Whose Fantasy? Who’s Fantasy?

Black Stormtroopers and the White Washing of the Speculative Fiction Genre

I woke up at 4am the morning after Thanksgiving in 2014. I had been staying the night at my friends Liz and Rob’s house after imbibing what can only be called a festive amount of alcohol. The couch, comfortable as it was when I settled in to sleep, was a nightmare to wake up in as I willed myself into consciousness. Then I remembered:

The Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer was set to drop that morning

In all of my revelry the previous evening, I had forgotten this fact. I scrambled to find my phone as my brain continued to process this crucial bit of information (and the alcohol from last night). There were already thousands of views on YouTube. My mouth dry and my mind racing, I pressed play.

The first character in the trailer is a harried and exhausted looking John Boyega decked out in a Stormtrooper outfit, and I did all I could do to contain my glee. When I had heard that Boyega was cast to be in the movie, I had assumed it would be in a supporting role, much like Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian before him. Disney had just dropped 4.4 billion dollars on the franchise, and they only had 1:33 seconds to wow their entire fan-base. To waste those precious seconds on a bit character would be completely irresponsible. Then my brain caught up with what I was seeing. Was it possible that a black character is going to be the protagonist of Star Wars?

I’ve been a Star Wars fan for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories was watching a drive-in double feature showing of Disney’s The Lion King and Star Wars: A New Hope. My ideas of right and wrong, heroism, self-sacrifice and discipline all come from these movies.

When Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy was announced in 2012, I was deeply skeptical (I’ve since changed my tune on that subject, but more on that later). After the disastrous prequel trilogy, the numbers weren’t looking so good for Star Wars. If this new trilogy was anything less than amazing, by the end of it all, two-thirds of the Star Wars movies would be bad. At that point, my sad devotion to that old religion would be worth little-to-nothing.

Despite being in the public eye for a relatively short amount of time, John Boyega has already won the hearts and minds of nerds everywhere. His first role was in the British sci-fi action comedy Attack The Block (2011) as a street gang member saving his neighborhood from attacking aliens. The film was a critical success and has become a cult favorite.

When Boyega was announced as a cast member of the new Star Wars film, reception was generally positive, save for a vocal minority upset that he’d been cast in the role of a Stormtrooper. Some fans felt having a black Stormtrooper was a betrayal of the original canon, as previous iterations of Stormtroopers had all been white (actually, they were all portrayed by one actor of Maori descent). Boyega’s response to this backlash (black-lash?) only served to increase my admiration of him.

We live in a world where there is a deeply unequal representation of people of color in the media. Artists of color are trying their best to fill the gap, this summer’s DOPE and 2014’s Dear White People being great examples of this. That being said when it comes to the sci-fi fantasy genre; black people suffer a decidedly larger disparity of representation.

Black people make up 12% of the population and those black people represent 13% of movie ticket purchases. In 2015, the absence of a representative amount of characters of color in foundational and groundbreaking fantasy works such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones is anachronistic at best and insulting at worst.

The question remains; why are creators so reluctant to include black people in fantasy works? Black people in America, in a very real sense, have only recently achieved any reasonable semblance of personhood. To write an authentic story about a black person up until the 20th century would be as pointless as writing a story about a mop, or some other object.

To that end, the only space in the white imagination for black people are in roles of subservience. Recognizable tropes such as the Magical Negro, or the Sassy Black Friend proliferate narratives where black people are present. In other stories the tropes of the Cool Guy or Black Best Friend are seemingly gracious roles offered to black people. “Don’t worry guys, we’re not racist, you get to be the cool guy in our story.” And yet, black characters are rarely the heroes. Black folks dying first in horror movies and playing welfare cases only re-enforce white supremacist views in narratives.

Only a handful of black actors in Hollywood have been able to overcome this lack of imagination in movies. To his credit Calvin Baker in his piece Color Blind: A Pocket Guide to Race in America, brings up the pantheon of token black actors who have been able to make it in Hollywood despite their skin color.

“In the movies, the public record of our collective unconscious, only a handful of actors (Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry) are permitted roles that showcase them in contexts that are not defined by their race.” –Color Blind: A Pocket Guide to Race in America, Calvin Baker.

However these actors, as talented as they are, have never been given turns in fantasy genres (With the exception of Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas and Forrest Whitaker in Battlefield Earth). These actors are essentially cyphers — they act only in place of the standard white protagonist

In Henry Barnes’ article, “Zoë Kravitz: ‘Why do stories happen to white people and everyone else is a punchline?’” Kravitz herself, talks about her experiences as a black actor trying to get desirable roles in films:

“I ask writers and producers: ‘Why don’t you have any black people in your film? Why do stories happen to white people and everyone else is a punchline?” she says, “What I’m finding is that a lot of people don’t see it’s an issue because it’s not their story, unless they’re black or a minority.”

Some hold the idea that filmmakers and writers, being part of a white supremacist society, are inherently racist and they don’t believe black people to be capable of fulfilling a hero function in literature, outside the narratives that have already been laid down for them.

“When it comes to literary people,” says one of the few African-American editors working at a major publisher, “in terms of the people who buy and edit, it’s almost a white genre. For those people the only black stories are those familiar to them. They can’t get away from the novelty. They expect black people to play that part of writing the kind of black books they know. When we write about America, it becomes marginalized.”

