I'm about to do something I've never done before. I'm going to see a Star Wars film on its opening weekend.
When the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, I was a kid in the mostly white suburbs of St. Louis County, Missouri. Nearly every white boy in my school was obsessed with the movie. They wore T-shirts and bought action figures and other gear. I didn't get it.
I was never into science fiction and never quite understood the instant fascination with the movie. But over time, I learned more about the franchise and saw a few Star Wars films on TV, VCR and DVD. But in all those years, I never went to see any Star Wars film in a movie theater. Until now.
I'm going to see and support John Boyega, the 23-year-old British actor who plays a stormtrooper on the run named Finn. Of course, he's not the first Black actor in the series. James Earl Jones voiced the role of Darth Vader, Billy Dee Williams played Lando Calrissian and Samuel L. Jackson was Mace Windu in past installments. But no Black actor in the series has generated the controversy that surrounds Boyega. Some fans have even gone so far as to urge a boycott of the movie because of his leading role.
"I just don’t get it," Boyega told a reporter recently. "You guys got every single alien in this movie imaginable to man. With tentacles, five eyes...Yet what you want to do is fixate on another human being’s color. You need to go back to school and unlearn what you have learned."
Unfortunately, there's been a pattern of racial stereotyping in Hollywood that has taken a long time to begin to break. "The fact that there is always controversy when a Black actor takes on a role that is deemed 'not urban' is sad," said Chris DeLoatch, an actor in the BAIT web series. "Hollywood would rather us be cab driver No. 2 and be content that we are working," he said.
Slowly, but surely, that's starting to change. We're about to see three Black action heroes — Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle and Chadwick Boseman — in the upcoming film Captain America: Civil War. And we're slowly starting to see more Black actors and actresses in non-stereotypical roles on television. But there's so much more work to do.
Even with an African-American president and a few highly successful black actors, Hollywood and America have a long way to go to reflect a more accurate representation of who we are as a people. For one thing, it would be a welcome sign if we could actually get through an introduction of non-white actors into a legacy action hero or comic book series on film without a controversy.
At a time when cries of "Black Lives Matter" are met with superficial responses of "All Lives Matter," it would be another welcome sign of progress if Black people didn't have to explain and defend ourselves every time a white person wasn't chosen to fill a slot. (I'm looking at you, Abby Fisher.)
But most importantly, I can't help but think of the influence on a whole new generation of young people watching Star Wars. In my case, perhaps if I had heard of a John Boyega character in the original Star Wars film when I was a child, I might have taken to the series much sooner. Now here it is nearly 40 years later and I'm just getting into it.
We often talk about the influence of popular culture on young people of color. And I'm sure there will be quite a few young Black girls and boys who will watch this film and be inspired by Boyega as Finn or Lupita Nyong'o as Maz Kanata. But these roles are also useful to educate non-Black people as well. The truth is it helps that young white girls and boys will see this story, taken from a galaxy far, far away, and be able to grow up in a new world where they may not think it strange to see Black heroes leading the way.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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