Star Wars, Race and Gender Casting Trolls, and John Boyega’s Smackdown

Unless you are a person who is completely “unplugged” and living in solitary confinement, Star Wars, The Force Awakens can not be avoided as its presence is everywhere (thank you Disney for your promotional and cross-marketing muscle).

In the midst of all the hype and worldwide attention are two new young stars, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, who have leading roles in The Force Awakens.  Being a Star Wars fan (disclaimer: I have never dressed in character and do not own a lightsaber) I was drawn to a piece in the December 20, 2015 print edition of New York Times that featured interviews with both Ms. Ridley and Mr. Boyega.

Noteworthy about the casting of Ms. Ridley and Mr. Boyega is that during the course of the run up to the release of the The Force Awakens there was a bit of trolling on social media about the race and gender of these two actors, which was addressed in the interviews in the NYT.

When I read the piece in the NY Times I was left astounded.  Not by what I learned about Ms. Ridley and Mr. Boyega.  Rather, I was astounded by the disparate way the trolling was addressed in the interviews–as reflected in the published Q & A.

The published piece was constructed of separate interviews of Ms. Ridley and Mr. Boyega. Ms. Ridley’s interview consisted of 16 questions.  The questions revealed information about her background in acting, how she got the part in Star Wars and other questions relating to her Star Wars filming experience.  In addition, 2 of the 16 questions related to her gender.  One question was on the hard hitting topic of how her opinion about beer, as a woman, was not trusted when she worked at an ale house.  The other gender based question posed to Ms. Ridley related to whether her casting as a central character in The Force Awakens will improve on the record of female actors being cast in the Star Wars franchise. Okay, so one legitimate question out of 16 was about her gender.

Contrast that with Mr. Boyega’s interview.  Only 11 questions and answers were published.  Of those 11 questions, 4 of them (yes 4!) directly related to his race.  Rather than the interview being focused on the man, his background and what brought him to this point in his life, Mr. Boyega was put in the position needing to respond to the critics of his casting and what his casting meant regarding adding diversity to the Star Wars franchise.

In responding to these questions, Mr. Boyega demonstrated a maturity that far exceeded his youth.  What was most impressive was the fact that he pushed back on the questions and did not just accept them. Rather he changed the narrative by challenging the fact that he had to respond to these critics or that he needed to be a “spokesman” for diversity within Star Wars.

First, responding to the critics of his casting Mr. Boyega had this sage response:

“It made me feel fine.  I’m grounded in who I am, and I am a confident black man. A confident, Nigerian, black, chocolate man.  I’m proud of my heritage, and no man can take that away from me.  I wasn’t raised to fear people with a difference of opinion.  They are merely victims of a disease in their mind.  To get into a serious dialogue with people who judge a person based on the melanin of their skin? They’re stupid, and I’m not going to lose sleep over people.  The presale tickets have gone through the roof-their agenda has failed. Miserably.”

In the last question in the interview as published he was asked if he was proud to add to the diversity of the Star Wars franchise. Mr. Boyega gave a particularly strong response to this question, stating that the fact that he needed to address this issue was racist in and of itself:

“I don’t know whether I am proud or anything. I’m happy that we’re able to mesh together in this ensemble cast and create a wonderful story.  It’s Hollywood’s fault for letting this get so far, that when a black person or a female or someone from a different cultural group is cast in a movie, we have to have debates as to whether they’re placed there to meet a {quota} … I don’t hear you guys saying that when Brad Pitt is there.  When Tom Cruise is there.  Hell, when Shia LaBeouf is there, you guys ain’t saying that.  That is just blatant racism.”

Although I do not give fault for addressing in the interviews the race and gender casting trolling, I do believe it could have been done in more of an even handed and passing fashion.  Mr. Boyega’s words perfectly captured the sentiment that these trolls were and are not worth his, or our, time or response.  Hopefully we can heed his words and focus on these two young actors as breathing new life into Star Wars and what the future holds for them and their careers.

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