Actor John Boyega plays Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Man, I really wanted to love the character of Finn, I really did. When I saw the trailer, I said to myself, “Hell, Yeah, a Black Storm Trooper!” I mean, I was all jazzed at the idea of seeing a brotha straight stomping some Rebel scum, then turning away from the Dark Side to redeem himself. Unfortunately, the Finn I wanted to see was not the Finn I got. J.J. Abrams and the new crew at Disney nerfed the poor guy and turned him into a sniveling caricature. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
Now I acknowledge that Star Wars is a fantasy, and the platform isn’t necessarily supposed to push a social agenda, but Finn’s story arc left me frustrated to say the least. It’s as if Disney was afraid that a gritty, heroic, fully realized black character would scare away their audiences. As a result, poor Finn spent most of the film being rescued, getting his ass kicked, helplessly shrugging his shoulders, and shuffling through this tired retread of a plot from 1977.
Disney missed a huge opportunity to move forward in the depiction of a black character on the big screen. When the scrolling yellow preamble told us about the “best fighter pilot in the squadron, dispatched on a secret mission”, my heart leapt. That’s Finn, I thought to myself, as I sat mesmerized by the glowing screen in the dark theater. That’s the Finn I wanted: an actualized and progressive black character, presented to us from a position of strength. Alas, this was not to be.
Even when the “best pilot” turned out to be Poe Dameron, I still held out hope. My next thought, was: Damn, that’s tight, Finn somehow managed to infiltrate the First Order, and he’s Poe Dameron’s contact on Jakku. Nope, wrong answer. Turns out, he was just a defective cog in the Imperial machine. Lastly, during that first fateful eye-lock with Kylo Ren, I thought surely it would be Finn who had the Force awakening within him. Nope, wrong again. My heart sank.
I suddenly realized that poor Finn wasn’t written to embody any of these more complex story functions. Instead, Disney gave us, in Finn’s backstory, a hastily constructed, and thinly veiled escape from slavery narrative (e. g. – captured young, forced to serve, breaking his chains, fleeing from his masters – you get the picture). There’s even a painfully convenient, and vaguely inconsequential, reckoning with his former overseer. Come on, Hollywood, really? Is that all you got? Unfortunately, yes it is.
Are these more nuanced story threads too heady for the summer blockbuster crowd? Hollywood apparently thinks so. It’s about what sells, right? And edgy girl power is all the rage in Hollywood these days. Fine, fine–don’t challenge us, squander an opportunity to develop a complex character of color, then pummel us over the head with rehashed images from the original trilogy. After all, you got my fifteen bucks, which is what you really wanted anyway.
In all fairness, newcomer John Boyega did the best he could with what he was was given. I actually liked the guy as an actor. And even though his character was systematically marginalized throughout the film, at least they didn’t kill him. We’ll have to wait and see how Finn will continue to grow as the series continues.
But I’ll tell you right now, I ain’t holding my breath. The Hollywood blockbuster machine is all about making money, not progress. No matter how you slice it, stereotypes are still stereotypes, even if you place them in a galaxy far, far away.