by Kenya Barris, as told to Marc Bernardin | The Hollywood Reporter
This story first appeared in the December 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
“The casting of Boyega as Finn was a huge leap forward,” Kenya Barris says in discussing what a main character of color means to the next generation (and why Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian was a miss).
As a kid, I wanted to be a Jedi — that was the ultimate goal. To find out you could move stuff, to find out that you were more than you thought, that it was something inside of you. It just spoke so clearly to what we’re all looking for: You wanna be special.
I feel like the series was about becoming the best you can be as a person, being something special — even more so when you feel like you see something reflective of yourself. So what having John Boyega at the center of The Force Awakens does for future generations, in terms of how it affects them, is amazing because it actually puts them in the story in a much more layered and intrinsic way.
Seeing that black people made it to space was big. But Lando Calrissian was … I mean, I love Billy Dee Williams, but he was basically a space hustler. “That’s the character that we get? We get the space pimp?” But I thought the casting of Boyega as Finn was a huge leap forward, not just in terms of diversity, not just for black and white, but looking at our world that we live in today, that we’re all a part of it, and we’re all sort of part of a joint ecosystem. I look at the casting, and it’s exciting to me.
The way our world is set up, if kids of any color see somebody black doing something, they feel like everyone can do it. Conversely, if black kids see a white guy being the only participant in something, they don’t always feel like that’s something everyone can do. I could be totally off, but I don’t think if a white kid sees LeBron James play basketball, they feel like they can’t play.
For a kid for whom The Force Awakens is their first Star Wars movie, seeing a black man holding a lightsaber as the first image — a little Muslim kid, a little Asian kid, a Latino kid — I feel like all of them can say, “Oh, I can do that, too.”
I made this show, Black-ish. It’s my first big shot; I just wanted to do a show to pay for my kids’ school and pay my bills and have a career. Slowly but surely, I found out, “Oh, it’s bigger than just you.” Any time you’re one of few, you have certain obligations, whether you like it or not. I want The Force Awakens to be really successful. And there’s a huge amount of pressure on Boyega. And he can’t avoid it. He’s the Jackie Robinson of Jedis.