“Star Wars, half the movie is aliens and robots, and a black guy is what set people off?—Patton Oswalt. Yes, Patton, it sure did. The edgy comedian went on an epic rant about the controversy over the casting of John Boyega, a black British actor as a Stormtrooper in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie. It’s a phenomenon called “blackwash rage.”
It almost seems preposterous to use the word “controversy” with the words “casting” and “Star Wars.” Star Wars movies have characters ranging from Admirals with calamari heads to green-skinned ladies (remember Oola, Jabba the Hut’s slave girl? She was played by black actress Femi Taylor–guess there is not as much controversy so long as black skin is painted an inhuman color and when acting as a slave).
The latest Star Wars movie actually has three black actors: Boyega, academy-award winner Lupito Nyong’o as Maz Kanata–a mysterious pirate, and Crystal Clarke as Rachel. Yet, it’s the casting of Boyega as a Stormtrooper that has bunched up the Internet’s panties. Some of the Twitter tears of outrage:
#BoycottStarWarsVII because it will be ghetto garbage.
Star Wars is “White Culture” just as much as Jazz is “Black Culture.”
So why is there a black storm trooper in the new Star Wars movie? They’re supposed [sic] be all white. I’m tired of this political correctness [expletive].
I remember the original Star Wars. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and I was mesmerized. The Stormtroopers were so fierce and so cool (although the World War I history from which they are based is horrifying). You never saw a Stormtrooper’s face. Perhaps many assumed under the helmet was a white male face. Admittedly, I, as a little black girl watching the first Star Wars movie, would have thought that a Stormtrooper unmasked would reveal a white man.
I was conditioned, as was so many others, that white males’ faces were faces of authority.
Interestingly, Star Wars sequels have had black actors in prominent roles: Samuel L. Jackson, as a Jedi master in Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian in both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Yet, those characters did not cause as much backlash? Why?
The current political climate and the perception of power–that’s why.
Those who have been at the upper echelon of society for generations are currently feeling threatened in a way that has not happened since the turbulent 60s. With minorities rapidly becoming the majority; with calls for diversity and inclusion; same-sex marriage; demands over the protection of women’s rights; etc. … Middle America has been significantly disrupted and awoken from its sleepiest suburb to its most cloistered, homogenous rural acre.
Add in a shaky economy over the last decade that gives spoils to the already wealthy and punishes those with more meager means; top it off with a President of color, and that is the recipe for an extraordinarily angry segment of the populace who consider themselves a soon-to-be extinguished breed.
The level of outrage over a black Stormtrooper is directly proportional to the news: Black Lives Matter, minority college kids protesting, demands for diversity in the workplace, equal pay for women, etc., are all jarring to the majority.
The reason why Donald Trump is heralded as the symbol of the majority is the same reason why there is controversy over a black Stormtrooper. It’s the sentiment of: They are usurping our power. If they succeed, what happens to us?
Pop culture, such as Star Wars movies, is a great leveler. It’s familiar and accessible. For the disgruntled, pop culture outrage is much more effective in rallying a battle cry over some perceived offense than citing statistics or pesky facts.
“Blackwash” in film is the counter to “whitewash,” which has a much longer history. White actors were and are routinely cast as characters originally created as non-white. Some examples:
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
John Wayne as Genghis Khan
Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story
Laurence Olivier as Othello
Justin Chatwin as Goku in Dragonball: Evolution
Jim Sturgess as Hae-Joo Chang in Cloud Atlas
The list goes on. Anger over Boyega and casting non-traditional roles with actors of color is, conversely, “blackwash rageâ€– the projection of political and economic anxieties to the casting of minority actors in presumably white fictional roles in pop culture.
The blackwashing that has roused the online beehive in addition to Boyega’s role as a Stormtrooper includes:
Rumors of Idris Elba as James Bond and as Heimdall in Thor
Quvenzhane Wallis as Annie
Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm in The Fantastic Four
And the latest indignation: black actress, Noma Dumezweni, cast as an adult Hermione in the Harry Potter play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This casting caused such a backlash on social media that Harry Potter creator J.K Rowling took to Twitter to defend the casting:
Canon: brown eyes, frizzy hair and very clever. White skin was never specified. Rowling loves black Hermione.
The non-traditional roles black actors are considered for or cast in are usually characters wielding some sort of power. These are authority figures like James Bond; anti-heroes such as Johnny Storm, or social icons such as Annie and Hermione.
If minorities can fill these roles that are so central to pop culture and at the heart of our society, they become a threat to the status quo, the so-called silent majority. Just as threatening as questioning what makes for married couples, or challenging law enforcement for equal treatment of all citizens, or as threatening as a black President.
Blackwash rage isn’t surprising considering the current political and social climate. It’s a waste product; run-off from deep-rooted sicknesses brought about by economic and social inequalities. It’s the symptom that results when underclasses are pitted against one another by the elite – the ones who have most to lose when the rest of us truly stand united and demand our fair share.