Actor John Boyega — he played Finn in the most recent Star Wars trilogy — is the feature of this month's GQ cover story. There are lots of great insights and anecdotes throughout the lengthy interview, especially as Boyega discusses his diasporic experiences in Nigeria, his mental health, Black fashion, and shifting perspectives of racism that form in hindsight; it's all worth reading.
But the parts that have received the most attention — naturally, and understandably — had to do with Star Wars.
"What I would say to Disney is do not bring out a black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side. It's not good. I'll say it straight up." He is talking about himself here – about the character of Finn, the former Stormtrooper who wielded a lightsaber in the first film before being somewhat nudged to the periphery. But he is also talking about other people of colour in the cast – Naomi Ackie and Kelly Marie Tran and even Oscar Isaac ("a brother from Guatemala") – who he feels suffered the same treatment; he is acknowledging that some people will say he's "crazy" or "making it up", but the reordered character hierarchy of The Last Jedi was particularly hard to take.
"Like, you guys knew what to do with Daisy Ridley, you knew what to do with Adam Driver," he says. "You knew what to do with these other people, but when it came to Kelly Marie Tran, when it came to John Boyega, you know fuck all. So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, 'I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience…' Nah, nah, nah. I'll take that deal when it's a great experience. They gave all the nuance to Adam Driver, all the nuance to Daisy Ridley. Let's be honest. Daisy knows this. Adam knows this. Everybody knows. I'm not exposing anything."
Boyega does defend JJ Abrams ("Everybody needs to leave my boy alone. He wasn't even supposed to come back and try to save your shit"), and seemed to be particularly frustrated with his experience on The Last Jedi. I've always defended that movie as a brilliant love letter deconstruction of the Star Wars saga, but Boyega's experiences are valid and real — and even the movie's most ardent defenders will likely acknowledge that Finn had the most disappointing and sidelined story arc. I'll admit, I hadn't considered how much race may have played into that, regardless of whether it came down from Disney or from Rian Johnson.
Boyega's other Star Wars comments in the interview, however, are something I was more aware of. But I think it's important that he acknowledges the issue as bluntly and directly as he does:
"I'm the only cast member who had their own unique experience of that franchise based on their race," he says, holding my gaze. "Let's just leave it like that. It makes you angry with a process like that. It makes you much more militant; it changes you. Because you realise, 'I got given this opportunity but I'm in an industry that wasn't even ready for me.' Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, 'Black this and black that and you shouldn't be a Stormtrooper.' Nobody else had that experience. But yet people are surprised that I'm this way. That's my frustration."
Star Wars is such an important cultural myth that I think it's particularly important that we reflect on Boyega's experience. Once you've done that, I think it's even more important to read the rest of the interview, and take in the full picture of a life experience that Boyega paints with his words.