Potential. That’s a word you’ll see a lot when reading anything about Disney’s Star Wars Trilogy (sorry, “The Skywalker Saga”). “Man, this trilogy had so much potential. What happened?” A nebulous collection of ideas and impressions that could’ve come together to make ‘something great’, but never reached it. It’s not a lie. The Sequel Trilogy, as we informally know it, however much its start mirrored A New Hope, stuck its landing with an optimistic setup.
But, in the years following Disney being outed as ‘flying blind’ with the franchise, its last two films failed to live up to its beginning and collapsed to the surprise of no one. Talks of lost potential increased but were more about the trilogy’s villain and how wasted the Original Trilogy’s characters were.
If I could say anything about the original Expanded Universe and its fortysome year history, is that it’s a universe unburdened from the expectations of the film, television and the complications that come with both mediums. Characters unrelated to the Skywalker-Solo cast could thrive unburdened by the expectations of catering to a specific nostalgia or the contracts of actors.
If you wanted a neo-noir detective drama, you could find it. If you wanted the Old Republic or Sith origin story, you could find it. Video games about “nobodies” who become Jedi? LucasArts had you covered. Sure, it all comes circling back to the Solo-Skywalker story, but the LucasFilm Story Group chanced on more opportunities to expand the universe beyond the film’s characters than not. As a franchise of books, Star Wars works better as a narrative and might’ve kept growing into something apart from its roots.
As a franchise of films, Star Wars is a series hamstrung by the forty years of nostalgia. There’s no other way to put it. From the folk who saw A New Hope in theaters in 1977, to the kids who coveted the Original Trilogy on VHS-to-DVD and experienced the Prequel Trilogy before and during the Bush Jr. Administration, it’s a sacred cow everyone believes beholden to them.
For all the potential a science fiction fantasy franchise like Star Wars has in its visual universe, the franchise’s limits lie with the people who act as its gatekeepers and fall back on the rotating doors of nostalgic callbacks or reinterpretations of old material. Most of these gatekeepers, to be absolutely clear, are white men and women of the aforementioned generations who found places in Star Wars’s strongest houses: Film and television.
And the one constant about those houses is how centered on whiteness they are. How they alienate stories about Black and Brown characters, and how that alienation allows for a majority white fanbase to push fans and characters of color to the margins. We are not welcome and LucasFilm makes certain that we know that.
So, for me, the Sequel Trilogy’s potential was couched in the stories that weren’t being told, or rather, being intentionally ignored. Which characters were being sent to an early grave or never allowed to exist beyond minor or supporting roles — even if they were leads from the offset.
So, imagine you’re John Boyega, a die-hard Star Wars fan. You’re 22 years old and you’re being courted by J.J. Abrams —the man who rebooted Star Trek and Mission: Impossible — because he loved your performance in the sci-fi horror, Attack The Block. In an account that sometimes includes Tom Cruise, Abrams pitches a Star Wars film to you and asks you, in so many words, to be “the Star of Star Wars” (archive).
You being the Star Wars fan that you are, jump at the chance to live the dream of little kids everywhere. But you’re not just any fan. You’re a Black Star Wars fan who was just asked to be the lead in Disney’s soft reboot of the franchise.
That’s big — that’s important and to you a sign that “They gotta have us.” Your competition is a pair of milquetoast looking actors — Tye Sheridan and Jesse Plemons (Quorra). Your choice of roles come down to Poe Dameron or Finn. Rumor has it Abrams has to “fight to the producer” (Kathleen Kennedy) who wants “someone different”, but they eventually cast you as the lead — Finn.
Black actors were big money for Hollywood now, and it was gonna give us the stories we deserved. This was gonna go off without a hitch!
John Boyega — Redshirt or Big Damn Hero?
When J.J. Abrams was named the director of Episode VII, apathy towards the brand was the biggest contributor to how fast the news flew past me. At the time, I was swept up in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, the aforementioned Attack the Block, and Len Wiseman’s Sleepy Hollow. I was too busy eating well at the table of Black folk fighting monsters, piloting robots, and defending “some shitty council estate” from Big Gorilla Wolf Motherfuckers.
I’d like to tell you that learning John Boyega and Oscar Isaac were cast in the budding project meant something to me, but it didn’t. It was hard to connect to the hype sweeping through Black Tumblr and Twitter. I didn’t begrudge them their happiness. I wanted in on that boat.
They saw the announcement as the first step to a bigger career for Boyega, an excuse to recommend Ex Machina or Inside Lewin Davis, and LucasFilm correcting its less than stellar record with Black and non-Black characters (though I’m not sure how).
I barely knew Isaac as an actor (the most vivid memory I have of him is as the slimy bad guy in Sucker Punch) so I had no expectations for him. I anticipated that Boyega would be their Token Black Guy. And as if to reaffirm my speculation, the November 2014 teaser trailer introduces a terrified John Boyega, dressed in Stormtrooper armor, lost in the desert. As moments with no context flashed across the screen and the Star Wars theme hit in the last couple seconds, I leaned back in my seat and frowned.
John Boyega was portraying the redshirt of the Star Wars franchise. What was there to get excited about? Even knowing Abrams pretension for trolling (misdirection), I figured that he would be a disposal character.
