“You know, that ship’s saved my life quite a few times. She’s the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy!” – Lando Calrissian
If there is any truth to the speculation that John Boyega is the lead protagonist (‘The New Luke’) around whose story arc the third Star Wars trilogy revolves (launching this December with J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens, or TFA) the decision to cast a black actor in the most prestigious ‘action hero’ role in all movies could represent a moment in world cinema history no less significant or Rubicon-traversing than the election of America’s first black president. Even more momentous a cinematic milestone than the potential casting of a black 007, TFA could be on the verge of providing Hollywood with its very own ‘Obama Moment’ and carving out for itself a singular niche in cinema history as one of the most consequential motion pictures ever made.
For in TFA Hollywood just may have chanced upon its Holy Grail: the ‘Obama Movie.’ Not in the sense of being a motion picture about America’s first black president as in representing the same moment in cinema history that his election represented in US political history. It is quite possibly a stroke of genius by Disney of such staggering magnitude that it virtually guarantees that this film could go on to be the highest-grossing motion picture of all time and one worthy of instant induction into the Smithsonian and Library of Congress – almost regardless of its artistic merits.
As the first motion picture to overturn the prevailing paradigm of racial casting that binds virtually all of Hollywood’s productions, the seventh episode in the Star Wars saga could just be Tinseltown’s first truly ‘trans-racial’ movie. Notice I didn’t say ‘post-racial.’ Because there is a key difference. More on that later.
In order to grasp the full magnitude of this casting decision let us consider for a moment the arc of global culture that might have emerged, all other things being equal, had Mark Hamill been black at the time of his appearance as Luke Skywalker in 1977’s A New Hope, or ANH.
Might it, for instance, have made any difference in 1984 when Jesse Jackson embarked on his bid to become the country’s first black president? Well, by that year the American people would have long since acclimatised and inured themselves to a ‘Black Luke’ through their vicarious participation in his galaxy-bounding escapades as they unfolded in ANH (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (ESB,1980) and Return of the Jedi (ROTJ,1983) and this just may have served to lower their psychic resistance enough for his candidacy to gain broader acceptance across mainstream America and help to push him over the top and into the White House on 6th November 1984.
[As improbable as it may now seem, Jackson was an infinitely more inspirational and credible figure in 1984 than the scandal-ridden Sharpton-esque ‘race hustler’ to which he has since found himself reduced. So high was the regard in which he was held (in Democrat circles, at any rate) that he was selected to deliver the keynote address at not one but two DNC conventions, in 1984 and 1988. This is the Jackson we must keep in mind as our little hypothesis develops, younglings.]
A Jackson victory would have averted a second Ronald Reagan presidential term and might have had far-flung foreign policy ramifications in the mid-1980s. As America’s new president Jackson would almost certainly have pursued a more robust policy towards the P.W. Botha regime through a crippling blockade of his apartheid South Africa, precipitating the collapse of that tyranny and accelerating by several years the release of Nelson Mandela – historic developments that were needlessly delayed by Reagan’s disgraceful appeasement policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with Pretoria. A Jackson presidency might have also brought forward the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the end of the Cold War) as a consequence of a more proactive détente between his administration and that of Mikhail Gorbachev’s USSR. To say nothing of the role Jackson’s diplomacy might have played in brokering an earlier truce between the SCUD-lobbing regimes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein.
On the home front, the embrace of Jackson’s candidacy by mainstream America arising from the psychic seed implanted by a Black Luke might have obviated his need to mobilise black American electoral support through his ill-fated alliance with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan, who was to the Jackson campaign what Jeremiah Wright could have been to Obama’s, might have seen all of his cunningly-laid plans to use the Reverend’s presidential bid as a Trojan Horse for his own leadership ambitions extinguish in a puff of smoke. As things turned out, Farrakhan went on to ride the Jackson electoral mule all the way to the Million Man March of 1995 and beyond.
With his solid civil rights credentials as a protégé of Martin Luther King, Jackson just might have gone on to be a far more game-changing president than Obama, who lacked such credentials when he ran in 2007. Such are but a few of the ways in which a black Mark Hamill might have served as an accelerant for global change through the societal impact his big screen role as galactic saviour might have laid in accustoming the American people to the idea of a black president through the Jungian implantation of a ‘Black Messiah’ archetype in their collective unconscious.
