Oscar Isaac is an amazing and gifted actor; handsome, charismatic and committed to approaching the characters that he is tasked with bringing to the screen with unique, understated and near anti-heroic methods. Gaining international acclaim with his leading role in the 2013 film, ”Inside Llewyn Davis,” by the Coen Brothers, Isaac literally carried the entire dramatic weight of J.C. Candor’s 2014 anti-corruption period piece, ”A Most Violent Year,” through the sheer intensity of his restrained performance of the character Abel Morales, a heating oil company owner who is an ethical man trapped in the most unethical of circumstances. Oscar Isaac’s phenomenal performance of a “Bro”-genius artificial intelligence creator in Alex Garland’s 2015 science-fiction film, ”Ex-Machina” was a near 180 degree shift in both his look and his emotional demeanor that was as shocking as it was intriguing and necessary to support the man-made enigma that is at the center of this film’s plot.
When Isaac who is of Guatemalan and Cuban descent was cast as X-wing fighter Poe Dameron in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” he was ultimately the last component of the “diversity triptych” (e.g. A Black, A Woman, and a Hispanic) needed to give the reboot of the aging White space fantasy franchise the demographic means through which it could most successfully attain over a billion dollars in worldwide theatrical box office receipts.(1)
Yet the success of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is but a testament to White controlled Hollywood’s ability to feign racial and gender diversity on screen in one of its best globally known movie franchises while simultaneously reserving full dramatic agency for the White characters within the story and maintaining White filmmakers, producers, and technicians in privileged positions of control over the means of production behind the screen.
If as Black male spectators we noticed that Black actor John Boyega as Finn, a former sanitation worker and Storm trooper, was ordered to lie down and act unconscious during the last act of “The Force Awakens” as a means of ensuring that his character wields no dramatic agency at the end of this installment; if Black women spectators searched for an image of the beautiful and talented Black actress Lupita Nyong’o in “The Force Awakens” and found only a hideous and heavily disguised CGI Asian caricature whose sole narrative purpose was to hand a light saber to another character; Then what can one ask did Hispanic spectators see when they looked for Poe Dameron? Perhaps what they found was a confident and zealous resistance fighter, who opens the film with great courage, is quickly captured, then escapes with the aid of his new Black friend whom he gives a name, and yet himself disappears for 3/4’s of the film’s narrative only to return with no explanation during the preparations for last battle of the film. (2)
To this end, we can be fairly certain that Poe Dameron is but a lure for the Hispanic demographic that will be used again in subsequent installments, but –and this is very important- this character will never wield more dramatic agency than the White male or White women characters who are ultimately the focus of this White fantasy set in space. Therefore, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is but another hyper-token: a person of a different race or ethnicity other than White who is given a marked increase in screen time (Poe opens the film and returns at the end), greater dramatic agency (Poe is an X-wing fighter), and given a greater presence in the promotion and marketing of the film, but full dramatic agency is reserved for the White characters in this installment of the White fantasy franchise.
This point has been repeated in the previous two installments of this critique, so it is here in the final installment that I would like to turn our attention to the source of hyper-tokenism and its affect upon those minorities cast in White films to become the forbearers of its consequences.
The source of hyper-tokenism is rooted in the fact that Hollywood is White controlled- and intransigently so. From the executives who are able to green-light a film’s production, to a decisive majority of its directors, writers, cinematographers, editors, Computer Generated Image creators, casting directors, agents, foreign market buyers, theatre owners, projectionists, etc, et al- White is the race that rules how other races are represented on the big and small screen. There is a rigid and implacable racial hierarchy that is structured within this global entertainment complex that cultivates and maintains Whites in nearly all of its positions of authority, power, and privilege. As Spike Lee once concluded during his acceptance of an honorary Oscar last year, “It’s easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than to be the head of a studio.”(3) And yet because White control within the global entertainment industry is so pervasive, highly structured and fiercely defended even one Black studio head would be merely a small Black token against the vast multilayered backdrop of White power.
One of the most curious socio-psychological aspects of White power and privilege is that –unless threatened economically- those Whites who benefit from it, whether consciously or unconsciously, do not see their dominance as power or their advantages as privilege. Like fish that cannot see the water that they breathe, White power, privilege and control are seen as normal aspects of consensual reality: anyone who is not White must seek to “act” White to be considered normal. Now there are several well known strategies that one can use to “act” White because acting White is the first step towards normality, full human citizenship and protection under laws supposedly made to protect everyone regardless of race, creed, religion or sexual orientation in America and by extension the “normal” world. These strategies of “acting” White (also known as respectability politics) are usually centered on one’s physical comportment, speech, class, (euro-centric) educational background, political affiliation and even religion.
Erasing racial and ethnic cultural differences as in pretending not to see race, appropriating, exploiting and discarding cultural differences, profiling, criminalizing and murdering those who refuse to accept White middle and upper middle class values or those who don’t unquestioningly genuflect to its authority are just a few of the means through which minorities are forced to “act” White by suppressing or erasing their difference from White norms and value systems.
