his detachment from the Jedi.
And yet in the face of growing hype around Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the newest trilogy, I’ve tried to hold back, to manage expectations, and to remain calm, because despite the hype, the prequel trilogy was nothing but a massive disappointment.
In contrast, there have been so many other geek franchises — great franchises — to buy into. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings bringing fantasy into modern pop culture. The rise of Marvel as a blockbuster machine. The gritty realism of DC reboots like The Dark Knight. The success of sci-fi shows like Battlestar Galactica and the cult following behind Firefly.
The prequel trilogy wasn’t for me though, not really. That trilogy was about hyping a new generation on Star Wars. But this new trilogy? I can’t get enough of it. I’ve watched the trailer again and again, grinning and whooping and crying. This trilogy aims to deliver on the promises of the original, to culminate an experience that is — to many — generationally defining. It seeks to cash in on nostalgia, but also to fulfill those promises — to exceed those expectations.
And so when Kylo Renn says “I will finish what you started” to the husk of Vader’s mask, I have to wonder: is that his line? Or is it J.J. Abrams’ promise to George Lucas?
And when a group of racist trolls start #BoycottStarWarsVII because it has a black man and a woman as its protagonists, I can’t help but see a larger nostalgic trend. When historically white worlds like Hollywood experience increasing diversity, the pushback from white reactionaries has been strong.
But nowhere has this been more notable than in the world of fantasy and science-fiction. Before John Boyega, there was controversy over a black Spiderman, a black girl in Hunger Games, and now a black Captain America.
And I realize I’m so ready for this Star Wars movie not because it’s a throwback to the old Star Wars, a Star Wars I already loved. I am counting the days until its release because it is for me in a way it has never been before.
The reason for that is John Boyega, the black actor portraying one of the leads, and how damn real he is. Black people aren’t allowed to be people in media, only caricatures. They can be funny or angry. They can be mystical or competent. They can be larger than life or lesser, superhuman or subhuman. But they can’t be people.
And yet when Boyega first appears in the official trailer, dripping with sweat, he has no trait but an all-too-human one: insecurity.
I was raised to do one thing, but I’ve got nothing to fight for.
Throughout the trailer, he shows a myriad of emotions: fear, shock, resolve. His face — a sweaty, black face emerging from a sullied white stormtrooper helmet— is the new face of Star Wars.
And yet the racist nostalgia for a whiter, more simple Star Wars couldn’t be more wrong. At its heart, Star Wars is a tale about a ragtag coalition of aliens fighting against a dominant homogenous force. We can let Chewbacca in as a protagonist, but a black protagonist? Crazy talk.
Kylo Ren — the new “villain” in this distant galaxy — promises the mask of Vader:
Nothing will stand in our way.
And yet there at least two who will. Finn, who has nothing to fight for. Rey, the female lead, who answers “I’m no one” to her identity.
That is the face of the new Star Wars. The nobodies. A woman. A black man.
I can’t tell you whether the new Star Wars movie will be good, or whether you’ll like it. But I can tell you that — for the first time — I’ll be able to look at that screen — to imagine that world — and to see myself in it.