Star Wars is a big deal for a lot of people, myself included. Its influence on American pop culture cannot be understated. A cultural icon like no other, Star Wars permeates all forms of media from TV shows to comic books. Never before has there been a major black character to champion the franchise. Until now.
Enter John Boyega, a young Nigerian from the UK, who plays Finn in the upcoming film, The Force Awakens. This is huge. Prejudiced fans and those who began the racist Twitter hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII understand how important this is. For the first time ever, Star Wars has casted a black man as a major protagonist. Of course, Billy Dee Williams played Lando Calrissian in the original trilogy and Samuel L. Jackson played Mace Windu in the prequels (though I pretend that trilogy doesn't exist), but those were minor, supporting roles. Calrissian always plays second fiddle to Han Solo. Mace Windu was just badass Samuel L. Jackson in Jedi robes. In the new trilogy, Finn takes center stage.
We can tell from the marketing that Finn will play a major role in the new trilogy. He is prominent in posters, trailers, toys, interviews and everything Star Wars. (Except in China but that's a whole other story) Alongside Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, he is the new face of the film franchise. Finn could possibly become as iconic as Luke Skywalker. Fitting, considering Finn wields Luke's lightsaber in the film. Luke has effectively passed the baton.
Thanks to actors like Will Smith and Denzel Washington, there have been several blockbuster films with a black male protagonist, but none of them have had the cultural impact and longevity of Star Wars and superhero films. No other black film character has had such widespread publicity until Finn came about. Fans can now purchase Hasbro action figures, Legos, high-quality statues and many more toys in Finn's likeness. Soon Finn will appear in video games, cartoon series, on folders, notebooks, backpacks, t-shirts, book and comic books covers, etc. The list goes on and on.
This couldn't have come at a better time as black activists constantly try to combat the negative stereotypes perpetuated by media. The huge backlash against having a black man play a major character shows us just how necessary this is. We need more positive images of black men in media to affirm that we are not invisible. Now, because of the power of Star Wars, we will continue to see John Boyega's face infiltrate spaces to which black men don't normally have access.
As an educator, I think about my black students who are being fed negative messages about themselves on a daily basis. They need good role models that look like them, both in their personal lives and in the media. Finn is an excellent one. Likewise, seeing good black characters will help my students of other ethnicities understand that people of color can be heroes too.
This year and 10 years from now, a kid's parents will buy him a Finn action figure. In Finn, the boy will see a black man but also a hero, a leader and one of the good guys. I have a (new) hope that we will continue to see more positive representations of black men in media to affirm the noble character of many people of color. Because of the vast reach of Star Wars, I'm confident that we will.