Star Wars: The Force Awakens is something I’m looking forward to intensely. The film looks amazing, particularly since it looks akin to the originals (we will not speak of the wayward turn the franchise took in between the originals and The Force Awakens). But it’s also a high-profile sci-fi film that not only features people of color in the film, but has an actor of color, John Boyega, as the main character, Finn. Some might wonder why this is important. I’ll tell you in a personal story. My youngest sibling, my brother, is head over heels about everything “nerdy.” He watches all the Marvel movies and shows (and keeps all of his facts in chronological order), loves the Alien franchise, has memorabilia from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (quite a lot of it supplied by me and my sisters), and is a big Star Wars fan.
As you can tell by the franchise names, a lot of the characters my brother surrounds himself with are white. Don’t “But the elves!” me right now, Tolkien fans—let’s not play that game. We all know they’re coded as white (and strangely Aryan, in a post-WWII reading of the text), so let’s not split hairs and say that Legolas and the elves aren’t white. Ditto for the Hobbits (at least the Hobbits that aren’t of darker skin and not mentioned in Tolkein’s books aside from a sentence or two in the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring:
I’m going into details about The Lord of the Rings since the genesis of my story with Finn starts with my brother’s Lord of the Rings love. The franchise is one that, to its credit, actually tried to address its lack of diversity after a film representative denied a woman from being a Hobbit because of her darker skin during the filming of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Later, the film cast people of different racial backgrounds as Lake-town citizens. As to how the people involved in the story, particularly Peter Jackson, didn’t see the racial ramifications there were to hiring white actors as everyone and the darker people, including the Māori, as the evil people/orcs, is beyond me. I’m sure everyone involved knew things seemed weird, but just went along with it since no one had called them on it. My surprise at seeing non-white people in a Lord of the Rings/Hobbit film who weren’t orcs or the people of the south, who were quickly swayed to fight under Sauron, was chronicled in my review for my old site, Moniqueblog.net:
The film became even more enjoyable when the film did the unthinkable in a Middle-Earth-based film: THEY INTRODUCED MINORITIES IN THE CROWD! And not just minorities, but minorities with natural hair! I don’t know who was in the decision-making room when this idea came up, but I’m glad they let it through. One of the biggest reasons I resisted anything to do with Middle Earth back in the Lord of the Rings days was that there wasn’t anything I could connect to. Meaning: there were no minority faces represented. Before anyone presents the lame reason of “But it’s all fantasy!” let me just say that there were things changed in The Lord of the Rings films in order to make it a better film that everyone could in enjoy. If they felt Tom Bombadill was could be written out, then some minority extras could have been written in with no problem. Let me not bring up the fact that minorities–the Māori people–were used as the Orcs. What’s that supposed to mean?! The only time minorities have been used were when they wanted to represent “evil.” Even the people from the South were oddly brown and eerily South Asian or Middle Eastern-looking. So kudos to the person behind the decision to put minorities in an actual Middle Earth town.
What’s funny is that after I wrote another post for my old site discussing how monumental it was for the film to finally include people of color, I got comments from both sides of the fandom community, praising and decrying me for pointing out the racial issues in the franchise. The mean comments in particular were striking, since at least one of them came from a person who wrote about the Lord of the Rings fandom from a strictly white supremacist, KKK-esque, definitely Aryan point of view. This person was very much about the White Race being dominant in a world only they would control. In this person’s view, there was no way people like me should even be allowed to be in the world, since people like me either don’t exist or aren’t considered worthy enough to be discussed. All of this hullabaloo happens in a franchise my brother, who is black, holds dear.
Due to The Lord of the Rings franchise, I had been hoping for an opportunity to buy something for my brother that actually represented boys that looked like him. As much as I like to see my brother happy with his Middle Earth posters and sci-fi movies, I wanted my brother to have something from a film that had someone like him as the star, not as the sidekick, a weak-minded south lander, or a fantasy character racialized with “brute man of color” stereotypes. Enter Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Of course, we haven’t seen Finn speak yet. We don’t know exactly who he is as a person or how his journey will change him. But we do know that he’s the star, and his stardom is revolutionary. I can only name a few sci-fi films that have a black person as the star, and the majority of the handful I can name star Will Smith. Sci-fi, and adjacent genres like high fantasy, have stayed in the “whites only” world of the past, when those two genres, out of all genres, should be the place where Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of people working together regardless of race should reign supreme. There is literally no reason people of color shouldn’t exist in sci-fi and fantasy worlds. Instead, these worlds have been treated by several in the industry as a refuge for writerly white flight.
This brings us to a couple of days ago (as of writing this post). I was out shopping in the mall with my sisters, and as we often do, we stop in Hot Topic to see if there’s anything worth looking at. Oftentimes, my youngest sister will buy a shirt, but most of the time, we’ll see if we can find something for our brother. This time, what I found for my brother was a Funko Star Wars bobblehead of Finn. Instantly, I was drawn to the figure, thinking, “I must buy this!” It was only later that I realized that my feeling for wanting my brother to have a toy that resembled him was not only based in an academic sense of pop culture, but also in the emotional clarity my mother instilled in my sisters and I when it came to racial acceptance.
The first Barbie doll I ever played with was a black ballerina. I loved the doll and it stayed in the collection my sister and I shared for years. That Barbie was also the first of many black, Asian, Latina, Middle Eastern and Native American dolls our mom would buy for us and let us play with. In our house, we couldn’t play with white dolls. My mom would (and has) downplayed her reasoning for doing such, but she has also said that she remembered seeing something about the Clark Doll Test, in which black girls felt that the black dolls were uglier than the white dolls, showing that they were internalizing the hatred of black people society was teaching them. She didn’t want us to be like that. She wanted us to play with the dolls that reflected our own beauty.
I was profoundly affected by what my mom did for us, and I wanted my brother to have the same uplifting experience with toys. My hope for the Finn bobblehead was realized in an even bigger way than I expected. Once my brother got the figurine, he was ecstatic, and not because it was the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens piece of memorabilia to add to his Star Wars collection. I could tell in the way he looked at the figurine and shook its huge head that he was happy, and in a way, relieved, to be able to see someone who looked like him in a franchise he loved.
Star Wars is continuing its track of diverse casting after The Force Awakens with Star Wars: Rogue One. In the cast photo, 3/4 of the cast are people of color (and the woman in the film, Felicity Jones, is the leader). Showing that diversity thrives in a galaxy far, far away will hopefully trickle down into this legion of Star Wars fans, and sci-fi/fantasy fans, in this galaxy. Maybe with the return to Star Wars, other fans and creatives alike will realize that the realms of sci-fi and fantasy are big and plentiful enough for all people of all backgrounds to have a space.
Monique Jones is an entertainment blogger/journalist. She’s written for Entertainment Weekly, Antenna Free TV, Black Girl Nerds, Racialicious, and many others. You can follow her on Twitter at @moniqueblognet and at her new Tumblr site, COLOR.