There’s something strange, but ultimately powerful, about engaging with a fan base as an outsider. Last week, I watched as friends and co-workers mourned the loss of David Bowie. As someone who was born in the mid-’80s and grew up listening to mostly R&B and rap, of course I know some Bowie songs and I understand his massive impact. But I’m not in mourning, as so many fans are today. I’m outside of it even as I empathize with this very palpable pain over his death. At some point or another, we all find ourselves outside of a fan base that suddenly becomes a major focus of the culture, if only for a moment. We watch as the entire world sings praises, and we listen in casually, respectfully, as in-depth conversations take place about this thing that we haven’t fallen in love with … yet.
With this in mind, in the past week, I listened to my first David Bowie album, and I also saw my first Star Wars movie in a theater. I wanted to hear the music created by a man who so many people I knew were broken up over, and I wanted to see for myself what the Force was really all about. And I wanted my boys to see it, too.
As a Star Wars newbie, there’s plenty that I missed in my first in-theater viewing experience. The history of these characters and their relationships, the significance of certain moments—so much flew right by me. Now, to clarify, I’ve seen a Star Wars flick before, but I’m just not one of those lifelong, die-hard fans. I didn’t buy my tickets in advance like so many of you did; I moseyed into the theater with my three boys—ages two, five and seven—on a random Monday evening, about two weeks after the premiere, and long after multiple Facebook friends had already gone three times. I’m that person. I know about Star Wars, but I don’t know Star Wars.
Then were also plenty of presumably great moments that I missed, simply because of those aforementioned three boys (mainly the two-year-old). In fact, there were precisely 7,250 interruptions during my Star Wars: The Force Awakens viewing experience. Their Dad tells me it was a great movie. Good for him. Glad he enjoyed it. I’ll have to go back to the theater alone in a few weeks, but, in spite of missing out on some key plot details, I did have one incredible experience that I still haven’t quite shaken off.
Diversity is a big, boring word, and it means less and less the more well-meaning white people use it. This is not a story about the importance of “diversity” in film. This is about what my kids deserve, and what your kids deserve. This is about the moment John Boyega removed his helmet, and made the next two hours completely worth it, even with the whiny baby, spilled popcorn and discomfort of sharing two seats with my two boys and the baby on my lap (because everyone always wants to sit next to Mommy even though Daddy and another empty seat are right there). This is about the awakening of one more Star Wars fan, via FN-2187, or Finn.
There’s a reason we highlight the small, significant moments, rather than the biggest, most profound scenes, when we look back at the best films of the year here at Paste. It’s because we know that those so-called small things make the movie. It’s not Mad Max that you love, but all those little moments with an amazing amount of depth that you didn’t expect to experience during Mad Max. Sometimes those small moments are the things you completely missed, or would have, if another movie-goer didn’t point it out to you, or highlight its greatness in some way. In this case, the movie-goer was my seven-year-old, watching his first Star Wars movie ever.
It all started when that white helmet came off and revealed the self-described “confident, Nigerian, black, chocolate man,” John Boyega, as Finn.
My oldest son gasped, and shouted, “He’s a good guy!”
“How do you know he’s a good guy?” I asked.
“Because he’s a black man, and you—a most dutiful mother—have taught me that, in spite of what the media and the justice system say, black and brown skin is beautiful. Black lives and minds matter.”
So, that’s obviously not what he said at all. But as a parent, you long for clues that your messages, heavy-handed and otherwise, are getting through. I didn’t get that reassurance during Star Wars. I got a far less profound answer instead, at least that’s how it felt:
“Because I saw the commercials! And he gets the blue lightsaber!”
He didn’t mention it, but the other reason my little guy recognized Boyega is because of a video that I watched about 15 times in a row while he was in the room with his younger brothers. Why did Mommy keep playing it over and over again? inquiring minds wanted to know, as I continued to cackle with delight. By the time that day was over, I know they had Boyega’s face etched into their minds—in the same way that, years from now, if they grow up to be the geeks that I suspect they will, they’ll remember their first Star Wars movie theater experience.
