John Boyega never had an easy time of it being in Star Wars. From day one, when the first trailer for The Force Awakens dropped and we saw him as the face of a Black stormtrooper. All the racist Star Wars fans climbed out of their holes to protest, and from there, Boyega had to carry the weight of not just being a new character in one of the most revered franchises of all-time; he also had to carry a racial aspect distinct from his fellow cast-members.
In a new interview with British GQ, Boyega reflects on his time with Star Wars and has some mixed feelings on the experience. “I’m the only cast member who had their own unique experience of that franchise based on their race,” said Boyega. “Let’s just leave it like that. It makes you angry with a process like that. It makes you much more militant; it changes you. Because you realise, ‘I got given this opportunity but I’m in an industry that wasn’t even ready for me.’ Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper.’ Nobody else had that experience. But yet people are surprised that I’m this way. That’s my frustration.”
Boyega also talked about how he felt he and his fellow non-white cast-members were shortchanged when it came to fulfilling character arcs:
“It’s so difficult to manoeuvre,” he says, exhaling deeply, visibly calibrating the level of professional diplomacy to display. “You get yourself involved in projects and you’re not necessarily going to like everything. [But] what I would say to Disney is do not bring out a black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side. It’s not good. I’ll say it straight up.” He is talking about himself here – about the character of Finn, the former Stormtrooper who wielded a lightsaber in the first film before being somewhat nudged to the periphery. But he is also talking about other people of colour in the cast – Naomi Ackie and Kelly Marie Tran and even Oscar Isaac (“a brother from Guatemala”) – who he feels suffered the same treatment; he is acknowledging that some people will say he’s “crazy” or “making it up”, but the reordered character hierarchy of The Last Jedi was particularly hard to take.
“Like, you guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver,” he says. “You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know fuck all. So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, ‘I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience…’ Nah, nah, nah. I’ll take that deal when it’s a great experience. They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let’s be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I’m not exposing anything.”
He is on a breathless roll now, breaking his long corporate omerta to touch on the unthinking, systemic mistreatment of black characters in blockbusters (“They’re always scared. They’re always fricking sweating”) and what he sees as the relative salvage job that returnee director JJ Abrams performed on The Rise Of Skywalker (“Everybody needs to leave my boy alone. He wasn’t even supposed to come back and try to save your shit”). Even though he also acknowledges that it was an “amazing opportunity” and a “stepping stone” that has precipitated so much good in his life and career, he is palpably exhilarated to be finally saying all this. But to dismiss these words as merely professional bitterness or paranoia is to miss the point. His primary motivation is to show the frustrations and difficulties of trying to operate within what can feel like a permanently rigged system. He is trying, really, to let you know what it feels like to have a boyhood dream ruptured by the toxic realities of the world.
It’s a great interview, and I highly encourage you to read the whole thing. Boyega is a terrific actor with an exciting future, and I respect that he’s done playing nice, especially with regards to the racial aspects of his industry. Boyega can next be seen in the anthology series Small Axe, which arrives on Amazon later this year.