The deluge of anti-Blackness that came spilling out the Star Wars fandom couldn’t take comfort in this, though. Instead, Boyega’s visage seemed to stir the darkest depths of the historically unwelcoming fanbase, and its racism boiled over in devastating hatred.
Droves upon droves of forum discussions launched into a frame-by-frame analysis of the Original Trilogy to argue how Black Stormtroopers couldn’t exist within the party of (white) space nationalists.
It split me between seething and laughing along with John Boyega, who, in so many words, told the Star Wars fanbase to die mad about his casting. It was a flash point foreshadowing what would be a five-year nightmare for Boyega and Black fandom, but we tried to laugh about it on the pretense somebody at LucasFilm or Disney had this guy’s back.
Now I was curious to see if his role in the film was worth the rabid vitriol that bubbled up from the white men and women who still couldn’t deal with a Black actor — no matter big or small his role might’ve ended up being — being at the forefront of a Star Wars film.
The promotional buzz surrounding The Force Awakens rose in a game of give and take. The film’s dubiously defined thesis and Boyega’s place within it remained vague. The franchise’s anti-Blackness continued to spread. But, it was hard not to enjoy Boyega’s wild enthusiasm. The toys he collected, the giddiness he flaunted in interviews. It was hard, but I made it my mission to stand firm against Abrams, Disney, and Star Wars. I cheered Boyega on to get his paper, but I would not be shaken.
October 2015 unveiled the final trailer and poster and I felt that resolve weaken. Online mutuals were quick to crop the posters and screenshots of John Boyega wielding Anakin Skywalker’s Lightsaber. Boyega’s voice opens the trailer, following Daisy Ridley’s quiet proclamation of anonymity, with despair. Boyega ends the trailer triumphant, wielding the Skywalker Lightsaber against the wannabe Darth Vader. In that that moment in time, Boyega was the hype man driving Black audiences to commit to seeing the film. There’s a reason it made two billion dollars at the box office. It might not be the sole reason (it is Star Wars after all), but it was a contributor.
Abrams’s casting choices seemed to make sense to me now. The very notion of the film excited me. Not only were we getting a Black lead in a Star Wars film, but a Black protagonist wielding one of the most popular weapons in the franchise, and squaring off against the central antagonist. All at once, the rational part of my brain tried (and failed) to tell me, “Dude, this is a J.J. Abrams film. He’s gonna pull a bait and switch! Boyega is not the hero of this movie.”
So I tried to tell myself I would not see this movie. I would not allow myself to be played like that. Then my little sister, a die-hard Star Wars hater (bless her heart), came to me and said, “So, I wanna take you to see that new Star Wars movie for your birthday.”
At twenty-seven years old, and with a bad case of the flu, I allowed myself to hope (foolishly) on my sister’s dime. Considering the malicious anti-Black harassment that John Boyega had to endure from 2014 to the film’s release on December 15, 2015, LucasFilm could not fuck this up. I wanted Abrams to prove me wrong. At the same time, I was waiting for that kick in the teeth.
The Very Cut and Dry Start of our Would-be Trio
The Art of (Star Wars) The Force Awakens (Phil Szostak) is an array of abandoned ideas, half-baked concepts, and beautiful technical designs. It’s also indicative of how disorganized the production of Awakens was, though the book tries to suggest otherwise.
When pre-production of Episode VII began, Pixar alumni and screenwriter Michael Arndt was, according to him, hired to write all three scripts for the new trilogy by Kathleen Kennedy circa May of 2012. Kennedy made a point of saying the scripts should focus on an “origin story” for a “female Jedi”. The bulk of Arndt’s work was reportedly based on a story treatment written by George Lucas before the sale of LucasFilm to Disney.
Lucas’ treatment was a “generational” tale, it focused on the Skywalker and Solo families. The most solid concepts the current LucasFilm crew had about their Sequel Trilogy centered on aged and gritty versions of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, a matronly Leia Organa, meeting a new cast of characters. Early story concepts lifted from the original Expanded Universe (Star Wars Legends) as well if the dated-looking Darth Talon character is any sign.
Kathleen Kennedy asked a reluctant Lawrence Kasdan, who felt he had nothing more to offer to the franchise, to act as a consultant. In exchange, he was allowed to write a Han Solo origin story (Solo) with his son, Jonathan. Following J.J. Abrams’s hire as director for Episode VII, Kasdan, Arndt, Simon Kinberg, and Rick Carter began working with Abrams on the potential story.
The questions they focused on, according to The Art of the Force Awakens, were, “Who is Luke Skywalker?” and “What’s the relevance of the Force?” Redundant questions answered by the last six films. The dedication to the new faces of the franchise, good and bad alike, feels minimal because they were barely visualized ideas then. No political or narrative shatter-point to set them up. The writers were only certain they would meet the old gang and encounter a new version of the Galactic Empire.
According to Kasdan, they struggled to find a proper identity for Episode VII. For Arndt, the biggest problem with the writing process was not being able to overcome how intrusive the older characters became in the new characters’ story. “It just felt like every time Luke came in and entered the movie, he just took it over,” He recounted during a Q&A session in 2015 with Abrams and Kasdan.
