This column previously appeared in The Washington Post on December 23, 2015
I don’t dress in costume to see sci-fi films. I don’t take a lightsaber to the theater, and I never wait overnight in line (it’s often cold and never cute). Still, in many ways, I’m just like the legions of Star Wars fans, and I couldn’t wait for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
I’ve seen all six prior movies in the franchise and read all the books. As a young girl watching the first trilogy, I realize, I was responding to the underlying spirituality — questions of loyalty, temptation, self-mastery and sacrifice. And even when problems surfaced — Princess Leia deep-kissed Luke, who later turned out to be her brother, eew, and those furry little Ewoks represented something deeply problematic for indigenous people — I always came back looking for cosmic wisdom.
It was in that spirit that I waited through days of sold-out shows (it had a $248 million opening weekend) to watch the latest installment. With my fangirl’s heart and my grown-woman eyes, I watched the movie and felt myriad disruptions in the force, mostly around race and gender, part and parcel of an old Hollywood problem.
Spoiler alert: Not only does the hero of the film not get the girl, he’s not the hero.
Much has been made of the ethnically diverse cast. The stars are John Boyega, a black British actor who plays Finn, a former Stormtrooper, and the white British actress Daisy Ridley as Rey, a scavenger with a mysterious backstory. The two are affable and telegenic, and there are fun moments between them as they battle a gathering galactic tyranny.
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There just aren’t any sparks. Nothing like what any other lead in a sci-fi movie brings to screen. Think about Chris Pratt’s character in Guardians of the Galaxy or Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker early in the franchise. Both start hapless and build to big, redemptive finishes. Boyega — who, by the way, worked sanitation duty as a Stormtrooper — spends most of the movie running scared while his co-star makes his status in the friend zone as clear as starlight. He is not powerful in the way Rey is. And it’s not that we don’t appreciate the skill of the young heroine; it’s just that she seems empowered at his expense.
In 1980, when the handsome, deep-voiced Billy Dee Williams appeared on-screen as Lando Calrissian, he exuded sex appeal — though don’t get it twisted, there was no actual love interest available for him to attach to all that swagger. But at least he brought it to the party. Later, when he turned out to be a general in the Rebel Alliance, that seemed like a solid redirection of his powers. In subsequent movies, Mace Windu, played by Samuel L. Jackson, was a Jedi master, but he was not a lead, and was one-note, hardcore.
By contrast, the Finn character is remarkably anodyne. In important ways, a black character has moved from the periphery to the center of a blockbuster story. In other ways, Hollywood is still dancing around issues of intimacy and black heroism for a black male lead in a mixed-race cast.
Tim Gordon, a Washington writer and founder of the Black Reel Awards, which honor outstanding black performances on-screen, calls the casting a balancing act. Centering the franchise — one that promises to gross billions — on this white woman and black man is historic. Still, “I was looking for a little more heroism from Boyega’s character,” Gordon says. “Every time he picks up a lightsaber, he’s getting beat down and the lightsaber is getting taken from him.”
While he didn’t seem like the star in this first movie, it’s supposed to be a trilogy, and maybe it’s too early to tell, Gordon says. “His arc might change. He might go from the guy who plays second fiddle, or a co-star, to somebody who . . . brings the force to the universe, and wouldn’t that be revolutionary?”
The challenges are of proportion, and tone and nuance. They are bigger than the Finn character and include not just race but also age, especially when it comes to women.
I also had a problem when Princess Leia reunites with Han Solo. In earlier movies, the two had heat. They helped define what an egalitarian relationship could look like to my young eyes. And what it meant to have a couple who could each blast free of a tough situation. Their reunion in “The Force Awakens” is chaste, and while I don’t need a sex scene, I wanted some sense that this older woman is not on-screen simply to turn every part of her force over to the younger lead.
“They had to pass the torch to the next generation, and the best way to pass the torch was to show you the original,” Gordon says. Carrie Fisher was there to say, “Go, may the force be with you,” to Rey, even though the force had already been with her for half the movie.
Rey “discovers her power quicker than anybody else in all seven movies,” Gordon points out. You rarely see the black character or the Hispanic character or the Asian character be that chosen person. Always, it’s the young white character who becomes “the one.”
Ultimately, both women and filmgoers of color always have to manage their expectations. Hollywood doesn’t change at the speed of light, or even the speed of life, Gordon says. “There are a lot of people in power who make decisions who have to kind of age out so we can get some more progressive folks who actually understand the direction this country is really going in,” he says.
It’s part of the forever ongoing conversation about Hollywood: about whose stories get told, what talent gets nurtured, and always having to wait for the next installment.