Today we have an extra post we wanted to share, courtesy of Shana Oshiro. As you’ll read below, Shana is African-American and also Metinnecock (indigenous people from Long Island area). I (Travis) have known Shana for nearly 13 years. When I saw a conversation she was having with friends online about the new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I asked if she’d share those thoughts in a post for Dream of Destiny. She has graciously agreed. It’s a little longer than most of our posts, and it’s part one of two, but it is definitely worth reading. Thanks, Shana, for sharing your perspective on this movie so many of us have enjoyed.
Last Friday morning when I went to see Star Wars with some geek friends who couldn’t get their wives to join, I felt a little like the cool kid I never was. Though not particularly drawn to science fiction for personal entertainment, I rather appreciate the genre as an interesting source of insight to the American “spiritual psyche,” as it were– and our imagination and thirst for reaching beyond this current understanding of the earthly version of reality takes us to interesting places within and can prompt some neat journeys of introspection. So even for not having been born and bred in a family of die-hard fans, I was able to truly enjoy the film as a generally well-done and entertaining experience. With a good courtesy summary to hold me over until I could recap on the original trilogy from the 70’s and a well-written script with a simple plot, it was accessible and fun to watch.
I did, however, find myself rather eager to engage in some dialogue about John Boyega’s character, Finn. Though there was talk of controversial and bigoted reactions to the casting of an African-American man for one of the lead roles, the general sentiment seemed to be a celebration for the giant step forward for mankind, in that Hollywood would finally cast a black lead in such an epic film. For me, however, there were a lot of choices in their portrayal of his character that bothered me for the very reason that we are perhaps expected to take for granted that the casting choice represents a heightened level of social evolution, when in fact we’ve not really yet come as close to that vision of equality as we’d like to think.
Now bear with me, readers and friends, before you drop dead from the sacrilege of a self-acknowledged outsider of the SciFi clique to be criticizing Star Wars on account of racial matters, of all things– believe me that I am fully aware that it’s “just a movie” and you may think I “should really just relax.” But the fact is, cinema speaks both to and about the collective (sub)consciousness of its intended audience, and I think as viewers– especially of a film of such legendary importance– it behooves us to notice what, exactly, is being communicated for that purpose in the context of entertainment. So, in case you might imagine the casting directors to have said, “Hey- this young man is talented and experienced. Let’s cast him!” and sipped mystery lattes for beautiful people on their way to the bank, no… that’s not how it works. When high-profile entertainment is being cast, particularly in films (less so in theatre, as far as physical appearance as the view is not as close-up) everything is a choice– including the ethnicity of the actors. Casting this (yes- very talented, handsome, and entertaining) young black man was a choice. And this choice was, in my opinion, followed up by many others that were quite suspect. Even as I made conscious efforts to keep my lens appropriately focused from my perspective as both a woman of color and one who is not intimately familiar with Star Wars, many elements of the writing and even the cinematography and blocking continued to stand out to me as subtle inclinations to subordinate Boyega’s character to the heroes around him physically, morally, and intellectually weak.
Briefly, before examining these instances of offense (yes, there’s the “O” word), let’s re-examine the landscape of science fiction and superhero films and story-telling in America, which was underscored for me as I sat through the previews. The recurring theme in many of these tales often involves the rise of the underdog(s) and the outcast(s) against the faces of evil, which also tends to be personified in the image of a money and power-hungry villain whose tyranny imposes perpetual fear in the people of a city or town. The audience member is led to identify with this position of being under the thumb of such undeserved and abused power, and is thus vicariously transcended to a triumphant experience, empowered by the ever- evasive, yet somehow always attainable forces of goodness, courage, sacrifice, and love. You may notice how your body twitches every so slightly to dodge the blows of the overwhelming and fantastical weapons and punches toward the hero and then leans forward as the tables turn against the monster. There is a strange sense of catharsis in watching buildings and lands explode constantly, representing both the lack of control we feel we can maintain over our own existence and the blows we deal in return to the unknown forces, whose fault it must be. No matter how many times we tell and see these stories, we keep coming back for more.