Arndt never got to write three scripts. He left over creative differences. Before his departure from the production, Arndt and co. created three barely defined prototypes of Finn, Rey, and Poe. Simple descriptions include a “charismatic” blonde named Sam, a “badass loner” named Kira with an affinity for mechanics, and a Black character named John Doe with no jump-off-the-page characteristics.
It was a racial dynamic that hearkened back to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. More than one white main character, and a Black character in a supporting role. John Doe flip-flopped between the identities of Jedi and a potential bounty hunter with a Wookie or droid companion. (There’s a gorgeous piece by Dela Longfish of John Doe in a market with a droid that I can’t find online.) His place in the story never appeared guaranteed, in fact he seemed destined to die.
Of the prototype characters they created, they struggled the most with their male lead. According to a (now deleted) tweet by Pablo Hidalgo, in at least one version of the story, the male lead was named Skylar and was intended to be “the son of Han Solo” (boring!). Storyboard illustrations in the artbook detail a Han Solo lookalike named Skylar accompanied by a Wookie and an R2 Unit in a scene meant to mirror the beginning of A New Hope before dissolving into the whereabouts of Kira on a desert planet.
As the pre-production story development rolled on, Kira remained the centerpiece of the script. She was the only new character with a sense of direction because of her inevitable connection to the older characters. She was the one with the Lightsaber, the one with a journey involving the Jedi Killer and the Jedi.
Going through the artbook, despite the deviation from “Skylar, son of Han Solo”, they intended Sam represent him as the opposite of Kira’s Luke Skywalker, “the ultimate disenfranchised person” (¬_¬). In their story, there was no Princess Leia to save this time.
Several concept illustrations see the Han Solo-ish Sam journeying with Kira, accompanied by early versions of BB-8 (early concepts of droids suggest Sam was meant to be accompanied by a droid with spindly legs and a R2 head). They move through crowded markets, dodging blaster shots from Stormtroopers in pursuit, and making a dash for the Millennium Falcon.
Arndt recalls much of the writing process debating with Abrams on whether to make the male lead either a space pirate or merchant marine. Just another Han Solo adjacent. And I guess this frustrated Kasdan so much that he reprimanded them for not thinking “big enough”.
“What if he’s a Stormtrooper that ran away?” Arndt recalls Kasdan suggesting. And around April 2013-ish, the three writers latched onto the idea and started redesigning Sam’s character from the ground up.
No longer a carbonite copy of Han Solo, Sam became a rogue Stormtrooper. At the same time, the undefined John Doe was redesigned as a captured Rebel agent. In conceptual illustrations drawn by Longfish (L), Christian Alzmann (R), and Ian McCraig (top), Stormtrooper Sam witnesses the cold and calculated the death of Rebel soldiers — either by firing squad or being jettisoned out of an airlock.
In a defining moment, he defects and rescues John Doe from the then-named Neo-Empire. However, in several story beats befitting the racist undercurrent of Star Wars, Sam is discovered by the sci-fi equivalent of the Noble Savage stereotype.
Said stereotypes heal him and Sam is “reborn a hero”. A concept piece drawn by McCraig sees Sam painted up like one of the island characters in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. It’s an unfortunate move on their part and rightfully jettisoned from his story if they would not remix it into something more charitable.
Another major story beat in sequences illustrated by James Clyne, Darren Gilford, Matt Allsop, and Doug Chiang, sees Sam and several other characters (Han, Kira, BB-8, and Chewie) gather around Maz Kanata (once Kira’s mentor) holding a Lightsaber. The saber is bequeathed to Sam as Kira enters the room (or sometimes Kira is already present). The order of the illustrations depicts a moment that gets interrupted just as a Man of Steel-esque drill attacks Maz’s palace. The catacomb scene makes it to the final version of the film but is a different beast altogether.
John Doe’s fate is never addressed in the early Stormtrooper defector draft, he just disappears with his droid. He is killed off in a later draft of the script and at least one version of the script sees a dying Poe make Finn promise to carry out his mission. These were Sam’s first steps, his “hero’s journey” and it’s about all that survived of the concept stage to his final design, Finn, to get further embellished.
Kasdan states in the New York Times interview that they were planning the film’s story beats until they had to start filming (May 2014). Not unusual, but from the outset, the heavy emphasis on the Original Trilogy hampered how the new characters could develop, and didn’t seem to allow for the three-character dynamic of the other six films.
Most of the prior character work mentioned for Finn appeared to make it to principal photography stages. Leaked call sheets taken from the site millenniumfalcon.com, show potential scenarios where, just as in the concept art, Anakin’s Lightsaber attracts the attention of Finn and Rey.
Instead of a vague vision of Cloud City, Kylo Ren, and a much older Luke, the scene had Finn drawn towards the Lightsaber while Rey can’t get near it. She runs away, which results in her capture by the Stormtroopers. Leia, who has to be convinced Rey is worth mounting a rescue for by Han, entrusts Anakin’s weapon to Finn on the word of Maz, who believes the Lightsaber belongs with him.
The early Takodana sequences intended Maz Kanata to use Force abilities in an action sequence alongside Kylo Ren and would explain how Maz stole Anakin’s Lightsaber from the Knights of Ren as the conclusion to the subplot addressing the saber’s reemergence. Abrams appeared to be gunning for a duel Jedi narrative with both leads. As far as the Original Trilogy is concerned, it was an inspired idea that set it apart from its predecessor in a big way.
