So I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last weekend. (I know, I know… I joked to JustHusband that we were probably the only people in the Northern Hemisphere who hadn’t seen it yet.) Overall, I thought the movie was pretty good, though, at times, I found the writing to be a bit clunky and facile. I honestly expected better from JJ Abrams & Co. But anyway…
The fact that I saw the movie two months after it was released doesn’t mean I’ve been living under a rock, however. It was virtually impossible for me not to be aware of the racist backlash against John Boyega when it was announced that he’d have one of the leading roles, as a Storm Trooper. So, of course my seeing him in the movie was coloured by that (no pun intended… maybe).
When came on screen for the first time, the first thing I noticed was how clear and beautiful his skin is. (Seriously. He is obviously a man who knows how to moisturize.1) I struggled with acne for nearly twenty years, and I still have the habit of automatically evaluating other peoples’ skin. Now, I know John’s skin was made-up and lit to its best advantage, but to me, it was obvious that the make-up artists and light designers were building on a good foundation (no pun intended… really).
Of course, everything has a context, and in this context, John’s skin as “John”, and his skin as “A Black Person” can’t be seen separately. This is because Black people, especially those of us with darker skin, were never meant to be seen – literally and figuratively – as beautiful. Or, desirable, or capable, or intelligent, or respectable, or dignified, or acceptable, or heroic, or… you know… human. Those attributes have been reserved solely for White people.
This visibility of Whiteness has been so deeply reinforced within Western storytelling (be it through movies, books, plays, etc.), that it has effectively become invisible… until, that is, someone decides to tell a story with a Black or otherwise racially-marginalized main character. In this wild and wacky world of Whiteness, all hell breaks loose and you get things like racist Hunger Games tweets, freak-outs over the mere possibility that Idris Elba might play the next James Bond, and cries of “continuity!” and “canon!” in response to the reality of a Black actress playing Hermione in the upcoming “Harry Potter” play.
It’s as if those people simply can’t exist in a world that – very occasionally – asks them to see beyond the limits of their own experience. Not incidentally, this is precisely what good storytelling should do.
So, here’s hoping that John, Idris and Noma (and Viola and Lupita and Chiwetel and…) are signalling – finally – a real shift in the diversity of the stories we tell and who gets to be in them, and not just another brief spike in tokenism, before returning to the status quo.
And, oh yeah…
Happy Black History Month.
1 No, I am not going to make any references to “smooth”, “dark”, or “creamy” chocolate, etc., because Black people are not a f*cking flavour of ice cream or candy.