Arguably as important as the need for more strong female characters: we need more weak female characters! Successful TV shows and movies star needy, cruel, insecure, egotistic, and/or violent men all the time, and adding more flawless female superheroes is only part of a solution. (and yes, this is just a roundabout way of saying we need more female characters.)
Why John Boyega’s starring role in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will be so important.
It was announced a couple of years ago, shortly after Lucasfilm was officially sold to Disney, that there were going to be new Star Wars films on the way. As the months passed, actors, writers, and directors were announced. While we were all excited about the return of Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca and everyone’s favorite ‘droids — R2D2 and C3PO — not everyone was entirely on board with J.J. Abrams being brought on to the project. At the time, the movie seemed like it was a long ways away, and something that we shouldn’t get excited for just yet.
Then, in November 2014, on the day after Thanksgiving, a teaser trailer was released. In the trailer we see the usual trappings of a Star Wars film, as well as as new characters, and even a little round and rolling ‘droid by the name of BB-8. The trailer brought a lot of excitement to some, but a certain segment of people were upset. Why? Because of the appearance of actor John Boyega in a Stormtrooper costume. Apparently, they believed very fervently that Stormtroopers are supposed to be White.
(Editor’s nerdly note: Canonically, within the movies, Stormtroopers do not have a defined skin color or origin and are never seen without their helmets on. There is no reason to believe they were all White. Their predecessors in the clone troopers of the Grand Army of the Republic were all clones of Jango Fett, played in the films by part-Maori actor Temuera Morrison.)
On April 16th, the second teaser trailer for the movie was released, and John Boyega is again seen in the Stormtrooper armor, as well as in regular clothing and looks to be one of the lead characters in the film. It is still unknown whether or not his character is actually a Stormtrooper or in some kind of disguise (like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” film from 1977).
Why is this exciting? Because the Star Wars films, despite being diverse in their supporting or background casting, have yet to show as much diversity in casting their main characters. Although characters like Mace Windu and Lando Calrissian are iconic and have interesting backstories on their own (if you have time to read all of those books), none of the Star Wars films can even pass the first rule of the Racial Bechdel test. That test being: It has to have two People of Color in it, who talk to each other, not about White people.
While casting John Boyega as a main character alone doesn’t fix the issue automatically, it is a great starting point. Main characters in movies have character growth, personal histories, and, most importantly, storylines that are about them. Those backgrounds generally also imply other People of Color, who can potentially be introduced as well. John Boyega’s character therefore likely means interaction with other POC side-characters, who potentially focus on something other than the usual white protagonists you see so often in films. Especially in Sci-Fi.
This also isn’t the first time this specific actor has starred in a sci-fi role. Many people will remember John Boyega as the critically-acclaimed breakout star of the 2011 film Attack the Block.
That film was much less Space Opera than the Star Wars franchise and instead deals with a group of teenagers from the slums fighting off an alien invasion. That film also has not one but three main characters of color, and a diverse enough background cast that it passes the Racial Bechdel test on multiple occasions with flying colors. Aside from that, John Boyega’s performance as that main character Moses is compelling. He’s the type of anti-hero that many other gritty movies hope to portray.
Movies need heroes. Whether they’re everyday people or aliens in tights, heroes are the characters in movies that the audience wants to see succeed. They save the day, they help others grow.
Unfortunately, there’s a subgenre of hero movie that is very popular in Hollywood: The White Savior movie.
You’ve seen these movies before, a group of poor, deprived kids of color have potential in something, but that potential can’t be manifested into a realized talent without the main White character showing the kids of color how to focus it. Bonus points if the White savior of the movie spends time trying to participate in the kids’ “weird” culture, much like Kevin Costner does in the trailer for the upcoming “McFarland, USA”, a movie which covers all those bases.
But that’s not the only type, there’s also the lone White hero in the society of People of Color who seems to be the only person capable enough to save everyone from an impending doom — which in some cases is that White Savior’s own culture, but at times is the implied “backwardness” of the culture he has joined into. Films such as “The Last Samurai” (2003) or “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) are examples.
Both of these types of White heroes in movies succeed in doing one thing; making the People of Color involved look inadequate. It’s an old and racist trope that can be found in what a lot of people consider classic literature. The People of Color, whether they are schoolkids or townspeople, are treated as more props than people. Their main purpose in the story is to better the main character or be saved by the main character.