But much of the second and third act of Awakens was rewritten and re-shot in 2014, and Finn’s connection to the Lightsaber was written out. Abrams argued a lack of confidence in the script as the reason. In the end, he and Kasdan chose to err on the side of vagueness, promising the future backstories by way of the reveal of Finn and Rey’s surnames.
Even as a character intentionally set apart from the archetypal Han Solo or any blood relation to the old cast, Finn was always a lead and protagonist. Finn’s character arc was always meant to develop alongside Rey’s without question. This was their story, and the “Jedi Killer” (who would become Kylo Ren) was always the antagonist, the obstacle to overcome in their journey.
Finn’s “Sam” iteration was a major character, but did the story (from what we can glean from the fragmented writing process and artwork) hinge on his arc? No, the centerpiece — early on, anyway — was always Rey’s “Kira”. John Doe was a character Kasdan and Abrams couldn’t wait to get rid of, which reads as all kinds of anti-Black considering he started as a Black male character.
Reevaluating the past, the expectation that Finn would amount to anything beyond a throwaway character was perhaps the most misguided notion a Black Star Wars fan could have in 2015.
But at the time, Finn’s “destiny” as a Jedi hero wasn’t something up for debate. All we had to go on was the final trailer — which teased a different story than the first two — and Abrams’s moderate record with representing Black characters in major roles. The advertising gambit from October 2015 and onward was also determined to sell this to the audience as the truth. “Jedi Finn” was happening whether white fandom liked it or not.
A War of Trios, History, and Advertisement
A New Hope (Star Wars) debuted in 1977, two years after the Vietnam War, and fancied itself a fairy tale molded around the lived experiences of a galaxy during wartime. The strength of the earlier Star Wars films lies in George Lucas’ political leanings and how he pulled from conflicts in history to shape the universe and its characters.
The Galactic Empire is Lucas’s exaggerated depiction of America’s political and military imperialism exercised during the Vietnam War, a war Lucas opposed and used as one basis for his story. There are also fairly explicit analogs for Nazi Germany (World War II itself) and visual inspiration from not-so-great serials like Flash Gordon (whose only good deed is facilitating the theme for The Big O, a neo-noir anime).
Without meaning to, the Prequel Trilogy becoming the prescient analog of the Bush Jr. Admiration’s casual violating American civil liberties with maneuvers like the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, as he instigated a war on falsehoods, is just one way Star Wars has cemented itself as an anti-fascist, anti-war parable.
Serendipitous circumstances saw the saga born and return during heightened political periods and times of war. War and political strife have always been a factor in how the cast of the earlier films was shaped. So, it’s with regret that I don’t get the same feeling from the Sequel Trilogy.
As a series of films with the opportunity to move forward in the Star Wars universe (as it was), it could’ve gone anywhere. It could’ve created new circumstances, new enemies. There was even an opportunity to say something about this state of perpetual war we live in and the kids who grew up through it. How proxy wars benefit no one, and what happens when those wars enslave children to prolong them. Instead, the Sequel Trilogy undermined its predecessors by rolling back much of what it accomplished with its ‘happy ending’ by Return of the Jedi.
Finn, Poe Dameron, and Rey Skywalker all begin (and end) Awakens as strangers. On the surface, they’re representations of how people in the galaxy live thirty years after the death of Palpatine, Vader, and the fall of the Galactic Empire. Poe, the oldest of them (32), is a former New Republic Navy pilot who opposes the First Order (an imperial remnant) as a member of a ‘Resistance’ led by (General) Leia Organa. Finn (23) is part of the First Order and a brainwashed member of its Stormtrooper forces, and Rey (19) is an orphaned girl living on a desert planet (Jakku), waiting for the return of her parents.
According to Awakens, the First Order “rose from the ashes of the Empire” because Luke Skywalker vanished without warning. According to a fifteen second deleted scene (which is non-canon), the First Order exists because the New Republic didn’t listen to Leia’s warning about their gradual rise to power. It’s not enough context about the world, how the First Order became so strong, or how Luke’s disappearance factored into that.
They corner most of the crucial information required to contextualize the world or our characters off into Expanded Universe books (written by Chuck Wendig, Claudia Gray, Greg Rucka, and Alan Dean Foster) and at the expense of the otherwise truncated film’s story. Nothing in those books is communicated in the films, so as a consequence, they’re all non-canon.
We can assume that the circumstances of Finn and Rey’s lives result from poor political governance of the New Republic. Children abandoned and children abducted are a sign of a lack of public protections, if not social apathy of those in power. Poe’s uncomplicated heroism and willingness to act as Leia’s man-of-action to protect the people is an awareness of the New Republic’s failure to safeguard people like Finn and Rey.
Two of the three characters — Rey and Poe — never meet. The unifying factor of the would-be trio, the glue that binds them, is Finn. Awakens starts with the fateful meeting of Finn and Poe and their escape from the First Order’s star destroyer. Not only does the sequence set up their rapport (which is amazing), it’s an exchange of humanity between two parties who’ve dehumanized each other on principle of the conflict they’ve inherited.
