The ‘Star Wars’ Star Leading London’s Anti-Racism Charge
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he has decided this fight is more important than his acting career.
Wearing a gray sweater, hoodie and leather gloves, John Boyega gazed out at the crowd that had assembled in Hyde Park in London on June 3. As he seized the megaphone, he personified the moment: the breaking down, the getting inspired and the seeking both solace and justice for the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of a White police officer in Minneapolis.
“Black lives have always mattered; we have always been important!” Boyega shouted, tears rolling down his cheeks.
It might sound like a scene from the 2017 movie Detroit, which Boyega starred in, about the 1967 riots in Detroit — but welcome to London in 2020.
Boyega continued: “We don’t know what George Floyd could have achieved, we don’t know what Sandra Bland could have achieved, but today we’re going to make sure that won’t be an alien thought to our young ones.”
“And now is the time. I ain’t waiting,” the 28-year-old declared.
The week before the rally, Boyega, who rose to stardom in the latest Star Wars trilogy, began lodging his protests by fighting back against racist trolls on Twitter.
I’m not the guy to be rattled. I wasn’t raised by no weak people.
On May 27, Boyega tweeted, “I really fucking hate racists.” Users accused him of “jumping on the bandwagon” and trolled him. “You’re not even an American,” some said.
Boyega is hardly the type to back down.
“Yet I have family and friends there who could be any one of the victims if things don’t change. Yet I work there six months of the year and I don’t want to work in fear,” he replied, adding: “You don’t know a thing about me. So keep your dutty [slang for ‘dirty’] mouth shut.”
In “The Truth About Racism in the U.K.,” published in Creative Review, author Jude Yawson, writes: “To exist as a historically conscious Black or Asian person in Britain is to exist knowing that a majority of your white counterparts do not acknowledge your history.… They do not have to come to terms with being ‘otherized’ in almost every way while watching the mainstay of society have a freedom of history that they don’t.”
But Boyega refuses to be otherized anymore.
On an Instagram Live, he made that clear: “I’m not the guy to be rattled. I wasn’t raised by no weak people.”
Born in the Peckham district in south London to parents of Nigerian descent, Boyega got his first acting role as a leopard in a grade-school play. After training at London’s Identity School of Acting, he rose through the London theater scene and broke into movies in 2011’s Attack the Block. Hollywood came calling and the world came to know Boyega as Finn, a stormtrooper, in 2015’s The Force Awakens.
These days, Boyega believes it’s vital to stand up for Black lives before anything else. “Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that,” he told the Hyde Park crowd.
Harry Chotiner, an adjunct assistant professor of film studies at New York University, believes “there was a time when he would have been right [in having such doubts], but now is not that time — especially not at least in the U.S.”
The U.K. has seen actors of color speaking out in Parliament about racism in entertainment, points out sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. “It is concerning considering that in the British film industry, everything is controlled by the state,” she says.
Of course, there’s racism in Hollywood, Yuen says, but it’s mostly connected to the power that white men wield at the studios and “that’s changing very slowly.”
“If anything, Boyega now becomes more desirable,” Chotiner says, adding, “Not only does Hollywood now know he is a great actor but also that he is a great person thinking about the world.”