Fear and loathing of the black stormtrooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The teaser trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens has landed:

I love Star Wars. It has been a minor obsession since I saw Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in the Waiouru movie theatre. My Mum was the projectionist and we used to ride there on her nifty fifty. The opening images were seared into my mind: a white hall way littered with dead rebels, white anonymous, silent stormtroopers standing at attention amidst wafting smoke, waiting… for a gigantic man or robot with a respirator, dressed entirely in black, cloak, helmet and suit, fillling the screen, rendering everything else irrelevant or invisible. The archetype of evil: frightening, powerful and alluring. At four years old I met Darth Vader, my first anti-hero.

The original trilogy is iconic. I have seen them more times than I can count and my children are all conversant with the Star Wars universe. The prequel trilogy was unfortunate. They were poorly pitched, and whilst Ewen McGregor’s Obi Wan Kenobi was brilliant, he was laboured with the wooden acting of Hayden Christiansen who failed to convince in either love or the turn to the Dark Side. As for Jar Jar Binks; George Lucas essentially spat in our face in creating that village idiot. Finally, the prequels brought the racism of the series into sharp relief; each alien race vied to be the most offensive caricature possible of a minority group. Personally I think the obviously Jewish Watto runs a close first in that race.

Although we struggle to admit it, selling Star Wars to Disney and subsequently J.J. Abrams directing the three sequels is the best thing that could’ve happened. George Lucas had lost any awareness of what is compelling in Star Wars. Which brings us back to the teaser trailer.

The mere 88 seconds sent fans into a commenting frenzy, particularly on YouTube. Three themes of outrage and spite have won through: disbelief that there can be a black stormtrooper; scoffing at a Sith lightsaber with crossblades; anger at the probable focus of the film on the journey of a heroine. It is the reaction to a black stormtrooper that has interested me the most.

In the week of extensive protests against the decision of the Ferguson Grand Jury to not take Darren Wilson to trial for shooting unarmed black youth Michael Brown, it is frightening how the racist vitirol has not been muted at all on any social media. So the appearance of actor John Boyega, a black man in a stormtrooper suit, sent some into apoplexy. The criticisms range from stormtroopers are clones of Jango Fett, who is of course Māori, so there aren’t any black stormtroopers, through to Hollywood has a PC agenda that knows no bounds and will ruin Star Wars by introducing black actors into the prisitine white universe.

The fan-based argument that stormtroopers are Māori clones is ignorant of the Expanded Universe. In the Expanded Universe, it is commonly thought that from the timeline of Episode IV onwards the Empire used a wide range of genetic material in the cloning of stormtroopers, so a black stormtrooper is perfectly possible, particularly as the events in this teaser trailer are set 30 earth years after the events of Return of the Jedi. Secondly, if the female character is heroine Ania Solo, then one of her friends and companions is Jao Assam, a black jedi who is potentially disguised as a stormtrooper. I saw one suggestion this is Lando Calrissian’s son Chance. That would be the worst of the above options, as it would confine us to the idea that there is really only one black person in the Star Wars universe.

Admittedly more importantly, the racism directed at John Boyega who plays the stormtrooper reflects the discomfort such commentators have at the idea of room for black voices and black stories in a galaxy far, far away. The potential for Boyega to be a main and perhaps iconic scifi character from one of the biggest scifi universes is another step over the final frontier, admittedly following Lando and Mace Windu. What would shatter that barrier is if Boyega was one of many black characters in Star Wars and part of a diversity of genders, ethnicities and races in the new movies.

At the moment Star Wars looks like the power structures in our capitalist societies: white, male and arrayed against evil represented by blackness, the Dark Side, Dath Vader all in black, sith wearing black robes. The new films are an opportunity to discomfort more people who are relaxed in their hate and racism by portraying black heroes as central and normal in its universe. It is the opportunity for Star Wars to look like the society we want, not the society we have.