Does Race Matter in Space?
If you don’t know who John Boyega is, you must not like Science-Fiction Blockbuster movies. Currently, Boyega is on the cover of the August 2017 issue of GQ Magazine, the acting muse of Robert Downey Jr., and one of the lead roles in the latest Star Wars Franchise. His second of three films, The Last Jedi, hits theatres this December, and fans are counting down the minutes.
In his recent interview with GQ, Boyega was straight-forward about the lack of diversity in major motion pictures, specifically science-fiction/fantasy. He is now (unsurprisingly) receiving online backlash from fans who feel his statement is ignorant.
“There are no black people on Game of Thrones,” Boyega says. (To be fair, there are, like, three.) “You don’t see one black person in Lord of the Rings.” (That is true). And though Star Wars had featured a few black characters—Billy Dee Williams as a smuggler, Samuel L. Jackson as a peripheral Jedi—they were less represented in the galaxy than Ewoks.
“I ain’t paying money to always see one type of person on-screen,” says Boyega. “Because you see different people from different backgrounds, different cultures, every day. Even if you’re a racist, you have to live with that. We can ruffle up some feathers.” The direct excerpt from the magazine, written by GQ’s cultural editor, Anna Peele, is online and on newsstands now.
When I first read this, I started to look around the room to see if anyone else was catching what this young man of 25 was saying. I wanted to high-five someone. Alone, I thought I’d blog about it instead. Not only is the statement overtly factual, it’s so often swept under every magic carpet in the genre that the mere mention of it sparks unnecessary uproar. The truth hurts, Darth Supremacy, and just like Star Wars, our galaxy is political.
Today, the Science-Fiction and Fantasy genres are universally coddled. Fans of all ages and races binge and dissect these fairy tales and urban legends, but fail to notice that many of their origins stem from far away places, too. When it comes to the depiction of race in these tales, why does it seem as if the white race is the default race? Why is every magical adventure we embark on at the movies correlated with a predominantly white race?
The argument against that notion goes a little something like this: “How many movies has Will Smith starred in? And what about the new Mary-Jane from Spider-Man? She’s black! And there is literally an all-black superhero movie coming out next year!”
Granted, none of these statements are false. Will Smith is a huge star, Mary Jane is played by Zendaya in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Black Panther hits theatres in 2018. But what is wrong – as well as tone deaf and bias – is the assumption that a few PoC actors/productions in Hollywood hold even a flame up to the white majority.
Places like Hogwarts, Middle Earth, and a Star Wars galaxy far, far away should not be exempt from diversity. We’re talking about places with dragons, wizards, aliens and space princesses, so what makes these fictional places overpoweringly white, besides corporate studios saying so?
In December 2015, the Harry Potter franchise was ridiculed for hiring black actress Noma Dumezweni as Hermoine Granger Weasley. In support of the actress, author of the series, J.K. Rowling, took to Twitter: “Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.”
It is a systemically racist notion that Hermoine needs to be played by a white actress. Emma Watson played the character flawlessly in the past, but why should her portrayal rule out another woman of any other race in the future?
The end goal is not to meet a quota of black people in movies and television, no. That would be counter-productive. The end goal in saying things like John Boyega did in GQ is – to pressure production to open up auditions and castings to EVERY race and gender.
For instance, Middle Eastern actors are still extremely typecast; most of them are hired to play terrorists while Jake Gyllenhaal gets to play the Prince of Persia. Disney, before announcing Egyptian-Canadian newcomer, Mena Massoud, as the new live-action Aladdin, took to social media saying they were having troubles finding Middle Eastern actors to play the lead roles. The general public found this puzzling and hard to believe… Where were they looking?
Even Tiger Lily – one of the only Native American characters in modern Fantasy- was played by white actress Rooney Mara in Pan. Mara later talked to The Telegraph about it: “I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I really do. I don’t ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset and frustrated.”
Honourable whitewash mentions go to Matt Damon’s questionable casting in The Great Wall, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell, and the entire Stonewall cast. All of these examples prove that even if a film or character is heavily influenced by a minority culture, a white actor can still, somehow, be deemed best suited to play the role. Not always, but far too often.
There is a large discussion on whether or not studios should forfeit diversity morals for the sake of attaching a recognizable name to the project – big Hollywood names sell movie tickets – but isn’t that same argument attaching names like Will Smith to big movie star labels? Were box office starlets Lucy Liu and Zhang Ziyi on anyone’s radar when casting Ghost In The Shell? And how many cis straight actors are going to be showered with awards for playing a Gay or Trans character while actual Gay and Trans actors sit on the sidelines?
If Hollywood solely relies on big names to sell movies, then J.J. Abrams sure turned that theory on its head when casting John Boyega in The Force Awakens. Yes, Star Wars was already a household name, but if Boyega was never given this opportunity, he wouldn’t have been able to awaken movie buffs and genre nerds with this new interview. Whether you like it or not, this intelligent, young Nigerian native from South-London, UK, is one of the many new faces of the franchise. And he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Ironic how the Force embodies the truth both on-screen, and off.
About the Author
Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.