Hollywood knowingly continues this trope. Many movies have been rewritten and even have had production blocked because of a lack of a White main character, like Danny Glover’s “Toussaint” (which I have mentioned on Arsenal for Democracy before). Their reasoning behind this is that having People of Color leads in movies doesn’t sell, and that White main characters are universal and everyone can relate to them.
But they’re not. What Hollywood has failed to realize is that the People of Color in these movies are people, not props, and the cultures that these White characters are navigating or destroying so easily in these movies are more important — and deserve to be more — than a plot device.
This style of movie is one that hopefully fades out as more and more People of Color are using the internet to create alternatives or even express distaste for how we and our cultures are being mistreated in media. Movies like “Dear White People”, which talks about the experiences of Black students at a majority White school, are able to be crowd-funded and go from being a short YouTube trailer to being a theatrically released, full length movie.
Twitter has had several hashtagged calls for more diverse media — and not just movies, but books, video games (full article➚), and television shows as well — that include well thought out characters of color and are created by People of Color.
Hopefully someday in the near future, the next time The Last [Person of Color] won’t always be a White Savior, and if we’re lucky there will be no Last [Person of Color] at all.
Art as much as anything else is important to society. Art has always been a way for human beings to mark achievements, express emotions, or capture their culture in a single moment for future generations to see. When that expression is stifled it should be considered detrimental to all of us. But for some reason artistic expression only seems to become an issue when certain voices are silenced.
When the news came out earlier this month that “The Interview” wasn’t going to be screened in the US (which was later changed to limited screenings) many people were upset. That news, combined with the news that the Steve Carell vehicle “Pyongyang”, a movie he was doing with Gore Verbinski would not even be filmed, a few celebrities took to Twitter to announce that it was a “sad day for creative expression.” A thousand thinkpieces were launched.
“The Interview” is a Seth Rogen comedy starring himself and James Franco and is about a tabloid reporter and his producer who are hired by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un during an interview they’d managed to arrange with him. Anyone who is familiar with Seth Rogen’s movies already knows to expect the same silly, slapstick movie with babbling and incompetent protagonists à la “Pineapple Express” and “The Green Hornet.” However the added elements of a movie set in Korea that has a cast list of primarily White main characters — and depicts the graphic assassination of a living dictator — should make anyone cringe.
The fact that this movie exists shouldn’t really garner any attention. There are plenty of stupid comedies that come out every year, a lot of them by Seth Rogen. So what exactly made this movie go from being just another comedy to a political statement seemingly overnight? The mysterious hack of Sony, which released sensitive emails and personal information of Sony employees and other celebrities, has been deemed a cyber attack from North Korea, by the US Government. (The North Korea link’s truth is still being widely debated in tech media.) In the emails there is a back and forth between the producers, Seth Rogen, and the CEO of Sony about how the fictionalized Kim Jong Un is assassinated in the movie. This exchange coupled with the cancellation of movie screenings caused many to state that this stifling of creativity means that the “terrorists have won.”
What’s glossed over about the emails is the culture of sexism and racism. In the emails, actresses and female producers are called names and have their sanity questioned for being even the slightest bit demanding. This is a big contrast to the way Rogen is treated about his intended ending for “The Interview,” where he was allowed to re-shoot and work on the until all parties were satisfied. In another email, a producer explains how she doesn’t think African-American actors in lead roles — including giants like Denzel Washington — can garner enough box office success because they believe that “the international motion picture audience is racist.”
It seems that yes, it is a sad day for artistic expression, but not in the way that many would think. Many female and/or POC filmmakers and actors have a hard time getting the backing they need to get their projects done — for example, the Toussaint L’Ouverture biopic that Danny Glover has been working on since 2008, or the Cleopatra movie for which Angelina Jolie was called a brat in the leaked emails — and it seems as if Sony, and possibly other companies, are ok with it.
“The Interview” gaining so much attention for being cancelled after the Sony hack shows exactly who Hollywood thinks has the right to artistic expression and who doesn’t. Sadly when it comes to major motion pictures, it looks as if that sad day is every day.