Out of the blue the other day, my friend declared: “I love John Boyega.”
Well I do too. Boyega’s portrayal of Finn, the reformed Stormtrooper in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” is underrated brilliance. Not everyone agrees. He’s been called a buffoon, a coward, a slave and a token.
But Finn’s open expression of fear made my friend love him and want to talk about him.
“When do black men ever really get to be scared?” my friend asked me. “We’re expected to man up, but there’s strength in fear. It’s brave to show your feelings.”
If Finn hadn’t allowed himself to recognize all of his emotions, he would have been just another brainwashed First Order drone forced to kill upon command, never thinking for himself. His fear of living in that system drove him to chase freedom. And yes, after he joined the good guys, he ran when he heard the Stormtroopers were coming. But the minute he saw his friends in danger, he came back. Love led him to do all he could.
Boyega is not really the star of this film; Daisy Ridley is — and I already have my Rey T-shirt. But Finn is no spineless fool either. When Boyega was cast, racists were mad that Finn was black. Now people are mad because he’s not the right kind of black. Whenever we have a black hero (male or female) the stakes are high. These characters must be strong, smart and successful. Anything less is a letdown for many people.
But why are black male celebrities held to such a tight standard of masculinity? When a black man is afraid, eccentric or emotional, is that really a threat to black manhood?
I understand the sensitivity. Our world often sees black men as dangerous or dumb. Black women are made invisible. So I know it’s important to see ourselves reflected properly to help shatter stereotypes. But we should be allowed to be whole humans.
Black men should be allowed to show fear, to show love and to show sadness without debate. The weight of representing for an entire people shouldn’t stifle every move they make. When President Barack Obama cried as he remembered the children of Sandy Hook and announced his gun control plans this week, Fox News questioned the authenticity of his tears. I guess black men can’t cry either.
They also can’t wear whatever they want. We already know that hoodies can get them shot. Skirts and tunics make them ostracized.
White hipsters have long worn their girlfriend’s jeans, and goth guys and punk squads rock nail polish, lipstick and crop tops. Yet Kanye West’s kilt phase and extra-long T-shirts have caused a debate about the feminization of the black man.
This week, Louis Vuitton announced 17-year-old Jaden Smith as a star of the new womenswear campaign. Much as he wore a dress under his tuxedo jacket when he took Amandla Stenberg to prom last spring, Will Smith’s son is now seen in ads wearing a leather moto jacket, a fringe and mesh shirt and a skirt with loafers. He doesn’t look like a diva. And this isn’t Jaden transitioning. Jaden is simply comfortable in his own skin, casually defying dated gender rules.
Again, people are mad. Kanye West, Jaden Smith and André 3000 don’t get the Prince pass. Only our purple majesty can be a carefree black man. Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence may have gotten away with wearing dresses and heels, but only for laughs. These men are known for being cool, strong and undeniable kings of comedy.
Kevin Hart is one of the few black superstar comedians to challenge the restrictive archetype of a black man’s strength. He’s always transparent about being scared, poking fun of himself and making it cool to be not cool. His role in “Ride Along 2,” out next week, is the silly sidekick who is often scared but prevails.
“My favorite thing about him is his vulnerability,” Keion Jackson, a Kansas City creative writer, told me when Hart was performing here in August. “I think he is subversive in a way he might not get credit for, because his voice is so high-pitched, and he is loud. But he challenges stereotypes around how hard black men are required to be. It gives permission to explore topics in a more personal way, as opposed to commenting on the things from the outside.
“He says what a lot of men feel but have not been culturally allowed to say, and he does it in a way that is charismatic and funny. There is a confident strength, a loud defiance in it.”
And that’s what makes Finn so special, too. He is allowed to be scared. He is allowed to be human. Our country’s systemic racism expects the worst of black men, so they strive to defy those boundaries. Finn’s fear of becoming the monster that the First Order demanded him to be helped him break free and become himself.
No cowardly buffoonery with this one. There’s no courage like pushing through your fears and facing them.
Give up, haters. The force is strong with Finn.