Right now, my oldest son doesn’t necessarily grasp the significance of a black actor playing the lead in America’s biggest film of all time. He’s also not at that special point in life where he’s going to tell The New York Times, I’m grounded in who I am, and I am a confident black man, a confident, Nigerian, black, chocolate man. He’s not John Boyega, singing of himself and celebrating himself on the red carpet, but that’s exactly what I’d like him to be some day—whatever version of that makes sense for what he decides to become. I want him to think of himself so highly, that he can intelligently shrug off the racists and/or haters that will surely come at him, whether he becomes an actor, a teacher or a tarantula scientist (an actual thing he is actually interested in becoming, at the moment). Though his version would sounds more like, “I am a confident, part-black, part-Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean and a few other things, caramel-toned black man”—which doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but the message is the same.
One way of achieving such confidence is in talking about the realities of race in America. So we’ve talked about what it means to have a President Barack Obama, and what it means to have a Tamir Rice. We discussed the Baltimore Uprising, and we went to the library to find parallels to the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, there are so many more conversations about race that we haven’t had yet, including conversations that he might be ready for, but I’m not.
For this reason, movies and great TV shows can offer a shortcut, in a way. Sure, I can tell my son that he’s strong, he’s wonderful and he could save the galaxy if he wanted to. But, ultimately, I’m just his mom. And that guy from Star Wars is so much cooler—a better way (or another way) of getting that message across. White children can look in so many places to get similar messages. A simple photo of all the U.S. presidents can be pretty self-affirming for many kids (boys, specifically), but it was a different experience for my boys. Not a whole lot of brown or black guys up in there. But that one black guy, well, he helps—that is to say, his mere image helps. I was raised by a mother who used to tell me, point blank, that I could not be the President of the United States—that such a thing would not happen for a black woman in our lifetime. If I had a daughter, I’m not sure I could confidently make such a statement—and that’s kind of cool. That’s what they call progress, complicated though such progress may be.
So instead of screaming at my kids, “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL!” (which I will definitely have done and will do, in some way or another over the years), I’ll now get to help them find the chocolate brown crayon for their many, forthcoming drawings of Finn (and I hereby move for someone to create a “confident, Nigerian, black, chocolate Finn” Crayola color). And then there are the action figures, and the books that they’ll get to order from Scholastic, with Finn on the cover—all those wonderful little shortcuts I’ll get to take. Then there’s the black chocolate Finn Halloween costume that’s definitely coming. Could I just as easily dress my kids up as Langston Hughes, or Nat Turner for Halloween? In short … no. If you have kids, you know it’s not going down like that. If I’ve done my job correctly, one of them will definitely be Nat Turner for Halloween when he’s, like, 22 and all intellectual, and ironic and wonderfully prepared for a black-led uprising. But for the next few years, they’ll want to be Ninja Turtles, and Avengers and, now, Finn.
By now you’ve probably discovered that this piece is totally about “diversity.” But that word has come to mean, somehow, giving people something “extra”—it means including those others because it’s the right thing to do. It’s come to mean “a mostly white Oscars that totally should have included at least a few black people”—as if adding some black people to a white standard automatically changes the standard. That’s not what this is about. It comes down to giving people what they deserve—people like Ryan Coogler, Idris Elba, Stanley Nelson and Abraham Attah. People like Teyonah Parris and the countless women of color dominating TV who still can’t get compelling, Oscar-worthy roles written for them in film. It’s about good artistry, and how there should always be space for it, whether white Americans are ready for it or not.
This is about people like my guys, and so many other black kids, who won’t grow up in a post-racial America, but will grow up knowing that they can be a President, a tarantula scientist or a stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter.
They deserve a Finn. They deserve the opportunity to interact with—and perhaps join—a powerful fan base, and feel welcomed. And, just like all the other parents out there, I deserve the occasional shortcut in telling the truth to my kids—that they’re awesome, that they’re kick-ass, that they can wield the blue lightsaber. And that, perhaps most importantly, a girl can always come along at any time and out-wield them, because she’s a good guy, too, and the Force is hella strong with her.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.