The “Star Wars” universe was a fixture in Patten Anthony’s childhood: He read the books, played the video games and caught the original movie trilogy when it aired on TV. Now at 29 years old, he’s especially excited that this week’s release of Disney’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” prominently features Nigerian-British actor John Boyega, whose appearance in the movie's trailers suggests he’ll play a pivotal role in the story.
“When I saw a black man with a light saber, I got a little hyped,” said Anthony, an African-American resident of Atlanta who works in information technology. “At first I thought, they’re just throwing us a bone — I didn’t realize that [Boyega] is a main character. It’s nice to see some people of color in leading roles."
As “Star Wars” opens across the world this week, African-American fans of the hugely popular franchise said they hoped the casting of the series’ first leading black character will promote diversity in a genre long dominated by white fanboys and actors. But even as some progress has been made in science fiction toward including more diverse characters, some blacks said they have seen other fans try to ruin the fun by bashing their inclusion in a multi-billion dollar industry that they’ve supported for years. Most recently, some fans threatened to boycott the new "Star Wars" movie because of Boyega's role as a black stormtrooper, a military force under the Galactic Empire once controlled by Darth Vader that was racially ambiguous in previous installments.
“If you’re going into a comic book store these days, there are so many black kids and kids of color running around in those places, spending huge amounts of dollars keeping this industry alive,” said Danny Simmons, a New York City comics fan who has been anticipating the "Star Wars" movie. Twenty years ago, he co-founded the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation with his brother, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, in part to increase minority representation in the arts world and expand the idea of who fits under the science fiction umbrella, he said.
“Every superhero needs to evolve,” Simmons, 60, said. “What difference does the color make?”
I Found this on the Internet & had to repost. 1970s, AFRO Star Wars! pic.twitter.com/5y0pl56U9P
— Stafford Battle (@StaffordBattle) November 27, 2015
Fantasy fiction writer Alicia McCalla, a Michigan native in her mid-40s, said she remembers fondly the days her grandmother took her to see the original "Star Wars" films in theaters when they were released in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She didn’t drag any of her friends along because her love of the science fiction genre was a secret.
“What can I say? It simply wasn’t cool for a black girl from Detroit to read or write sci-fi, so I hid what I love,” McCalla said. She didn’t proclaim her love of the genre until her late 30s, just a short time before she published a teen dystopian novel featuring an African-American girl in 2012.
Racist attitudes among some science fiction fans have surfaced in recent years when blacks led or supported the casts of movies adapted from popular comics and books, such as the Marvel comics "Thor," "Fantastic Four" and "Captain America." Some fans, for example, were upset by the casting of black actor Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch. Black actresses also have had to face fans angry over casting decisions. The first movie in the "Hunger Games" trilogy features Amandla Stenberg, a young biracial American actress with brown skin, as the beloved character Rue. Reactions to Stenberg went viral in 2012, as some fans used the “N-word” to express their disappointment on Twitter, despite the fact that the casting choice closely mirrored the character’s description in author Suzanne Collins' book.
“Science fictions fans tend to be the most imaginative people, and yet the racism they hold is virulent,” McCalla said. “It’s almost as if they are okay with blue aliens, but add a person of color in a nontraditional role and watch out!”
Simmons noted that similar backlash hasn't been seen when white actors are cast to play people of color, such as in Ridley Scott's 2014 film "Exodus: Gods and Kings," which cast white men to portray Egyptians. "How come they don’t complain when white people are supplanted for historically black people in movie adaptations of the Bible? I think it’s a bunch of junk,” he said.
Science fiction, fantasy and superhero films made up roughly 25 percent of the total U.S. theater market share in 2014 as Hollywood increasingly relies on the genre to draw viewers to theaters, according to The Numbers, a movie industry data and research service. That’s about $2.6 billion in gross revenues. Meanwhile, U.S. and Canada box office revenues fell 5 percent to $10.4 billion in all of 2014, down from $10.9 billion in 2013, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Roughly 1.27 billion tickets were sold, or an average of nearly four tickets per person.
Whites last year increased their share of U.S. moviegoers by three percentage points to 63 percent, for the first time since 2010, according to the MPAA. The shares of African-American and Asian-American moviegoers have been flat since 2010, at roughly 12 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Hispanics, who had been 20 percent of moviegoers in 2013, decreased their share slightly last year.
Authors and illustrators could help drive more diverse audiences to the theaters by writing and drawing diverse characters into their work, said Matt Manochio, a New Jersey-based author of supernatural and fantasy thrillers. His most recent novel, "The Dark Servant," based on the Krampus myth from European folklore, is set in a predominantly white New Jersey town with a Hispanic police officer as a lead character. The choice was deliberate to reflect real world diversity and not to simply satisfy a particular audience, said Manochio, who is white.
“I’ll admit it, I don’t want all my characters to be white,” he said. “Authors and moviemakers who want to appeal to a wide audience should absolutely include characters of all races and sexual orientations, and not just to pander or throw a bone. The artists and fans who don’t realize that are the ones living in a fantasy world that I want no part of.”
Manochio said he had no problem with Boyega's role as a black imperial stormtrooper. “I just don't view things through the prism of race, especially 'Star Wars,'” he said. “For god's sake, it's a movie! Why can't people just be entertained by it?”
Besides the pushback from some fans, many Hollywood executives worry that casting black actors as lead characters could tank a movie at the box office. Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with racial and gender diversity became clearer after a cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment last year revealed racially insensitive attitudes among executives, including doubts about Oscar-winning African-American actor Denzel Washington’s bankability in foreign box offices because of his race.
The most recent analyses of Hollywood casting data showed that while U.S. racial minorities were more visible in TV and movies than in previous years, they were still underrepresented in leading roles. Whites were 83 percent of lead actors in movies, while minorities, who make up 37 percent of the U.S. population, were about 16 percent of movie leads, according to a 2015 report by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies in Los Angeles.
Black fans of the science fiction and fantasy genre said they want to see themselves reflected more often in these movies, books and merchandise, particularly because the genre has a history of broaching social issues that resonate with minorities. That’s true in DC Comics’ latest Batman reboot, which depicts Bruce Wayne fighting police brutality as the real nation debates police killings of black men and youths.
Oshun Layne, a 30-year-old black New Yorker and avid comics reader, has attended several Comic Con events dressed as some of her favorite comic and graphic novel characters. If anyone did a double take when she walked by, she hardly noticed, because multiculturalism among fans is not a big deal, she said.
“When I met these individuals, it was the first time that I saw people who were of every race, every age, every creed, and it didn’t matter, as long as you talked about what you knew,” Layne said.
But blacks should also be embraced in the "Star Wars" universe and other fantasy realms, Layne added. “I think for a lot of black people life is just so serious, that you find you don’t have time for fantasy,” she said. “There needs to be a space where we can enjoy the fantasy world, too.”