When reading a book or watching a movie, it’s only natural that readers would seek out elements of themselves in the characters within. To some extent, we read and sympathize with what is familiar to us, personally and historically. I’ll be the first to turn my nose at a medieval story with a black protagonist. I know there wasn’t a representative population of people of color in most medieval cites and that the inclusion of a black character in Medieval England would damage its authenticity.

Among many, another example of this lack of imagination of black faces in speculative genres can been seen in Megan Kelly’s adamant assertion that both Jesus and Santa were white, despite the fact that A) Santa isn’t real, and B) historical Jesus was 100% Semitic.

But why was it so important to these fans that Stormtroopers remain white? In other words: in speculative fiction why are there ANY issues of race? Fantasy takes place in inherently un-real spaces. While certain genres of fiction can be argued to rely on historical contexts, the same cannot be argued of sci-fi/fantasy worlds.

For speculative genres, race is a wholly unimportant aspect to characterization. This is to say that for characters like Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, there is nothing that would prohibit them from being black. They don’t necessarily have to pull from the racial history of the United States, or even earth for that matter. And yet, the default model for these characters is whiteness.

I can already hear it. “But if race doesn’t matter, why are you making a big deal about the representation of races in these narratives? Isn’t that making it matter?”

To those people, I would say that including brown people in fantasy/sci-fi is not only easy and costs nothing to accomplish (let’s be honest, probably costs less in the case of casting for movies), but also is extremely important to the imagination and production of a fair and equitable society.

For example, Barack Obama’s race has no bearing on his ability to perform his duties as POTUS, but none of us can deny the weight and significance of being America’s first black president for our country’s collective imagination. When I have children, I won’t have to hesitate when they exclaim “I want to be president!” I can comfortably assert that they can accomplish anything they want because some who looks like them has.

In our modern age, fantasy is the closest thing we have to mythological writing. The stories formerly told around the primordial campfire, moral lessons about the nature of good vs evil, these are the themes that fantasy touches on. This is the genre of timelessness. “Once upon a time” allows viewers and readers to escape from the struggles of current culture and historical realities. Fantasy writing is where we reinforce and develop what it means to be a person in society in as universal a sense as we can muster.

Occasionally an enterprising white writer will include black people in fantastical genres. When this happened white audiences tend to have explicitly negative reactions to them. Much like the general public’s reaction to a black person being cast as a Stormtrooper, Hunger Games fans took to Twitter outcrying the casting of Amandla Stenberg (black) as Rue (a character from the predominantly black 8th district from the books).

In a rush to preserve the dogmatic whiteness of fantasy, readers “misread basic descriptive sentences,” says Fahima Haque at The Washington Post in denying that Rue was black, and even more disturbingly, assumed and demanded that sympathetic characters were white.

For some Americans, understanding, empathizing with and even imagining a little black girl in a fantastical land was beyond possible. Not only did readers fail to register Rue’s blackness, they became upset when they were confronted with it on screen.

The deficiency of imagination in American films today can be summed up as mainly a problem of representation. Art imitates life and yet time and time again, an overwhelming majority of films created have white protagonists. When America thinks of an idealized version of itself, that vision has been and is always a white one, specifically a white male. It is impossible to write an authentic black hero if one’s only exposure, in literature, to black characters is one of subservience.

According to Joseph Campbell the basic structure of all narratives is as follows :

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”

Campbell goes into excruciating detail about how the Hero’s Journey functions in literature and nothing to say regarding race. This is because the Hero’s Journey is and should be timeless and without borders/boundaries. According to Campbell, every storytelling culture has examples of the Hero’s Journey. And yet, despite the seeming timelessness of the Hero’s Journey, in American movies the generic heroic type is still embodied by whiteness.

This lack of imagination directly influences how black people consider and perceive the world they live in and the stories they are capable of telling. We are what we are able to tell stories about and whom we are able to empathize with. If there is only an exemplary case of black actors allowed to portray protagonists, then black people’s visions of their own self worth are compromised. Whereas Marty McFly and John McClain’s everyman nature is highlighted, only paragons of black America, filled with gravitas and wisdom can fulfill the same types of roles.

“In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.” Coates, Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me.

Fiction is formative. Our reality is shaped by the stories we are told.

Star Wars has succeeded in capturing the imaginations of youth, myself included, for the better part of 40 years. For our generation it is the definitive fantasy work. If we are to undo the damage caused by years of negative/stereotypical media representation, it only makes sense to target the biggest franchise of them all.

Enter John Boyega.

We know very little about Boyega’s character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. His name is Finn, and he appears to be on the run, and at some point dons Stormtrooper armor and in later trailers is seen wielding a lightsaber. At this point, none of these details matters, save that he is a symbol for a hopeful future — a future where POCs get to have a slice of the heroic pie. White filmmakers, whether they like it or not, now have zero excuse for not using colored faces in fantasy works.

My hats off to J.J Abrams and the casting team for The Force Awakens. This movie is going to have easily the most diverse cast of any film of its kind.

Instead of being forced to imagine our children with fates similar to Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, victims with no agency on how they shape and perceive their realities, they will instead be able to imagine themselves as heroes — to be valued.

With Boyega’s casting, the seal on this type of black representation in movies has been broken. I don’t think things will ever be the same again. My future children won’t have to limit imagining themselves as being bit-players or supporting cast members in their own imaginations. They won’t be limited by the imagination of lazy creators, and just maybe will have the confidence to create authentic worlds of their own.

There has been an awakening in our collective imaginations, and you can be damn well sure I’ve felt it.