After all, the American people in 1984 had little difficulty accepting a black man like Michael Jackson in the role of undisputed King of Pop Music as a result of the unprecedented success of his Thriller album. Nor did they prove averse to Eddie Murphy’s emergence as Hollywood demigod arising from his box office smash hits 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. They fully embraced the rock star Prince as he straddled the pop music and film worlds with the album and cinematic triumph that was Purple Rain. And they cheered on the super-athlete Carl Lewis as he dominated the sporting world with his record-setting and medal-winning performances at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Had that same world already been inured to the idea of a black president through the ‘galactic messiah’ role played by a Black Luke over the course of ANH, ESB and ROTJ, the arrival on the presidential stage of candidate Jackson just might have met with enough mainstream consent to win him the White House in November of that same year. It was arguably the absence of a black ‘saviour archetype’ that represented one of the missing psychic links that might have otherwise bridged the chasm separating Jackson from the Oval Office in the imagination of the American electorate.
Boyega’s casting as the proverbial ‘New Luke’ in TFA could have equally far-reaching effects in preconditioning mankind to embrace black socio-political narratives in global affairs. For just as 1977’s ANH was launched into a post-Watergate milieu of cynicism and despondency, helping to prise the world free of its grip, TFA arrives against a post-Ferguson backdrop of urban unrest. Indeed, the opening shot in the recent teaser trailer has Boyega looking not unlike an intergalactic Trayvon Martin who appears to be fleeing unseen Imperial State Troopers bent on his ruin. With its insurrectionary black hero, TFA could thus end up serving as an unwitting allegory for the post-Ferguson #BlackLivesMatter social rebellion against the abuses of the American security state. Boyega, as his character Finn, could find himself endowed with an unanticipated social resonance as the galactic face of social discontent, becoming the icon through whom an entire generation come to channel their own rebellious impulses. And in the context of a new trilogy that features a black lead, the Force itself could read as an analogue for the spirituality and ‘sense of rhythm’ all-too-often ascribed to persons of African descent or those sympatico with their culture.
Soon may the youth of the world come to identify with a black character as the focal figure of all of their subconscious yearnings and conceptions of heroism in what would be a truly spectacular coup for black personhood. That a black film actor could yet emerge as the universal symbol of virtue within the context of the saga’s Manichean morality comes possessed with a significance it would be difficult to overstate. At a time when black men have become the all-too-frequent casualties of fatal encounters with law enforcement arising from the universal association of black male identity with criminality and violence, TFA will have arrived not a moment too soon and could introduce a black cinematic icon who becomes the universal Symbol of Good. Soon may it come to pass that the key turning point in the global representation of black manhood arrived not on 6th November 2008 with the election of America’s first black president but on 18th December 2015 when Boyega took to the cinematic stage in what was the most significant role ever assigned to a black actor in cinema history.
Is the world ready for a Black Luke? Is our planet fully prepared for this figure to occupy a special space in the collective unconscious of an entire generation as the personality through whom the quintessential Hero’s Journey unfolds? Could TFA represent the most ambitious effort yet to overturn attitudes by embedding a black hero in the planetary psyche of Earth’s populace such that, from their earliest moments, the world’s youth come to view themselves in his image and likeness through their identification with his adventures as they unfold across the galaxy? And could it yet emerge that Mellody Hobson, the black spouse of George Lucas, may have played a covert role in setting this ball in motion?
These and other question remain to be answered. But of one thing we can be certain: Boyega stands poised to become the biggest star in motion picture history by virtue of the new ground he will break in TFA. Indeed, the actor could ultimately emerge from this process as an even more totemic cultural icon than either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X and do so in a manner which could see him play a messianic role off-screen that mirrors the one he plays in the movie. Soon may he find himself being lauded as the ‘New Obama’, albeit one who belongs to the decidedly apolitical world of pop culture. In this respect his casting could prove to be an even more consequential development than Obama’s election for the simple reason that the British actor will far outlast the American president through the continual recirculation of his cinematic escapades down several generations, thus cementing his permanence in the planetary unconscious.
In a world that has seen a black man twice-elected to its most powerful office, was it not inevitable that Disney would conclude that a black lead actor represented their best bet for the commercial success of a resurrected motion picture franchise that was poised to be unleashed on a world dominated by non-white moviegoers? And does not Boyega’s casting constitute the most resounding riposte to the bigoted claims that emerged from the email accounts of studio executives at rival Sony Pictures courtesy of the (not entirely unwelcome) intervention of the DPRK’s Kim Jong-un?
What makes the casting of a Black Luke an even more iconoclastic act than the potential selection of a black James Bond is that whereas Ian Fleming’s 007 is not a messiah-figure in his cinematic incarnation, the Luke Skywalker character is. As the galaxy’s ‘chosen one’, Skywalker is no ordinary hero. He performs the function of a ‘Galactic Christ’ of sorts, endowing him with a cultural resonance and spiritual heft that 007 simply doesn’t possess. Assigning Boyega a similar role compares with the portrayal of Jesus Christ by a black actor in a mainstream biblical epic – a choice that would arguably represent a more authentic depiction of the Nazarene than the blond-haired Nordic of Christendom’s frescoes.