Now let’s look at this story-telling in a little more detail: who gets to tell the story of the hero? Who do we look at as the audience and manage to see ourselves? The short answer is: a sensitive white man– lowly of heart but at least eventually impenetrably powerful in spirit. A woman is usually involved in some way or another– either as paramour turned damsel-in-distress, or, increasingly in recent decades, the unexpected source of formidable virtue and strength. The matter of whose faces we see in these heroes tells us not only the realities of social politics in America, but it indicates the expectations that have been set for such films and the anticipated audiences who engage in them. I won’t presume to make an absolute general statement about the African-American community, but from what I’ve experienced, the superhero obsession is less present in our stories of interest beyond comic books and childhood, once it was more apparent that as African Americans, we weren’t really included much in this fantasy experience.
So let’s just put a pin in that for now and return to the most recent episode of Star Wars. We’ve got an African-American in a lead role, and me? I’m looking forward to seeing the black man come out on top for a change and finally, some of the rest of us can have a hero and feel like heroes with the rest of America (though of course, we’re still on a learning curve in including all ethnicities represented in this country on the big screen, but we’ll come back to that, too). It would seem this kind of inclusion should be reasonable expectation, given the general format of science fiction. Now, granted, Star Wars is a bit unique in its broader use of the superhero imagery in conjunction with science fiction as our proverbial journeys into the known unknown of outer space, infused with Zen Buddhist philosophy of Jedi training. And the superpowers attained aren’t even supernatural, per se, but rather connected to the fundamental quantum reality of “The Force,” acquired through intense discipline for focus and control of one’s own mind. Yet it seems to me that throughout the movie, the substance of all these themes are lost on– denied to– the incidentally black character “Finn,” from beginning to end.
In the opening scene, all the death and destruction Kylo Ren has brought upon Jakku is horrifying. Any decent human being would be traumatized, except of course… the storm troopers are no decent human beings. They’re trained killing machines to do the bidding of their emperor– except this guy. He’s scooting around, shocked and frightened as he sees one of his fellow troopers fallen and Kylo Ren wipes out all the inhabitants in his path before taking Poe Dameron captive, and we see that he doesn’t want to do this anymore. Now this recoiling from the dark side mission could have been characterized as a moral conviction when he goes to save the confident, virtuosic pilot– who sneers at the ruthless caped dude whose darkness inspires the fear in the trooper who couldn’t deal– but no. It’s made very clear when he asks, “Why are you helping me?” To which trooper responds, “because it’s the right thing to do.” So as an audience member, I’m feeling good about the story and about “my” hero– strong black man doin’ the right thing, let’s go, I’m ready for a good fight…
“You mean you need a pilot.”
“Yea,” he sheepishly responds.
He’s not a hero, they’ve made it known here. But that’s okay, because movies like this are supposed to set up the unlikely hero story, so we’ll put this under “room for growth.” I’m ready. He’s gonna grow up and show up!
So then they get in the space craft around which trooper has been trained his entire life, but doesn’t have much know-how in flying it. Never fear- another stronger and smarter guy seeing it for the first time is here. He can do it! Okay, okay, whatever- he’s a pilot and he’s in the right place at the right time. We’re helping each other it’s all good, it’s all good… So they’re making their brave and dangerous break for it, and at the guidance of the pilot, they slay all the other troopers and dark dudes or whatever and lots of things blow up. For the pilot, business as usual. Of course he got them out. Trooper? He looks about 12 years old as he jumps up and down screaming, “DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!”
“Yea, kid, I saw it.”
Alright… He’s young and not as experienced with adventure and triumph. He’s gonna get so used to it tho, cuz he’s about to grow into a diamond in the rough hero! Or something! …right?
