From the moment the original trailer debuted earlier this year, J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Wars” franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for its new owner, Disney, stirred controversy and curiosity with the sudden entrance of a Black man into the middle of the screen. As racists choked the internet with hateful comments regarding the sudden appearance of a Black man as the first human image revealed in what would be the triumphant return of this beloved global film franchise, those “Star Wars” fans who happened to be Black reveled in anticipation for the character we now know as Finn who is performed by London-born actor of Nigerian descent, John Boyega.
As a franchise known primarily for its careful placement of Black token characters performed by recognizable Black actors like, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Cairissian in the original trilogy and Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu in the subsequent prequels trilogy, the original “The Force Awakens” trailer seemed to suggest that, with Disney’s 4 billion dollar purchase of the “Star Wars” franchise, and the coronation of J.J. Abrams (handpicked and lobbied for by none other than blockbuster wunderkind, Steven Spielberg himself) as the new director at the helm, these profound changes seemed to suggest that the “Star Wars” franchise would shift into a mode of greater diversity in regards to the race and gender of its principal characters than ever before.
But alas, a curious thing happened on the way to a galaxy far, far away… The character of Finn as the penultimate symbol of racial inclusiveness for this franchise reboot is knocked unconscious during a climactic battle scene in the final act of the film, and he remains unconscious for the rest of the film. While this is not the first, nor will it be the last time that a character has been held in abeyance at the end or the beginning of a series installment, whether knocked unconscious, frozen in “carbonite”, abandoned or running away to a hidden land, world or fortress, robotic parts separated and/or power disconnected – the unconsciousness of Finn throughout the final act of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as I shall discuss it here in this piece, reveals to us that, White Hollywood, as we near the beginning of the last year of Obama’s presidency, is ushering in a new and more powerful form of racial tokenism.
The Finn character, from the moment we saw him as the first image in the original trailer, to the moment he was knocked unconscious and remained unconscious throughout the final act of the film, is a manifestation of what I will call: Hyper-tokenism in the White film.
Hyper-tokenism in a White film can be defined as the marked increase in screen time, dramatic involvement and promotional images of a Black character in a White film, while simultaneously reserving full dramatic agency as the providence of White characters by the end of the film. (1)
Dramatic agency is measured by the ability of a character to change, influence, control and/or survive the circumstances within a story. White supremacy is maintained within a White film by the ability of a White character to change, influence, control and/or survive the circumstances within a story through the seduction of the spectator into not questioning this ability. The seduction of the spectator is primarily performed through costly CGI effects, high production values and skillful editing. (2)
If tokenism was an effective method of securing a Black audience for a single White film in the years before Obama’s presidency, then Hyper-tokenism is an effective method for securing a Black audience for a series of White films that are part of a film franchise during the Obama presidency.
Hyper-tokenism increases the profile of the Black character(s) within a White film with greater screen time, greater involvement with the circumstances, but – and this is very important – in the final act of the film, dramatic agency must be completely controlled by the White characters. Hyper-tokenism has a latent affect upon the consciousness of the Black spectator in that it allows the Black spectator to hope, imagine or believe that the Black character will be given more dramatic agency in the subsequent films of the franchise, and therefore secures Black viewer loyalty and Black money to fill the coffers of the White controlled studio with its massive profits gained from the reboot of beloved film franchises, like “Star Wars.”
But the films in these franchises will remain White films. In the context of the “Star Wars” franchise, full dramatic agency (the ability to influence, change, control and survive the dramatic circumstances within the story) is defined ultimately by a “selected” character’s ability to wield “the force” by intuition or training – the decision to not give Finn this final defining characteristic forces (no pun intended) this character into a supporting role for the Whites who are wielding this power. But when we add the fact that Finn is rendered unconscious for the final act of the film (not even able to applaud the efforts of his White cohorts) it can be said that we were not really following the heroic exploits of the Finn character so much as we were being led “by the nose” as it were, to a point where dramatic agency is ultimately still the providence of the White characters in the film.
Thus, Finn is really a “hyper-token” given more screen time than usual for a token and a modicum of dramatic agency (as long as he is aiding those other non-black characters), but rendered useless in the final act of the film because the White filmmakers were not capable of sharing equal dramatic agency among the White and Black characters. The film still resolves itself upon the emotional circumstances of its White characters, while simultaneously holding Finn’s circumstance in abeyance for yet another film where I would wager a similar manifestation of Hyper-tokenism will be followed. (3)
Another latent effect of Hyper-tokenism upon the consciousness of the Black spectator is that the White controlled studio can release tantalizing information concerning the future production of a singular film concentrating solely on the exploits or back-story of the Black character(s), release graphic novels that concentrate more on the Black character(s), or promise to increase the role or the roles of Black characters in subsequent films to keep the Black audience’s loyalty to the franchise, even as the subsequent films to be produced remain as White films.