They crash on the planet Jakku, then Poe vanishes from the film. I remember thinking he abandoned Finn then got that clumsy explanation that he got ‘thrown out’ of the crashed TIE fighter. They break the prospect of a trio as Finn encounters Rey alone in a meet-cute. Her aggressive distrust of Finn (at first) at the behest of BB-8 (Poe’s robopet) is a stark contrast to Poe’s blind faith in Finn.
The poverty of the circumstances that fostered Finn and Rey — orphans reluctant to be unguarded — end up creating two fiercely protective people once a bond is established in their agreed-upon goal to complete Poe’s mission to deliver Leia the map to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts.
Through events triggered by Finn’s self-actualization, and the shared trauma endured from Kylo Ken and the First Order, the three characters are further bound by a common, if not personal, enemy. The potential between the characters as a team is limitless if one capitalizes on it.
When Episode VII was announced in the Fall of 2012, Sleepy Hollow debuted a year later in the Fall of 2103. There was an upsurge in the mainstream addressing “Representation in Media”. The industry was changing for the better! It was onslaught of good tidings. That’s how the media spun it, that’s how some of us felt to various degrees.
Content to capitalize off of this discussion, LucasFilm’s advertisement campaign surrounding Awakens centered on John Boyega’s Finn, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Three characters, when put together, seemed to mirror the earlier trios, but more importantly, were the representative of oft-spoken about “marginalized identities”.
White women, Black and non-white Latinx communities. The outlier of the film was Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — a white man. As far as everyone was concerned, dude was just Darth Maul 2.0 (gimmicky Lightsaber and all) and Darth Vader stan to boot. The reaction was somewhere between bitter or embarrassed they had no white (male) hero to project on.
LucasFilm’s advertisement blitz for the three likened John Boyega to the central protagonist of the film. He wielded the Lightsaber — he was the New Jedi of the team. Ridley’s Rey was the Strong Female Character, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe was the heroic pilot, Finn’s supporting confidante, but he wasn’t a square-jawed, blue-eyed white dude. He had nice hair, too. From the jump everyone started calling them the new Luke, Leia, and Han just because of the surface details people saw or projected onto them.
The promotional formula of Awakens set the audience up to think they were about to watch a story about three do-gooders fighting nebulously defined fascist allegories together. Even the actors toured about and were advertised on the pretense that their inevitable team-up would occur sooner than later.
But again, their trio dynamic never really comes to fruition. Abrams and Kasdan keep the dynamic they created with Michael Arndt penned in pre-production with Finn (Sam) and Rey (Kira) as our throughline to the film’s universe, and Poe (John Doe) remains somewhat extraneous. So you end up with a bunch of fans who adore these characters, but never really get to see them gel on-screen together.
Cast around March 2014 -ish — two months before production proper — Abrams’s want to collaborate with Oscar Isaac is the reason Poe’s fate was rewritten. I’m glad for it, even if it seems Isaac regrets it in retrospect. It gave us this wonderful dynamic with Boyega (Finn), and the result was a refreshing characterization of a heroic pilot lacking offensive ego or arrogance. I love it when a movie can thrive without an asshole.
LucasFilm was content to sell folk on an adventurous team like the days of old, but late-production rewrites made it so this was the one area the film couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver on. But, there’s always the sequel, right? Maybe in the sequel, they would have more time to get the band together.
The Tumultuous Story of the Rebel Stormtrooper
When Awakens first released, the First Order was all but called analogs of the rising alt-right movement and Kylo Ren the embodiment of entitled, pathetic and violent white men with too much power, no good sense to use it, and a hatred of those he perceived as lesser than him.
So, it seemed too right for the Sequel Trilogy’s protagonist to be the opposite of him. A historically marginalized figure that the far-right lost their minds over before this film came out. A Black Man. Of the new characters, Boyega’s Finn was the only one with a distinct story arc, and one with organic ties to the antagonists and the means to grow past them. And for all the truisms about Boyega and Ridley being co-leads of the franchise, Awakens is unequivocally the story of Finn.
And I think that was because of Boyega’s relationship with J.J. Abrams. Abrams more or less seemed to set himself up in the same fashion as Steven Spielberg with Shia LaBeouf when the former was determined to make LaBeouf “the next Harrison Ford” (which in retrospect was a bit audacious). Kasdan and Abrams intended Boyega’s Finn to be the backbone of the entire first film and reclaiming his agency plays a key theme in that centrality.
And when Awakens gets rolling, its inciting incident is Finn’s participation in the massacre on Jakku and his eventual decision not to follow the orders given to his platoon by their commander Phasma (Gwendoline Christie).
Before then, Finn doesn’t stand out in the faceless crowd of mooks. He’s a number doing as he’s told. But the abrupt death of a trooper next to him (by Poe’s hand) sets him apart with a blood smear across his helmet that hearkens back to the scars on the face of Moses in Attack the Block.
The massacre on Jakku is also the first indication of his latent Force abilities rising out of dormancy as he realigns his morality. The moment he rejects the order, he rejects ignoring his conscience. He cannot abide by the amoral philosophy of the First Order.
The eyes and heart of the audience are set in Finn.
