Nerds everywhere are largely breathing a sigh of relief after viewing the first teaser trailer for director J.J. Abrams’ continuation of the “Star Wars” saga: “The Force Awakens”.
Each moment of this 90-second clip is being obsessively dissected across the Internet, but one of its most striking images (besides a resurgent Millennium Falcon) is one of the first: the appearance of black actor John Boyega in an iconic stormtrooper outfit.
Boyega, largely unfamiliar to American audiences, gave a breakout performance in the acclaimed British sci-fi comedy “Attack the Block”. Some critics have already compared Boyega to a young Denzel Washington, and his memorable cameo in this early footage is already generating buzz.
For years “Star Wars” fans of color have lamented their lack of representation in what is arguably the most successful film franchise of all time. Legendary black actor Billy Dee Williams played the popular swindler-turned-hero Lando Calrissian in Episodes V and VI of the original series, but many “Star Wars” aficionados were disappointed to hear that he was not invited back for “The Force Awakens” which picks up 30 years after “Return of the Jedi”. Samuel L. Jackson played the stoic jedi Mace Windu in the widely ridiculed prequel films, but his character failed to resonate, much like the movies themselves.
Making matters worse was the controversial vocal performance by Ahmed Best as the computer animated Jar Jar Binks. When the reviled character first appeared in 1999’s “The Phantom Menace” there were widely reported complaints that the character resembled controversial performers like Stepin Fetchit, who infamously relied on racially insensitive stereotypes for comic relief.
“Whether intentionally or not, Jar Jar’s pratfalls and high jinks borrow heavily from the genre of minstrelsy. Despite the amphibian get-up, his relentless, panicky, manchild-like idiocy is imported directly from the days of ‘Amos ‘N’ Andy’. And whether it were a white man, a black woman or Al Jolson himself beneath the mask, what would still make all the clowning so particularly insulting is the fact that Jar Jar’s speech is a weird pidgin mush of West African, Caribbean and African-American linguistic styles,” The Nation’s Patricia Williams wrote at the time.
“Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ Tuskegee Airmen-themed World War II epic “Red Tails” went a long way toward making amends with his disappointed black fans. Meanwhile, Abrams, who is kick-starting a new trilogy, has stocked his cast with multicultural faces. In addition to Boyega, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and rising star Oscar Isaac (who has Guatemalan and Cuban ancestry) have also scored roles in this surefire blockbuster.
So far, the reaction to their casting has been met mostly with support, although there have been some derisive comments about the casting of a black actor as a stormtrooper.
Boyega was ready with a retort to these critics: “Get used to it.”