Since more people around the world grew up identifying with Luke Skywalker than with any other hero in cinema history, his character was able to implant itself in the unconscious of an entire generation in a manner unmatched by any other. That a similar role has now been assigned to a black actor could make Boyega the dominant icon whom a whole new generation will come to idolize. And as President Obama has steadily shrunk in stature over the two terms of his presidency (owing to the limitations on his presidential prerogatives, which have become all too apparent) Boyega, unfettered by such constraints, is able to assume this function not merely on a single planetary stage (Earth) but across the entire galaxy. He is able to seize the mantle of a ‘Galactic Obama’ and become the black hero of the entire universe.
Indeed, could it eventually turn out that the casting of Boyega was part of some Machiavellian social engineering devised by Hollywood’s power brokers for the sole purpose of laying the ground for a reality-reversing and civilisation-upending role that was set to be played by an as-yet-to-be-identified black personality: the occasionally-mooted ‘Black Messiah’? After all, could it be mere coincidence that we recently saw the release of a long-awaited and critically-acclaimed album by the recording artist D’Angelo, which boldly bears that very title? And what of the pervasive #BlackLivesMatter social media meme? Precisely what might the world’s ‘principalities and powers’ be readying us for?
And while there have been movies before TFA which featured black lead actors (Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, etc.) none of them have ever occupied the unique space in global culture in which the Star Wars franchise sits. Hollywood’s ‘Obama Moment’ was never going to be reached by the first film to cast a black lead any more than was that juncture in world politics arrived at with the election of the first black president in the international state system. That milestone was traversed when a black man rose to the presidency of the most powerful and successful nation in world history: the United States of America. In like fashion, that same bridge will finally be crossed by Hollywood this December with the debut of a black lead protagonist in the most successful and influential film franchise of them all, the ‘America of the Movies’, namely, the Star Wars saga. Simply put, Star Wars is to global cinema what America is to planetary geopolitics. And the casting of Boyega as the lead in TFA is to the history of the medium what the election of Obama to the White House was to the history of world politics.
The unlikelihood of Boyega’s Finn displaying any of the demeaning ‘ghetto’ mannerisms and expressing himself in the ‘street’ vernacular that is supposedly representative of black cultural authenticity (and to which we’ve sadly become accustomed in all-too-many a black cinematic performance) will come as a huge relief. Since that stale subculture mercifully has no place in the Star Wars universe, TFA could afford us a new opportunity to wipe the archetypal slate clean and introduce a black hero who is devoid of the stereotypica associated with the Hip-Hop milieu. Through Boyega’s casting we just may have been handed a rare and refreshing opportunity to reinvent black identity itself. In this context, his ground-breaking selection as the lead in TFA could represent a resounding act of redemption for some of the problematic ethnic stereotyping that permeates the Star Wars saga.
Whether it was Darth Vader’s sepulchral voice (supplied by black actor James Earl Jones) or the iconic performances rendered by Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and Samuel Jackson as Mace Windu or the African pygmy-like Ewoks, or sadly, the tragicomic minstrelsy of Ahmed Best as Jar Jar Binks, black identity has long occupied a powerful and distinct place at the very heart of the Star Wars ecosystem. With TFA, black identity could manifest its most triumphant incarnation thus far. For this time the hero himself will be black. It’s almost as if something that was first foreshadowed by Vader’s voice will have finally become flesh in the person of Finn.
As a slave narrative, the Star Wars saga has always held a powerful allure for black audiences. One has always felt that both Luke and Anakin Skywalker – as members of an oppressed people struggling to survive on the ‘plantation planet’ of Tatooine in a galaxy asphyxiating under the steel boot of an Evil Empire (that bears more than a passing resemblance to European colonial authority and American chattel slavery) – were existentially ‘black’ characters. With the apparent decision to cast an ethnically black actor as the lead, it feels as though Star Wars, far from indulging in an act of politically-correct pandering, may have finally come true and at last made good on its own mythological promise.
In much the same way that the X-Men franchise borrows heavily from the history of black American social marginalisation and racial victimisation in the manner in which it depicts an underclass of gifted mutants oppressed by a fearful and bigoted human majority, the Star Wars mythology has lavishly appropriated key leitmotifs from that same narrative. Indeed, the fact that its new hero is black could have a transformational effect on the third Star Wars trilogy. For whereas race was never a significant element of how any of the previous films were processed or any aspect of the storylines they featured, the fact that we are living in the so-called ‘Age of Obama’ could yet shape the manner in which the Finn character is greeted by audiences, some of whom had a visceral and angst-ridden response to his teaser trailer incarnation as a ‘black stormtrooper.’