Yet the most destructive aspect of Hyper-tokenism is not actually found within dramatic boundaries of the White films themselves, but instead in how Hyper-tokenism seduces the Black audience to remain loyal to White film franchises and White controlled film studios who are only exploiting that loyalty as a means of increasing the box office of their White films, with little to no intention of increasing the budgets, number of productions or worldwide distribution of Black films. Moreover, hyper-tokenism takes a toll on the creative consciousness of Black filmmakers and writers in the sense that it makes it even more difficult to breech the loyalty of the Black audience from White films that have Hyper-Tokens and get that Black audience to support Black films where Black characters can exercise full dramatic agency without the approval of White characters or the guidance of the “White Savior Trope.”
The battle for racial inclusiveness and equality in the cinema begins and ends with the degree of dramatic agency that is shared among characters of different races and genders within a film’s story. Black representation in White film must not solely be based on the presence of a Black actor or actors within that White film, but instead we have to understand that it is the degree of dramatic agency that the Black character wields within the context of the White film that ultimately determines whether that Black actor is used as a token or as a fully realized dramatic entity.
A few other critics have noted the lack of dramatic agency of the Finn character in nominal configurations such as: his inability to comprehend “droid speak”, “Wookie speak” and other languages that come easily to the White characters; inability to pilot spacecraft; lack of weapons knowledge even though he was a Stormtrooper; and finally his lack of knowledge of “the resistance” when in fact as a Stormtrooper he would have known whom the Empire considered its enemies. These nominal inabilities are contradicted by Finn’s ability to wield a light saber with no training; his courage in various battles; his decision to leave the Empire; his choice to return to participate with the rebels of the resistance.
The pointing out of such contradictions in the consistency and the ability of the Black character to wield dramatic agency in a White film is often seen as “nit-picking” from loyal fans – both White and Black – of a White franchise film because, as long as the film ends with full White dramatic agency, there is less spectator investment in questioning the loose ends or the problematic construction of the Black hyper-token. The White filmmakers have the noblesse oblige to say to Black critics, ”Hey, be glad that we even cast a Black in this film,” and Black loyal fans can say, ”Thank you for casting one of us,” by their ticket purchases, glowing reviews and repeat viewings.
One could say that the age of the Hyper-Token Black character in a White film franchise (and even the cable television series) is a consequence of the Obama presidency. Those liberal Whites who voted for Obama, of which many Hollywood studio execs, White writers, directors and producers are a part, could no longer justify the lack of diversity in their films with their “supposed” racial tolerance. But these liberal Whites cannot and will not concede full dramatic agency to a Black character, and nor will they share that agency equally between White and Black characters in a film; the Hyper-Token Black character is the compromise position that allows the White filmmakers the ability to feign racial diversity and tolerance, while retaining White control over the dramatic agency in a series of films.
But much like how the election and reelection of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president can do nothing to stem the violent injustices against Blacks around the country by law enforcement, racist terrorists, ineffectual Grand Juries, blind-eye prosecutors, hung juries and other sundry inequalities – because in the final act, Whites can insure that they can influence, change, control and survive the circumstances of their perfidy – so also is this political condition reflected within White controlled filmed entertainment as dramatic agency that supports a White supremacist illusion of dominance.
The need to “Make America Great Again” as Trump’s campaign slogan tells his White male supporters is really a discrete code to “Make America White Again” by returning the Hyper-Token Black male in the form of Barak Obama back to his subordinate place in the domestic and global racial hierarchy. That “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ends with a powerful White female returning a legendary light saber to an aged and seasoned Luke Skywalker, fulfills the both the slogan and the code in the minds of those spectators of a return to greatness as a return to Whiteness (read: White male hetero-normativity).
As the force awakens, it is no surprise that the Black man within the film remains unconscious during the final act because, in many ways, the Black man watching the White film is unconscious also…
But is he content to remain so?
Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.
(1) For a full discussion of the definition of a White film and a Black film please see the article: Towards Defining the Black Film: The Genuine, The Compromised and
(3) For a comparison discussion of traditional Black tokenism in a White film please
see the article: The Black Character in White (“Interstellar”) Cinematic Space