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‘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.

What people are saying

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

  1. OMG!!!! It's a movie, leave the race card out of ot!

  2. Mike Red says:

    They added the race card when they casted Boyega based on purely Affirmitve action and marketing.

    The writer here complains he didn't get a big enough part.

    Yet he got a way larger/better representation that any white male did. Poe was supposed to be dead and added back in as an after thought becuase, ooops, the only white guy who isn't a grandfather is a trantrum prone totally evil emotional kid and kills his father. Total kick in the teeth there. Wonder how much you would be complaing? Gonna go off about some hisotrical injsutice I wasn't even born to know about? Good luck.

    Say what you want; but blacks males get more parts than they should in general based on:
    1) actual demogrpahics and statistics, I mean the most actual inter-racial couples in reality get no screen time. Asians even less as whole. And black male actors are getting way more than their 6% of the overall population… This is even worse than university affirmitive action… its really messed up and creates a alot of justified anger. In a way Kylo Ren's depcition as the white guys is so ironicly correct.

    2) No one ever even makes excuses for why black male – white female is the MOST depicted inter racial couple. While the most statstically REAL inter racial coupes are NOT depicited almost ever.

    The fact this trend is invading star wars is just sickening. Keep your PC poltics and affirmitive action out of our favorite movies because it has clearly contrmained episode VII. Finn was never going to be a real star wars character anymore than captain Phasma was for these exact reasons no matter what he did. He was put in for marketing and ultimately racist reasons to appease certain peopple just like Phasma was put in pointlessly to appease feminsist.

    Why is ruining movies, culture, schools, and everything better just so you can feel better about yuorself? Eventually you are going to annoy other people a lot. Nothing is ever enough for you and whenever we talk about shafted, especially people of my younger generation, we are the only ones who get guilted and called names for expressing our feelings based on facts.

  3. “If you do not understand white supremacy (racism)—what it is and how it works—everything else you know will only confuse you”.
    • Neely Fuller, Jr. in The United Independent Compensatory Code/System/Concept (1984)

  4. Brad Foster says:

    White supremacy reigns supreme always and forever. Stop supporting white franchises.

  5. Neal Wright says:

    What? the guy saved the heroine, saved the droid, saved the pilot, and he's not heroic enough? Some people will never be happy.

  6. Bobby Smith says:

    Well, the movie made a billion dollars. Biggest success ever. And he is 1 of 4 main characters in this. I would be hella pleased. Very hella pleased. He is new in the star wars character universe, and to be honest (I'm black) I am 'hopeful' he will have a big role in the following scenarios to come. I have big hopes for FIN and the only thing I hated was how clumsly and whimsical they made him, BUT they did give him manly parts too and he is showing potential to take a stoic lead of his own. I understand they want to make the black lead approachable, to counter-act not-so amicable images blacks have been plagued with, but let's not make another trope as the laugh-fodder black guy either. It's only 1 episode people! He's already in shotgun for love interest seat! And He had his serious moments in the film. I think Lucas is going to take Fin's character seriously. I hope he does not disappoint, and Fin has stoic 'han solo' moments of his own.


  7. The people saying this are the same assholes that wouldn't have been happy with Obama unless he'd literally set fire to the white house, shot george bush in the head, and rode through the hood throwing billions of dollars out of a stretch Cadillac playing "Say it loud". Ignore the fact that nothing in the movie could've happened without this dude. Ignore the fact that dude, on his first day of active duty in battle as a storm trooper broke through literally a life time of conditioning to know what was right and what was wrong. The dude straight up battled a high ranking storm trooper with a weapon he'd literally just picked up 30 seconds ago. He fought a damn sith (with no force or saber training) and got a hit in and held his own so that the girl could have a chance. From a writer's standpoint he actually went through a much grander and detailed character arch than anyone else in the entire film.
    TL;DR ya'll mfers don't understand nuance, foreshadowing, or film, and just wanna be angry.

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