Rey, a young woman waiting for the return of her parents, abandons the wait and embraces the family she creates, and Kylo Ren, a man who willingly abandons the family who loved him in the pursuit of nationalistic power for power’s sake, orbit around Finn. The underlying theme in both Finn, Rey and Kylo Ren’s narrative exercises choice through their agency. They feed into Finn’s search for belonging and something to fight for and against.
If I can say Awakens is about anything, it’s the story of broken family dynamics. Creating your own — positive and negative — as you own the consequences of your decisions. It’s the same narrative dynamic you see in Abrams’ Star Trek (Spock and Kirk), the Spielberg produced Super 8 (Joe and Alice), and yes, even Felicity (Felicity and Ben).
Finn‘s relationship with Rey makes or breaks the film and is the best case for a Star Wars film untethered by the Original Trilogy and all of its baggage. It matters little that Finn and Rey are attempting to reach Leia Organa or the Resistance. The journey that gets them there is the more compelling aspect of the film.
Rewrites and reshoots stripped from Finn and Rey a lot of definitive characteristics. Abrams’ coyness with their backgrounds robs them of the strength provided to Luke and Anakin in their stories. As characters, Finn and Rey appear to survive on mere luck, if not the dynamic of Boyega and Rdiley— whose real-life friendship played a role in their characterization.
Finn and Rey carry the film on the shoulders of their chemistry alone. The characters fumble through adjusting outside imposed and self-imposed isolation, their personal agendas (get back to Jakku, run from the First Order) pulling them in different directions. Their dynamic is energetic and flirtatious and could carry the rest of the franchise going forward. It’s that damn good.
Finn’s character progression through Awakens is centered on answering or renegotiating his need for self-protection. He’s running from his abusers, not interested in killing for them. He doesn’t fancy himself a hero and he won’t allow anyone to force him into anything he doesn’t want to do. And as others have pointed out, self-preservation came like second nature to characters like Han (who receives no criticism for it), and if a community’s livelihood is involved, even Lando (who continues to be condemned for it).
So like anyone in a position where trust not a given, and however much shame for his former position drives his actions, Finn is not honest. The expectation that he’s meant to be frank with either Poe or Rey following their meeting and eventual friendships remains one of the oddest arguments against the character.
Even as obstacles to his want, Poe and Rey don’t engage in what the audience wants to see. They don’t punish or brand Finn a coward for running from his tormentors. Rey and Han want him to stay, Poe inadvertently aligns him on the path of facing his enemy despite knowing Finn wants to put distance between himself and the First Order. Abrams and Kasdan reject punishing Finn for lying out of the necessity of self-preservation and I appreciate that immensely.
Everyone Finn meets understands his desire to run, why he does it, because they’ve seen what he does when aid is needed. He’s not a coward. He helps people without hesitation, but protecting himself is still a priority. So, they try to stop him from disappearing on them. Not because he can help their cause (though that certainly factors into it), but because they’ve become attached to him. They care about him, something no one’s shown him before now.
And when Finn is poised to disappear, his arc is given another obstacle. The match is realizing the First Order finally used Starkiller Base. Perhaps even hearing the death of the Hosnian system, and remembering what happened on Jakku as those streaks of red stretch across space to end the lives of billions. The fire is Rey’s abduction by Kylo Ren.
Finn returning to Maz’s castle is another demonstration of his selflessness. The well-being of his friend and the galaxy matters more than what he’s afraid of and his decision reunites him Han and Poe, who set up the foundation that reconnects Finn with both of his narrative foils and his minor antagonist, Phasma (who he humiliates).
Abrams, Kasdan, and Arndt’s “Stormtrooper defector” narrative comes to fruition within Awakens with a decidedly grim wrinkle that mirrors that of the Halo franchise and the Prequel Trilogy itself. While the Original Trilogy made it so that Stormtroopers were a collective of individuals who volunteered to serve imperialism or saw it as a means to escape poverty, the First Order making kidnapping and indoctrination the backbone of their army is a story thread rife with narrative opportunity. It opens itself up to the idea of how humanity can be bent through propaganda. And therein lies a redemption arc worth pursuing.
But Abrams and Kasdan softball the maliciousness of the First Order. You get the punch required with Finn’s confession about his identity to Rey, but they otherwise keep it simple by ignoring the victimization of the troopers overall, Finn’s abuse included.
Finn’s defection makes him unique, the Exceptional Stormtrooper™. In an earlier version of the script, Finn’s open admittance to being a Stormtrooper seemed primed to answer the question of what happened when a trooper went AWOL. What did the consequences mean for Finn or the First Order? In the film proper, beyond the first act when he turns his back on the First Order’s ideas and confesses to Rey in the second, the question (and the answer) isn’t a big deal.
By not broaching the subject’s tougher aspects, Awakens reinforces a basic “good and evil” tale, but it doesn’t stick because we’re all (still) thinking about how a bunch of brainwashed kids grew up to be disposable fodder. The issue is less that Finn shoots Stormtroopers (who actively try to kill him with no remorse) or that he has no sympathy for them (where they canonically have none for him), and more that the script keeps avoiding the issue whenever faced with it.
