**CW/TW racist slurs & remarks**
It’s been well-documented that racism surrounding the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy erupted in an overt social media boycott stemming from a few fringe members of the Star Wars fandom. Star Wars Episode VII was originally accused of being “anti-white” and promoting “white genocide” because John Boyega was a Black stormtrooper and other leading faces were not white males. And even writer and director, J.J. Abrams, was labeled a “white-hating Jew” for his part.
In retrospect, the emerging picture behind the scenes of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy, and other mega blockbusters such as Justice League (2017), is that the racism isn’t limited to internet trolls….
Racism at Disney & Lucasfilm Ltd.
In a more revealing interview about his time on set, John Boyega spoke candidly with GQ about his racist experience behind the scenes of the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy (ST). He called out official and misleading marketing for The Force Awakens that visually depicted Finn in a prominent Jedi role only to be subsequently “pushed aside” due to “a reordered character hierarchy in The Last Jedi” (as we also pointed out).
Boyega’s interview is damning in and of itself as it clearly describes why leadership at Disney and Lucasfilm Ltd. are culpable for his racist experience. In other words, if leadership wasn’t directly responsible for orchestrating said racism toward their only leading Black character, they did nothing to stand in the way of it. As Boyega puts it, “all the nuance” was given to the white characters in The Last Jedi. One example of this is how Finn’s grave injury was treated as physical comedy and presented as one-liner humor, but the only leading white male of the ST, Kylo Ren, had his injuries handled with great care and delicacy and all framed in a seriousness just like Luke’s injuries were treated in The Empire Strikes Back. The Black character is dehumanized by making him into the butt of a joke. The white character is humanized by framing his injuries in empathy.
“You identify with Rey, but also you identify with Kylo in a way that you never did with Vader. I know I do. Because if these movies are about adolescence, Kylo is that anger of adolescence and that rejection of the parents, and wanting to screw over your dad; and that’s something that all of us, to some degree, can identify with.” – Rian Johnson
And while it remains unclear who specifically is to blame for writing Finn out of the center of the story, it is very clear who is not to blame according to John Boyega – J.J. Abrams. This is likely because J.J. Abrams is the one that fought for John’s casting in the first place (the character of Finn was not always Black), but Abrams also set Finn up on a hero’s journey alongside Rey and in the face of Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens.
So, when Boyega references a “reordered character hierarchy in The Last Jedi” as the moment he was sidelined in the ST, he is addressing the fact that Finn was no longer positioned on one side or the other of the central and narrative conflict as he was in The Force Awakens. As we’ve detailed, the main plot of The Last Jedi takes place primarily on a literal and narrative island between all the leading white characters. Just as Boyega alludes to, Finn and every other character of color are segregated to the B-plot of the film with little to no face-to-face engagement with the primary protagonist or antagonist. In fact, Finn does not have one line or word of dialogue with Rey. Further, Finn and Kylo Ren don’t even see each other in The Last Jedi. This is a far cry from the sincere and heart-felt relationship developed between Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens, and also the foil dynamic and Jedi-only act of a face-to-face lightsaber duel between Finn and Ren.
Again, it’s important to highlight that the only leading Black character of the ST that just risked his life to save a friend was sidelined at the expense of humanizing the only leading white male character of the ST that just murdered his own father.
This isn’t just about racism against John Boyega, it’s also about why racism survives in the first place, and in this case, the lengths others will go to make sure an anti-Black racial hierarchy remains in place. The why -white privilege- has been covered extensively in psychoanalytical and cultural theory:
“In the contemporary context of Black Lives Matter, there is a new level of demand on white power structures and white individuals to understand the meaning of reparation, which would actually be an offering and not merely a symbol. Reparation is a process that acknowledges indebtedness and change that means a giving up, a losing of space and place and material conditions for the entrenched dominating presence of whiteness and racism.” -Harris, 2019
As Harris (2019) points out, the “unconscious conditions in which white guilt and white fragility inhibit our progress towards genuine civil rights” is a key component in the survival of racism and white privilege. Harris (and others) also argues that guilt must be distinguished from “guiltiness:”
“Guiltiness is riddled with narcissism and anxiety rather than genuine reparative impulses–it is actually a barrier to mourning and reparation.” -Harris, 2019
This all underscores the commitments many white people will make to preserve their positions of power-dissociation, violence, historical amnesia, and confirmation bias as to why one is not racist all contribute to the conscious and unconscious reluctance to acknowledge and dismantle white privilege.
“Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.
Empathy is no substitute for the experience itself. We don’t get to tell a person with a broken leg or a bullet wound that they are not in pain. And people who have hit the caste lottery are not in a position to tell a person who has suffered under the tyranny of caste what is offensive or hurtful or demeaning to those at the bottom. The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.” -Wilkerson, 2020
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that the racism John Boyega faced behind the scenes of Star Wars, the white privilege in place that impeded his place as a front-and-center Black hero, is commonplace throughout the industry. In particular, Ray Fisher and his character Cyborg’s erasure from the story of Justice League (2017) is broadly indistinguishable from John Boyega’s Finn being sidelined in The Last Jedi (2017). New directors and writers came in, and the Black characters got written out.
And this is why leadership must be held accountable.
The “Angry Black Man”
A recent statement issued by Ray Fisher details the premise of an internal investigation of racial misconduct and harassment on the set of Joss Whedon’s Justice League. Several things stand out, but note first that Zack Snyder said Cyborg’s origin story was “in a lot of the ways the heart of the movie.” After Snyder had to leave the film production due to family tragedy, Joss Whedon was hired to finish the project but re-wrote much of the story. And what happened to the heart of this story? As detailed below, the biggest issue Geoff Johns and studio executives had with the original story Zack Snyder wrote was: “we can’t have an angry Black man at the center of the movie.”
Referring to Fisher or his character Cyborg as an “angry Black man” upholds a racist stereotype as old as the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, also known as the “Mandingo.” This racist trope dehumanized Black people and reinforced an animalistic perspective. This long-lived racist stereotype protected white slavers, it gave white mobs legal authority to lynch and murder “Black brutes” at the turn of the century, and has now evolved into justifying police brutality and murder against “thugs” in the modern era. It is a dangerous and hateful rhetoric that upholds systemic racism in the film industry and more.
Sadly, Fisher’s experience of being treated as an “angry Black man” on the set of Justice League (2017) is non-unique; While filming Star Wars, John Boyega was forced to attend PR (public relations) training because he was told that he came off “too angry.”
The “angry Black man” trope also spurs fear and hatred toward interracial relationships. More on the “Black brute” from the National Museum of African American History and Culture website:
“While under the violence of enslavement, a physically powerful Black man could be subdued and brutally forced into labor. Emancipation brought with it fears that these men would exact sexual revenge against white men through their daughters.”
According to Alan Dean Foster (author of The Force Awakens novelization), J.J. Abrams’ original screenplay for The Force Awakens “was obviously the beginnings of [an interracial] relationship” between Finn (Black) and Rey (white). However, Foster was ultimately forced to remove any hint of it from The Force Awakens novelization-
Foster states very clearly that he “expected to see that [interracial relationship between Finn and Rey] developed further in Episode VIII. And zero happened with it. And we all know why zero happened with it.”
The “angry Black man” trope and other racist stereotypes are all a part of an investment into preserving white dominance in the film industry. The more Black heroes we see in leading roles, the less this trope becomes commonplace, and the real work of dismantling white privilege begins. So how can we move such efforts forward? A simple solution: Release the Director’s Cut.
A New Hope: The Director’s Cut
The representation of the character Cyborg meant so much to Ray Fisher that he has put his professional career and personal life on the line to raise awareness about the systemic racism within the film industry. In this way, the Snyder Cut of Justice League represents justice for the anti-Black racism Ray Fisher faced after Joss Whedon began writing Cyborg out of the heart of this story.
It’s been 5 years in the making for Ray Fisher, but he and his character Cyborg are about to reintroduce themselves to the live-action DC Universe. After all the backlash, gaslighting, racism and harassment, Ray Fisher finally saw the Snyder Cut of Justice League on March 12th, 2021. His reaction?
