I first saw the original Stars Wars trilogy when was I six years old as a little black boy amazed by a galaxy far, far away, but growing up black and nerdy meant paying more attention to the issue race played in the films. Although the lack of black people in the Star Wars universe is a gaping black hole, each trilogy has had iconic roles for black men.
Prior to the premiere of the new film The Force Awakens, MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry claimed that Star Wars is racist. She critiqued the original trilogy as a white supremacist takedown of black manhood, declaring that Darth Vader is portrayed as a black man when he's "terrible and bad," and "used to cut off the white man's hand." She then argues that once Darth Vader claims his son and returns to the light he is revealed to be white. Any true Star Wars fan or blerd (black nerd) would say that this is a straw man argument.
A stronger claim could be made against the character Jar Jar Binks, whose buffoonery in the first prequel, The Phantom Menace, is practically an alien version of blackface. While it may be impossible to redeem Binks' characterization of blackness, the character will not make any future appearances in the new films. Editing out Binks shows how the film creators and producers actually value the opinions of the POC fanboy community and recognized what made the character problematic and not just annoying.
But black men have played pivotal roles throughout the original and prequel film series, beginning with Billy Dee Williams' character Lando Calrissian who first appeared in the Empire Strikes Back. Although he is portrayed as a shuck and jive smooth talker, a common trope for black characters in the '70s, his character is redeemed in the final film when he aids in the rescue of Han Solo and helps destroy the second death star.
While the first film trilogy was ripe with diverse alien species, the inclusion of a complicated yet loveable character like Calrissian made the film relatable for fans of color. At times Calrissian feels like a token character, but his presence is important in establishing black representation in sci-fi cinema.
The prequel films gave fans an ideal hero to look up to that happened to be a person of color -- Samuel L. Jackson's Mace Windu. In light of Anakin Skywalker being a protagonist with questionable morals, Jackson's character is both a badass hero and a voice of reason. To date he is the only black jedi with a speaking role in the entire film series. (Warning, minor spoilers to follow).
In the newest movie, John Boyega successfully carries the legacy left by Jackson and Williams. As Michael Cavna from the Washington Post points out, the narrative slightly follows the plot of Mark Twain's legendary novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," of a young boy on a quest with a runaway slave.
Boyega's character, a Stormtrooper named Finn, flees from the First Order, effectively a plantation master, and is considered a fugitive. Smugglers Chewbacca and Han Solo take on abolitionist roles and aid Finn to finding safety. There's also the film's implied interracial romance between Daisy Ridley's character, Rey, and Finn. The final battle between the First Order and the Rebellion has such a strong parallel to the American Confederate War that it seems obvious the film was created as part of a larger racial backdrop.
J.J. Abrams intentionally cast Boyega as Finn, in an effort to help the lack of diversity in previous installments. Finn has become the black hero that audiences of color so desperately need. This is especially true given that reality for black men and women is just as dangerous, if not more so, than life in a fantasy universe. One small example is the racist trolling online from fans that have attacked Boyega, and even threatened to boycott the film.
"I just don't get it. You guys got every single alien in this movie imaginable to man," Boyega said, addressing the issue in the New York Times. " 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. I think Yoda said that, or Obi-Wan."
Thankfully, Boyega isn't just the token that his predecessors played before him, there are several black actors in this latest Star Wars installment, albeit extras or supporting characters. But black people have been seen, and most definitely heard, Lupita Nyongo and James Earl Jones, throughout the entire series.
Still race relations in space are not light-speed ahead of our own challenges in the real world. I hope that more diversity is able to shine in the follow-up films -- fingers crossed there will at least be one black female human character.
One thing is clear, the force is definitely woke.