The aftermath of the fight with the Stormtrooper who calls Finn a traitor? Perfect time to explore that. Exposing Phasma’s self-preservation when threatened by Finn? Also a good time for that. But, by avoiding the subject, the story re-frames the rest of the Stormtroopers as voluntarily enlisted fascists, never providing room for internal dissident, or the rejection of rebellion, even without Finn’s presence.
What doesn’t Work
The problems in Finn’s arc are obvious, and a consequence of white screenwriters blind to their own implicit biases. The name scene bothers me. It fails to consider the significance of names as a form of self-determination within the Black community. I wish Finn had been allowed to just throw a name out there (maybe reference his working title names, Sam or Skylar). External forces discussing the scene transformed the kinship of two strangers into something dehumanizing. Poe asking permission to call FN-2187 “Finn” (as a substitute) has become something as reductive as, “Poe named Finn!” Like a man naming his dog.
And this is coming from people — white and non-Black — who say they like Finn (or are just sexually obsessed with Oscar Isaac and use Finn as a prop for Poe). To call them out on their racism is to suffer the same bullshit that open and proud racists act out willingly because being anti-racist somehow absolves you of committing socially educated microaggressions.
Abrams transplants the same physical humor visited upon James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) in the Star Trek reboot on Finn with no real thought of how it comes off with a Black character to a Black audience.
In Star Trek, Kirk is neither graceful nor experienced when he engages in combat. Kirk survives by the skin of his teeth when he comes to blows with far better fighters (“I got your gun!”), and his arrogance is countered with the humiliation of defeat. As a white character his inelegance doesn’t diminish his ‘coolness’ as it were. He’s still badass.
Oppositely, Abrams and Kasdan’s determination to put Finn at the level of the audience through humor diminishes him for many people, as he lacks both arrogance and ego that needed to be kicked out of Kirk.
A lot of people take issue with the pratfalls and the jokes Finn is responsible for, others find it’s one aspect that makes him endearing and empathetic (though lord knows that was never necessary with anyone else). Boyega’s sense of comedic timing and banter with Ridley honestly saves some of the non-physical humor for me but in retrospect, it’s just overabundant and woefully ignorant.
Rey attacking him on the presumption he’s a thief (thanks, BB-8) then becoming awestruck by him is all meant to be funny, if not endearing (the kids will laugh at it without criticism). But it results in bizarre and unnecessary violence that Rey doesn’t even apologize for once they get along. Kirk deserved to get his ass beat, but Finn? Nah, fam.
Finn’s a crack shot with a blaster or rifle, but his otherwise competent use of a Lightsaber being tempered by a last-minute save or outright defeat burns individuals who simply want to see the character kick ass on the same level afforded to pretty much everyone else in the film.
We don’t understand Chewie or BB-8 so Finn doesn’t, but it comes off as a puzzling creative choice to single him out in a world where everyone understands robots and Wookies. This subject frazzled Black folks so much, I remember when Black Tumblr legitimately argued for months over whether BB-8 flipped Finn off versus giving him a thumbs-up gesture (it was the latter not the first).
I don’t know what Abrams and Kasdan were thinking when they wrote the Sanitation joke. This single moment was so damaging to Finn’s character that it influenced how anti-Blackness would manifest later in the second film. Instead of enjoying Finn to the fullest, Black fans grappled with the film’s insensitivity.
However not ill-intended their aims were, their intent doesn’t outweigh the consequence. White men and women of the Star Wars fandom clung to the instances of humor and poisoned the well of genuine conversation about Finn. You couldn’t speculate about his skill and future in the franchise without someone derailing the conversation by calling him a “Space Janitor”, or their favorite “I’m cultured about racism” go-to, “Stepin Fetchit”.
You couldn’t and still can’t speculate about the obvious romantic slant to Finn and Rey’s relationship without having to endure racial slurs like “coal boy”, if they weren’t too busy writing screed likening him to a “benevolent misogynist” because he grabbed Rey’s hand and pulled her out of the line of fire.
They were particularly terrible about his improvised rescue, citing Rey getting out the detention center on Starkiller without his help was intended to highlight his patriarchal shortcomings. Any avenue they could find to dehumanize Finn and John Boyega, they took it. It stuck, and we’ve seen the consequences of that.
Much of the character-building (that matters) that leads into Finn’s defection — his aberrant behavior, his superiors confusion about by his actions, and his (lack of a) relationship with the other troopers — is stuffed in books like Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of Awakens and Greg Rucka’s Before the Awakening.
The film does well enough with the demonstration of the First Order’s cold-blooded tactics to get you to understand why Finn leaves their organization. You get he’s green, inexperienced, and not committed to the cause when innocents are killed.
But Abrams and Kasdan’s reluctance to embrace that drama like Rucka or Foster creates a vacuum for misplaced humor. It appears to make light of Finn’s trauma (and enslavement), resulting in the removal of more explicit and humanizing moments like this deleted scene that further illustrate his decision to defect, thus rendering it unimportant.
At the climax of the film, where we see Finn and Rey find a family within themselves and the reluctant Han Solo, they lose their father figure when Kylo Ren rejects the Light and kills Han. He closes the door on redemption, disinterested. Rey is cold-cocked into a tree by Kylo Ren, which leaves Finn to defend them with the Lightsaber — obstinately facing down the very thing he rejected (as represented in Kylo Ren).