Let’s pause for a moment with the narrative and my in-the-moment reactions to the screenplay and have a look at Poe, played by Oscar Isaac. In the dark lighting of the night time scene and with his speech pattern and mannerism, I thought he was white until in a separate discussion, a friend pointed out that he was, indeed, Latino. Two things are possible here: either I’m really dense from my fixation on what they’re doing with Boyega (not impossible), or his ethnic ambiguity was purposeful in infusing what would be considered a palatable serving of diversity in this type of film. Actually, three things are possible- either of those things, or both. But even in an article I happened upon (posted by another friend, with no tag or reference to any of my discussion), there was a discussion about the dearth of Latino representation in Hollywood films since Jennifer Lopez dropped off the scene and made a point that of the few there have been, Isaac’s role included, only two of them were “obviously” Latino. Isaac was not one of them. So perhaps choices A and B are both present, but in a rather unequal ratio. Once again, Hollywood casting is always a choice– from height to eye color, to ethnicity and its phenotypical “potency.” When Boyega was first on the screen covered head to toe in his trooper outfit, I knew he was black simply from his breathing and the way he moved. I asked myself before his mask was off, realizing I was assuming it was him before he’d even spoken, why I was so sure? And how I could also sense that the voice of Maz Kanata belonged to a black woman, but didn’t have any knowledge until now that Lupita Nyong’o had anything to do with the film at all? It’s not an easy thing to put a finger on and not worth a lengthy discussion in this context, but these are subtle cues that we are constantly perceiving and interpreting. Poe, as a character, came off decidedly “white,” and I have little doubt that this characterization was intentional.
Back to the movie: I’m still leaning forward. Trooper and Poe are in the spacecraft, headed to pilot’s home planet. Pilot Poe asks, “So what’s your name?” Trooper replies something like, “Well, I don’t really have one… They always identified me as FN-2187.”
“No, that’s no name! I’m gonna call you Finn!” says Poe.
“Finn… Finn! I like that!”
And now I am sitting back, because I do not. Okay, fine, he doesn’t have a real name because he was enslaved by this regime most of his life (sound… familiar?), but he not only doesn’t maybe remember what his mother called him when he was very young or some touching story about how his father told him, “Never forget your name!” This young man isn’t even inclined to choose one for himself? He’s just happy to accept what this stranger has decided he’s going to call him.
While this reaction may seem completely overblown, there is a context for it. There is some bad blood in the historical interactions between Europeans and my ancestors when it comes to name-giving. I am African-American and also Metinnecock (indigenous people from Long Island area). When African people were brought here as slaves (hear me out) everything about our cultural identity was stripped from us, including our own names. Instead our “masters” called us things like “Susie” and “John,” establishing their ownership over us as subhuman. People still refer to indigenous people as “Indians,” despite that we know full well the only reason we were ever given that name is because Columbus got lost in 1492. We know where India is, we know who Indians are, but it’s still considered acceptable to refer to indigenous people with established names of their nations and regions as “Indians.” In the series Roots, we acknowledge this part of our historical narrative, when Kunta Kente suffers severe physical punishment for repeatedly refusing to relinquish his given name to the slave name Toby. How has this series managed its way into a discussion about Star Wars? It’s to point out the awareness that we’ve had in the recent past over the tensions associated with what we were called and what we choose now to call ourselves as people of color, and this awareness is what inclines me to be sensitive to the fact that the one who was supposed to be “our” hero just got named by someone he doesn’t even know. He could have longed his whole life for a real name and had one in mind to call himself, but that wasn’t the choice. Even still in this reaction, I’m conscientiously allowing for the possibility that perhaps I’m being “overly-sensitive.” I’ll let go of these things when the plot and character development takes us to a better place.
The film continues along interesting paths, especially once Finn is aligned with his opposite, Rey, and they journey together to escape and defeat the powers of the First Order. For this portion, I have only offered the context of my first observations for consideration or dismissal. My next post will venture into the combination of these perceptions that perhaps influence how I experienced Finn throughout the rest of the movie.
For now, there seems to be a general and inarguable consensus that Finn is not here to be “our” hero.
To be continued…
About Shana Oshiro
Shana Oshiro is an alumna of Morgan State University with a BFA in Vocal Performance and a graduate of Shenandoah University’s Music Therapy program and now is a board-certified music therapist. Mrs. Oshiro is also one of the founders of HALO, a women’s barbershop quartet that is this year the first quartet of all African-Americans to compete on the international stage of a barbershop organization. She is a professional artist with the Urban Choral Arts Society and is passionate about creating and sharing rich music experiences to enhance the lives of underprivileged and special-needs youth.