‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Hyper-Tokenism and Race: The Anatomy of Blacks in Blockbusters

When the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, many were surprised, relived, and intrigued to see a Black man underneath a Stormtrooper’s helmet.  John Boyega’s coronation as a lead in the most anticipated movie ever created a curious aura around his character, Finn.  He even wields Luke Skywalker’s light saber, a key touchstone throughout marketing.  A new hope was awakened; a hope of seeing the galaxy, far, far away gain more diversity.  However, in the wake of the film’s release and robust box office returns, many Black audience members felt let down by Finn’s character arc being truncated and rendered helpless in the film’s final act.

Andre Seewood paints this frustration loud and clear in his piece in Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, “Hyper-Tokenism: ‘The Force Awakens’ While the Black Man Sleeps.”  He defines Finn as an example of Hyper-tokenism, which can be identified by a marked increase in screen time, dramatic involvement and promotional images of a Black character in a white film, while also reserving full dramatic agency as the providence of white characters by the end of the film.  Dramatic agency is a character’s ability to influence and survive the story.  He points out how in most franchise films, this dramatic agency of Black characters is often compromised despite showing great abilities and in some cases being the driving force of the story.

Finn’s actions launch the film’s inciting incident.  He’s the only Stormtrooper to question a massacre he witnesses, he proves himself a capable fighter, and gives key information regarding invading the First Order’s base.  He even holds his own against Kylo Ren for a while.  Despite this, he’s left knocked out cold in the snow during the film’s most pivotal battle.  He’s not even awake to wish Rey goodbye with the other characters, despite his importance to her character’s hero journey.

It’s frustrating to witness.  Those fanboys who created the #BoycottStarWarsVII campaign based off one image of a Black character was asinine.  It now seems Finn has ended up reinforcing the colorlessness of the galaxy far, far away.  Though Finn will be in the Star Wars:  Episode VIII, Seewood points out it doesn’t mean he will have a bigger role and his tokenism can continue to be exploited while his dramatic agency is gnawed down to a nub.  This is not uncommon in other blockbusters.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is Hollywood’s biggest franchise right now but it also has a very visible example of this with Nick Fury.  Nick Fury’s presence in the MCU has diminished over the series of films despite his importance in forming The Avengers.  He will continue to be marketed as a key figure but his diminishing dramatic agency can’t help but make Black fans wonder if War Machine, Falcon or Black Panther will suffer the same fate.

Diversity in blockbusters should be meaningful and draw a spotlight toward character’s abilities and dramatic arcs.  While it remains to be seen, hyper-tokenism should be something Black movie goers keep in mind as torrents of franchises films showcasing Black characters hit theaters.

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