But, above all, anti-Blackness (whether expressed as degrading stereotypes, criminal profiling or as deliberate attempts at blocking Blacks from access to any form of power, equality or justice) is the surest and the swiftest way for Blacks and other ethnicities to gain a quantifiable and yet provisional “White status”.
Tokenism and its hybrid offshoot –hyper tokenism- affects fair skinned ethnicities in a qualitatively different manner than it does Black people. The Black token is chosen for its Blackness, its surface representational characteristics or stereotypical mannerisms that can be identified as Black- so that Whites in power and control can pretend to be non-bias, objective and agreeable. As “Star Wars” fans and zealots are quick to point out, the Finn character of The Force Awakens was originally written as a White character and John Boyega after numerous auditions (more than anyone else in the cast) was chosen to play Finn because he was the best actor for the part.(4) But the Black token is a token because he or she stands out singularly against the vast background of other White actors within the narrative. And the hyper-token is a token because for whatever additional screen time, dramatic agency or promotional visibility he or she has gained within the film comes at the expense of knowing that their character will be ordered to lie down, disappear or die as a sacrifice to the greater good of the dramatic development of the White characters and/or their cause within the story. The Black actor is chosen but there comes a point when the character he is performing is either not allowed to choose his own fate, disappears from the narrative and/or does not survive the circumstances in the context of the film’s narrative.
On the other hand, the fair skinned ethnic male actor is often chosen for his ability to hide or render ambiguous his ethnicity under the White gaze.
Oscar Isaac’s full name is Oscar Isaac Hernández and as mentioned before he is of Guatemalan and Cuban descent. But Mr. Hernández dropped his last name in the beginning of his film career as a consequence of the racial and ethnic prejudices inherent within the White controlled Hollywood Industry. He explains that,” Starting out as an actor, you immediately worry about being pigeonholed or typecast,” He said to the magazine, IN. “I don’t want to just go up for the dead body, the gangster, the bandolero, whatever. I don’t want to be defined by someone else’s idea of what an Oscar Hernández should be playing.” (5) But as critic Angelica Jade Bastién points out,” His tendency to play characters of different backgrounds extends to his new Star Wars character, whom Isaac has described as “non-ethnic”, notably, he didn’t say “white” or “racially ambiguous”, instead referring to his character’s absence of ethnicity.”(6)
Oscar Isaac much like Martin Sheen (born as Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez) and his son Charlie Sheen (born as Carlos Irwin Estévez) decades before him had to drop his more ethnically revealing real name to participate beyond stereotypical ethnic roles as an actor within the White controlled Hollywood film industry. Martin Sheen changed his name from Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez early in his acting career, ”….in the hopes of landing more roles,” because ethnicity for the male actor triggers a blinkered and prejudiced perspective in those White decision makers who participate in and authorize the casting of a film.(7) That Isaac’s last name has an affinity with Jewish culture could only be a benefit to a young Hispanic actor going in for cold readings and shopping himself out for any and all parts before his career started to take off. But the point here is that for many talented and gifted Hispanic or ethnic actors to participate in a White controlled industry they still in this day and age must choose to erase their ethnicity from themselves so that they might be considered for parts that go beyond the stereotypical.
By contrast, Hispanic and ethnic actresses are usually allowed to keep their ethnic first and/or last names; for example, Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, Salma Hayek, Sofia Vergara, Selena Gomez, etc. Perhaps as ethnic actresses they are easily appropriated as objects of sexual desire through the White male gaze. The gender bias inherent within the White male controlled film industry insures that ethnic actresses as are not a casting liability if they keep their real names so as long as they are supporting characters for White men/women within a White film or television series. (e.g. “Hot Pursuit” (2015) with Vergara and Reese Witherspoon) It doesn’t take much to realize that even this role for ethnic women as supporting characters for White men/women is itself a pigeonhole if not a stereotype.
Some may raise the objection that Hispanic male actors like Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen, Oscar Isaac and others have made the deliberate choice to change their names to appear less Hispanic and therefore to pass for White within a White controlled industry; that this choice is not racism, but rather a good career move and business decision. Some may even point out the success of Andy García (born as: Andrés Arturo García Menéndez) and Danny Trejo as exceptions to this ethnic prejudice but a few exceptions does not in this case prove the rule untrue. The question why Oscar Isaac, Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen chose to change their names is as important as considering whether or not these male actors would have even been considered by White agencies, White casting directors, and White filmmakers for any of the leading roles they have performed in any White major films if they hadn’t: from “Badlands” (1973) and “Apocalypse Now” (1979) to “Platoon” (1986) and “Inside Llwelyn Davis” (2013) respectively.
