– E. Hughes
When the first Star Wars the Force Awakened trailer arrived, it broke the internet. Movie fans were abuzz about the movie’s newest star, John Boyega and his role as a storm trooper. The first wave of criticism of course, was that a storm trooper could not be black, as it had already been “firmly” established in the prequels that troopers were clones of Jango Fett — who wasn’t black. The tone of the criticism changed when it was later verified that George Lucas himself, had already clarified that Clone Troopers and Storm Troopers were not the same. This did not end the flush of racism surrounding the movie, as some American fans (or race baiters disguised as fans, take your pick) wondered why a black person was in Star Wars at all. It didn’t matter that Darth Vader, the greatest villain of all time, was voiced by James Earl Jones, or that Lando Calirissian was played by a black actor, Billy Dee Williams, or that Samuel L. Jackson played Jedi Mace Windu in the prequel episodes. Despite all of that disappointing criticism–none were happier about the newest Star Wars episode and its newest star than black nerds. You see–black nerds are not mythical creatures, they actually exist. In fact, I happen to be one, belonging to the 8,000 strong, very active Black Science Fiction Society. On Facebook, members commented incessantly about the Force Awakens, and it’s potential to bring fresh black talent to science fiction and comic books. There aren’t nearly enough such characters, and Hollywood has failed to produce or capitalize on characters black nerds are dying to see. In a universe of infinite powers, black comic book characters are sorely lacking with the exception of a few popular characters like Spawn, X-Men’s Storm (who seemed to have little to do in the movies), Black Panther, who never really went mainstream, D.C.’s Cyborg, Aqualad, or alternate universe creations like Black Spiderman or Black Green Lantern to name a few. Because of the dearth of black comic book characters, nerds from the Black Science Fiction Society are eagerly at work creating their own.
Enter Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and John Boyega’s Finn in 2015. Is he a Jedi disguised as a Storm Trooper? Is he going to be as great as Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Anakin Skywalker? Wrong. He’s a grunt. He’s not only a grunt, he’s actually a Storm Trooper. He’s not only a Storm Trooper, but a sanitation worker on the battlefield for the first time, and in the first few shots, he looks utterly confused about his presence there. You don’t have to see the face under uniform to know he doesn’t want to be there and he definitely has no interest in killing civilians. A day after the movie was released, criticism from the Black Science Fiction Community towards Finn was strong. There’s disappointment. Anger, even. Finn is even called “the worst character to happen to black people since Jar Jar Binks”. Some fans even called him inept, pointing out that he needed to be saved by Rey not once, but twice. While many of the fans complained, some fans called for others to be patient, as there are still two movies left for the character to grow. Others simply took the movie at face value and loved it! I went into the movie, my expectations for the character set to “low” only to be pleasantly surprised by what I saw.
If we are to take the rich, species-diverse community that makes up the Star Wars Universe, and incorporate American racial politics into a story where it doesn’t exist, then I suppose I can see where the resentment is coming from. On the surface, it does appear that Finn is there to serve as comic relief, someone whose actions and foibles are designed to give the other characters a chance to shine and show their stuff. But Finn’s story is a bit more complex than that. Placing Finn in the context of American racial politics, and making his story analogous to slavery, Finn could be considered a “runaway slave”. In the Force Awakens, Finn is taken by the Order not long after birth and is raised to become a Storm Trooper. This means he’s suffered a lifetime indignities, through forced subordination and indoctrination–learning to take orders, and even a bullet for his leaders.
Storm Troopers are always the most inept fighters on the battlefield. They aren’t taught to think for themselves, they are taught to follow orders, even if it means their lives, which most blindly sacrifice for the Order. And yet, after a lifetime of being stripped of his humanity and freedom (he’s even ordered away for reprogramming due to his poor performance on the battlefield–he’s already shown too much individuality), Finn still manages to think for himself, and he’s already decided he wants nothing to do with anything the Order wants him to do. He wants to be his own man. He wants to be free. He knows the evil they are capable of and would rather be on the other side of the universe than anywhere near them. However, Finn has lived a very sheltered life. He can’t even fly a ship, and yet he manages to not only free himself, but also a rebellion pilot, escaping the Order with his life…not an easy feat. Finn has accomplished more in his short time of freedom than most characters have over the span of the first three movies. He eventually meets Rey, a scavenger girl who has led an isolated life, and has learned to think for herself on an extremely volatile planet. Unlike Finn, she is completely independent and seemingly, without a family. They’re both just a couple of wide-eyed kids trying to survive their circumstances. Finn not only manages to save Rey more than once, helps Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Rey escape with the Millennium Falcon, but eventually stands up to one of most deadly men in the universe to prevent Rey from being killed. Finn is consistently courageous throughout the film, and that is to be commended, not derided. I did not find the character overly comedic either. I saw a young man desperate to find a place for himself in the galaxy. A person who deserved the freedom he sought.
Taking this review out of the context of American racial politics, Finn was never meant to be a “black man”. He’s a character belonging to one of the billions of species in the Star Wars Universe. If anyone watched Star Wars Episode VII the Force Awakens and thought Finn was a disappointment based solely on the color of his skin, the problem isn’t with the movie, the problem is with you.
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