Ray notes that he immediately called Zack Snyder and left a voice mail, and his very next call was to Chris Terrio. It is well-known how inclusive both Snyder and Terrio were with Ray Fisher, and especially for including him in the creative process of framing Cyborg’s family (the Stones) in the story.
So, Fisher praises Terrio for his inclusivity in addition to being the second phone call he personally made after seeing the Snyder Cut, and Boyega defends J.J. Abrams amidst his calling out racism at Disney and Lucasfilm Ltd. Many will find this interesting because J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio co-wrote The Rise of Skywalker-where J.J. boasted that the story wasn’t just about ‘who’s Rey?’, it was about “Who’s Finn?” promising to reveal Finn’s origins.
Obviously, Finn’s origins were never revealed in the theatrical cut of the film just like Cyborg’s origins were cut from Whedon’s Justice League, leading many to wonder if there is a “JJ Cut” or “Abrams Cut” of The Rise of Skywalker.
Surprisingly, there are a number of key pieces of evidence supporting the existence of a “JJ Cut” and potentially an hour’s worth or more of untold story. These key pieces include (but are not limited to):
- 65-70% of The Rise of Skywalker Hasbro merchandise never materialized
- A mere couple weeks before it was supposed to hit shelves, the official art book for The Rise of Skywalker was delayed ~3 months
- Dominic Monoghan hoping for a Director’s cut due to how much film he noticed was missing from the theatrical version
- The amount of music written for The Rise of Skywalker was 226 minutes (3 hours and 46 minutes). That’s 51 minutes longer than the amount of music written for The Force Awakens when The Rise of Skywalker’s theatrical version is only 7 minutes longer. This is enough extra music to re-score nearly two thirds of the final movie.
- John Boyega’s own excitement and hype leading up to the debut, but suddenly shifting cold after the cast screening
- The Rise of Skywalker art book revealing that Finn was supposed to find a sibling
- A final scene on Tatooine was shot with Finn and Rey holding hands
More recently, additional concept art and story boards from The Rise of Skywalker revealed a third lightsaber wielding character (in addition to Rey and Kylo Ren) swinging from a rope with Star Destroyers in the background. Is this the original concept art for a young Jedi Finn in The Rise of Skywalker?!
In many ways, the Snyder Cut provides a template for releasing Director’s Cuts to global fan fare in addition to its marketing as an exclusive title for a given streaming service. Releasing the “JJ Cut” or “Abrams Cut” would also mark a united stand against systemic racism in the film industry from the most powerful movie studio in the world. Whether one prefers the theatrical version or not seems secondary to the justice a Director’s Cut featuring representation would bring about.
And regardless of our opinions as fans, there are a few things made crystal clear by Ray Fisher and John Boyega. Both actors faced deplorable acts of racism behind the scenes. Both of their characters were sidelined and their origin stories cut from the theatrical versions of their respective films. And both Black actors defend the director and writers of The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams and Terrio).
Only one has seen cinematic Justice with his own two eyes. Will John Boyega’s moment Rise next?
Do you want to see a JJ Cut of The Rise of Skywalker? Do you believe John Boyega deserves an apology in the form of a cinematic mulligan without studio meddling? Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below. And as always, May the Force be with us….
Author’s Note: to honor the personal and professional risks taken by Ray Fisher and John Boyega in order to expose the racist mistreatment they and all characters of color experienced on set, this article has focused specifically on their anti-Black experiences. However, we as a blog continue to stand with and support the other characters of color just as Boyega and Fisher do since it is clear many of the characters of color have suffered from racism and harassment in some form. Obviously, not everyone at Disney or Lucasfilm Ltd. or Warner Bros. Pictures is racist or an enabler, and all three are comprised largely of a diverse crew of extremely talented and caring individuals. Nevertheless, and as is argued throughout, what has become clear is that leadership either directed racially based decisions or did nothing to stand up against them when they were forwarded. So, we hope this article ultimately raises further awareness, and serves also as a formal call to hold accountable all those responsible for the racism that led to the erasure of Finn and Cyborg from their respective stories. May true change in leadership take place for the betterment of diversity and inclusion within the franchises and stories that mean so much to so many.
Harris, A. (2019). The Perverse Pact: Racism and White Privilege. American Imago, vol. 76, No. 3, 309-333.
Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House