Throughout, we’ve seen Kylo Ren’s fury toward Finn’s defection. How Finn’s awakening in the Force has thrown a wrench into the First Order’s plans. How his ambitions to appease Snoke (his master, portrayed by Andy Serkis) is undone by this one decision, which throws him into immature fits of rage. That Finn continues to undermine the First Order and Kylo Ren’s bid for power makes him Ren’s enemy on a personal level.
It’s a powerful moment that should’ve culminated in giving the [Black] audience what they were sold on (a Black Force user with a presence greater than Mace Windu, Luminara Unduli, Stass Allie, and Adi Gallia), and the completion of Finn’s hero’s journey.
We get the closure for Finn’s narrative arc, without a doubt. If Finn’s choice to fight Kylo Ren does anything, it shows that all the agency and positive upbringing in the world can’t prevent a person from becoming a power-hungry tyrant, and a person with zero choices and even worse upbringing is not a guaranteed lost cause.
But the Big Damn Hero moment we saw afforded to characters like Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Luke Skywalker in their first outings is denied to him in favor of Rey, whose Force sensitivity was communicated clearly to the audience, and achieved no conflict while’s Finn’s is mired in mystery with a threadbare connection to his arc.
Watching the Lightsaber fall and Finn slump over in the snow back in 2015, I remember leaning forward and whispering, “C’mon, get up, Finn. Get up.” When the Lightsaber flew past Kylo Ren and landed in Rey’s hand instead, I fell back against my seat, crushed by the predictability. “Really?” I said loud enough to be heard.
Leaving the theater, I was a mix of giddiness and frustration. I thought to myself, “Girl, why did you expect anything less from J.J. Abrams?” I don’t know. I got the kick in the teeth I was expecting, all but reinforced by my sister’s deadpan and very audible “Typical!” echoing out into the dark of a theater peppered with awkward, dry coughs and white women applauding for Rey (enraptured by the moment).
This fool’s hope was crushed.
Not Gonna Lie, That Hurt
The Force Awakens is a flawed movie, and lot of that comes down LucasFilm’s adherence to nostalgia, lack of planning and its rushed production as mandated by Disney. That it and Rogue One came out relatively decent is a miracle. It does a moderately decent job of setting up the characters, but over-relies on its external (non-canon) media to explain the finer points of its world in a way Lucas’ previous six films did (easily) within the span of two hours.
Like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Abrams and Kasdan depend on the audience to fill in the blanks with their own biases and knowledge of the Star Wars universe learned prior. But there is no greater failing than failing to properly capitalize on the finer points Finn’s characterization and outright not getting your central cast of characters together.
John Boyega, for many people (specifically Black Star Wars fans), signified the bucking of a trend. We weren’t getting the same ‘ole tired white hero story, we were going forward. Finn’s whole conception was a Rocky narrative if I ever saw one. He was a child forced into slavery, had his past stolen from him, and becomes the next major hero of a new trilogy by breaking free of that. He felt like Abrams and Kasdan’s humanistic take on “one-man-army” Expanded Universe characters like Kyle Katarn and that was cool.
The marketing manipulation surrounding Boyega (something he thought was heinous), the pretension that he was going to be the Jedi hero within the Sequel Trilogy, is probably one of the scummiest moves from LucasFilm. It’s the encapsulation of faux progressive politics, or rather it’s Passive Progressive politics.
If any of us had caught wind of what was going on with the franchise, that Finn was set up as a smokescreen in some weird, twisted, white feminist “The Force is Female” mess that only the actively ignorant (of race) would call progressive? Black folk probably still would’ve gone to see it but Finn would not be conversation flash-point he is now. Or maybe he would, but for wholly negatives reasons.
Finn being Force Sensitive didn’t spring from the ether of fandom. And though suggested in earlier scripts, this aspect of his story was diluted to the point of non-existence. When one considers the whiteness of Star Wars, LucasFilm still has problems with envisioning Black characters as heroic leads without undercutting them in some fashion.
Are Abrams and Kasdan responsible for the bait-and-switch? Well, yeah, but it was also a choice sanctioned by LucasFilm. Anybody at any point could’ve stepped in and said, “Maybe that’s not the best way to handle this.” Because the way it is framed ignores the subject of race entirely. Kennedy might’ve mandated a “First Female Jedi Protagonist”, but they were responsible for how that got set up.
The need to highlight their white female protagonist comes at the expense of their Black lead and audiences desiring a Black protagonist that’s a Force user. Reducing Finn’s story in this respect, using him as a Red Herring, sends a fairly unfortunate message. And when you consider how Finn and Rey’s dynamic was set up in earlier story iterations of Awakens, there’s little sense in the choice they made.
The executive and creative decisions behind the bait-and-switch are white men and women putting their interests first through manipulation, and reaping the benefits of the Black dollar without consequence. It felt and was pretty shitty on their part. Thinking about it makes my brain go blank with anger and heartache.
The following is part of a three-part ‘retrospective’ series wherein I discuss the shortcomings and positives of the Sequel Trilogy from the perspective of a Black Woman (the most underrepresented identity in the Star Wars franchise).