In the absence of a black president of the USA there simply wouldn’t be an ‘Obama Moment’ to be had – in TFA or in any other movie. The historic milestone represented by his election was essential in putting such a possibility in place. This could mean that when Finn finally graces the screen come December his ethnicity could, for the first time, become an explicit and inescapable feature of his role in a manner in which neither Windu’s nor Calrissian’s was. It will be as if the Star Wars saga has finally been thrust into the real world, complete with all of its neuroses and phobias. Star Wars will have finally come down to Earth. It is this singular capacity to catalyse such a metamorphic effect simply by our inclusion in something from which we were hitherto excluded that makes black identity intrinsically and existentially transformational. And it is in this sense that TFA could go beyond merely being ‘post-racial’ in its societal impact and attain a unique place in cinema history as the first truly ‘trans-racial’ motion picture i.e. a film that transforms the very essence of race itself.
Which finally brings us to the $64,000 question of TFA geekdom: Is Finn a Windu or is he a Calrissian? Well, for one thing, the presence of the Millennium Falcon in the teaser trailer, quite possibly piloted by Boyega’s character, could indicate that Finn learned how to fly the ship from his father, Lando Calrissian. Lando, after all, was one of its previous owners until he lost the spacecraft in the poker-like game of sabacc to Han Solo. Lando was also at the Falcon’s helm when it destroyed the second Death Star during the Battle of Endor in ROTJ. That heroism may run in the family and represent the warrior pedigree from which Finn derives his own. And when one considers that the first time we see Finn in the trailer he appears to be fleeing his erstwhile compatriots in the Empire for the refuge of the Republic, might not this mutinous proclivity be one he inherited from his father Lando, who switched his own allegiance to the Rebellion in ESB? And when one further notes that Luke inherited his ship-handling skills from his Sith dad, Darth Vader, wouldn’t it make perfect sense were Finn to have inherited his own TIE-flying abilities from an equally gifted parent? And what better way to end the film than if Han Solo bequeaths (or perhaps loses) the Falcon to the son of the man from whom it was won in much the same way that Luke obtains Vader’s lightsaber from Obi-Wan Kenobi?
On the other hand, it is just as likely that a future instalment of the Third Trilogy could see us visiting Mace Windu’s home world of Haruun Kal (populated by the Force-sensitive Negroid race, the Korunnai) and confront us with the revelation that Finn was himself a Korun quite possibly exiled from his home planet or perhaps even the estranged (and vengeful) son of the slain Jedi master. This could set Finn off on an Indiana Jones-like quest to the planet Ruusan in order to free his father along with other Jedi whose souls may have been trapped by a Sith ‘thought bomb’ in that Force nexus known as the ‘Valley of the Jedi’.
Then again, the striking parallels between the story arc of the Expanded Universe’s Kyle Katarn (a mutinous Imperial Stormtrooper who defects to the Rebellion and teams up with a Rebel agent and smuggler named Jan Ors) and those elements of Finn’s own narrative, which recently leaked on Reddit, are uncanny and highly suggestive that Finn may be a ‘Katarn’ or a brand new character modelled on him. It will certainly come as no surprise to me if the Boyega character’s full name thus turns out to be ‘Kyle Finn’.
With Disney’s long and troubled history of reproducing demeaning racial stereotypes disguised in a succession of its iconic animated characters, it remains to be seen whether Finn, whoever he turns out to be, is permitted to be a well-rounded hero or just a one-dimensional live-action reincarnation of Jar Jar Binks. Among other things, the world will be watching to see if the movie frees its black hero to have a fully-developed romantic life, and where his relationships cross racial lines, whether the studio finally breaks with Hollywood’s shameful tradition of vitiating these liaisons through all manner of plot devices and narrative subterfuge. Will Finn be the new Arthurian archetype who receives his Excalibur in the form of Luke’s lightsaber (or Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon)? Or will he be yet another in a long line of minstrels whose promise is squandered and whose heroic role is progressively diluted and ultimately written out of the saga as it unfolds?
What gives the Skywalker archetype such potency (and Boyega’s assumption of it such promise) is that while no-one leaves a screening of Lord of the Rings wanting to be Frodo Baggins, everyone who saw ANH left the theatre wanting to be Luke. And every kid on Earth could yet leave TFA dying to be Finn. This could make the film a civilizational game-changer, for this time a black movie hero will be the action figure or videogame with which every kid on Earth will be raised, helping to shape the way they come to view themselves and their conceptions of what constitutes the societal ‘norm.’ TFA could thus prove to be one of the most sociologically significant creations ever devised, one living up to its own title and spiritually awakening – and transforming – our troubled world.