The answer is painfully simple: singly each White individual within the Hollywood industry may or may not be prejudiced, but collectively in unmixed company as studio heads, directors, producers, writers, editors and cinematographers they can too easily fall back into deeply entrenched racial and ethnic prejudices and stereotypes that use Whiteness as the norm through which all others are seen, judged and quite often denied when they are considering the target audience to which their proposed film will appeal. In short, Oscar Hernández, Ramón Estévez and Carlos Estévez might easily tend the landscapes of the mansions of White Hollywood executives, but only Oscar Isaac, Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen (in his prime) can play the lead roles in the films of White Hollywood.
And there’s something that stinks to high heaven about this fact. You can call it whatever you like, but I’ll call it what it is: racism.
Whereas fair skinned ethnic male actors have the luxury of making the choice to hide their ethnicity behind more American or ethnically acceptable names, the long disappearance of the Poe Dameron character in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” reveals that even a name change cannot save a ethnic actor’s character when the fate of full White dramatic agency is at stake within the narrative of a multi-billion dollar film franchise.
Whether one wants to see Dameron’s long dramatic absence from the narrative of “The Force Awakens” as merely poor writing, as a necessary consequence of building up the Rey and Finn characters, or as a plan to give the character more screen time and dramatic purpose in subsequent installments of the series, it is an absence that underscores the hyper-tokenesque use of diverse actors to lure in diverse audiences to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” without fundamentally changing the racial hierarchy that defines a White film or the White controlled industry from which it is produced.
As critic Angelica Jade Bastién concludes, ”Colorblind casting might land a few promising actors prestigious roles, but it isn’t a sustainable strategy: it neither addresses the systemic problems that exist behind the camera nor does it compel Hollywood to tell more racially aware stories.”(8)
Because there was no one of color like a Ryan Coogler or a F. Gary Gray behind the camera to advocate for the Finn character and perhaps convince the White filmmakers that giving the Black character a background in sanitation was demeaning and that rendering this Black character unconscious for the final act of the film was the opposite of racial inclusion, nothing stopped them. Because there were no women of color, like an Effie Brown or an Ava DuVernay behind the camera, the White filmmakers easily convinced themselves that placing a beautiful Academy Award winning Black actress behind a hideous CGI caricature was an opportunity for her to broaden her acting range even though that CGI caricature had little to do in the middle of the film and nothing to do in the final act of the film. Because there was no one of open Hispanic descent behind the camera like a Robert Rodriquez, the White filmmakers easily dropped the Poe Dameron character from 3/4’s of the film’s narrative and convinced themselves that the circumstances of the White characters were more interesting than the ethnic “non-ethnic” character who opened the film.
Unless threatened economically, White power and privilege will never see these problematic decisions in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” as the willful expressions of White dominance and race and gender marginalization within the context of a film narrative.
The point of all that has been written in the three parts of this series of articles is not for us as Blacks and people of color to shrug our shoulders in vain and “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” but instead to turn the tables and take from “Caesar” that which is ours in the first place: the fundamental artistic right and economic ability to make any genre of film with races and ethnicities other than White in lead roles; films where full dramatic agency is no longer exclusively the providence of White characters in what will no longer be a White film sanctioned by a White controlled film industry.
The first step to wielding this power against the illusion of White supremacy in the film industry is to expose how that industry seduces us into hoping that token racial and ethnic characters will one day get equal dramatic agency side-by-side White characters in the subsequent installments of White film franchises and television series. These film franchises and television series will remain White because the last thing White filmmakers will share is equal dramatic agency among Black, White and ethnic characters. Exposing this White-centric dramatic perspective was ultimately the goal of this series of articles and Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the most popular and important example from which to analyze this perspective. Because if it is true that Hollywood is White controlled then it stands to reason as Sir John Dalberg-Acton tells us: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The power will not be given to us because we must recognize that we already have it.
The force to recognize are our own strength is within.
Andre Seewood is author of “(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker.” Pick up a copy here.
(1) Bearing in mind the polemic surrounding the different meanings of the term,” Hispanic,” and,” Latino,” I have decided for the sake of rhetorical clarity during the argument put forth in this article to use just the one term,” Hispanic,” to cover all of the various Spanish speaking cultures and ancestry, as well as, those cultures and ancestry of Latin American origin. Because the discrimination and prejudice from the dominant culture makes less of this distinction, it makes sense to use the one term here as we are analyzing the dominant and its processes of tokenism.
(2) Please see: “How Exactly Did Poe Dameron Escape Jakku Alive in Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens?” by Jack Carr. http://moviepilot.com/posts/3721330
(3) Cited from,” Spike Lee: Getting a Black President Is Easier Than a Black Studio Head,” by Gregg Kilday. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/spike-lee-getting-a-black-840371
(4) Please see: “John Boyega’s Star Wars Auditions Took An Insane Amount of Time” by Brent McKnight. http://www.cinemablend.com/new/John-Boyega-Star-Wars-Auditions-Took-An-Insane-Amount-Time-84307.html
(5) Please see: “The Case Against Colorblind Casting” by Angelica Jade Bastién
(7)Cited from,” Sheen’s Circle: From Son to Father,” by David Belcher. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/theater/23sheen.html?_r=0
(8) Op. Cit.