The Power In John Boyega’s Rejection Of Being Gracious

By Juwan J. Holmes

It has long been known that John Boyega had grievances about his experience working in the Star Wars franchise films. In his recent GQ profile, Boyega explained why he has been so vocal about the issues he has faced with his character’s arc and treatment by the fanbase. In part, he said to Jimi Famurewa: “So what do you want me to say? What they want you to say is, ‘I enjoyed being a part of it. It was a great experience…’ Nah, nah, nah. I’ll take that deal when it’s a great experience.”

Of course, quotes like this were extracted and reported around the internet as a strong denunciation of the creative decisions of one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on the planet. Maybe, they are – but Boyega’s words are not unwarranted, and they may be very considerate, given the bigger picture.

The bigger picture is enveloped within the entire, approximately-4,500 word-cover story. Boyega is not just another actor that became a darling of the industry, he’s not another diva personality complaining when things didn’t go his way, he isn’t a master manipulator capitalizing on societal issues. Boyega has faced the brunt of hatred from early on in life, most recently in the form of harassment by strangers via the internet for his mere presence in a series of films. He recovered from growing up in a council estate (the UK equivalent of public housing), where he witnessed the death of a friend (in a high-profile murder) around 8. Boyega’s breakthrough came to fruition in a world contrived to dehumanize him whenever possible.

John Boyega speaking to protestors during a BLM protest at Hyde Park, London on June 3. Source: Getty Images

This is best illustrated by Boyega’s retelling of attending the Black Lives Matter protests in Hyde Park, London, where he gave a viral rallying cry on June 3. “I need you guys to understand how painful this sh*t is…I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing,” he emotionally instructed the crowd that day.

That pain is felt almost universally by Black people – but especially by Boyega, who has learned through his father firsthand what police brutality, systemic racism, and prejudice looked like. The pain, and the encompassing fear and stress, of facing abusive treatment for their culture, their appearance, their skin, their existence. The pain led him to confrontation – first with himself, through therapy; then his haters, through tweets; through antagonists trying to take advantage of him, such as the boatman who attempted to extort him for money in 2012; then, his industry (and ultimately, society) which led him to this moment.

This is why he believes that he was the only cast member whose role in the franchise was distinctly based on his race, the very definition of racism. It’s not just that he didn’t like working on Star Wars or didn’t like his character’s arc – it comes down to the fact that he was expected to accept whatever, good or bad, came with the opportunity. Yet, Boyega wasn’t accepted for who he was.

He explains in full account how he was expected to endure inadequate support from his employer, subliminally expected to minimize his culture, and made to work with people unequipped or unwilling to help him succeed, day after day for years. He details how he endured the scrutiny and attention that came with being in this position, in addition to packing his schedule beyond management. Unlike his peers, he didn’t have accommodations made for him to work on Star Wars. From the moment he became a part of the franchise, his pain was only amplified. He faced discrimination from outsiders to his life and work. His peers and employer disregarded him despite being the face of a cultural sensation owned by a billion-dollar conglomerate.

Boyega was speaking to the crowd about this pain – his, and those that shared it – when he told them that “meaning nothing” based on who they are can’t continue. “…That isn’t the case anymore, that was never the case… I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but **** that.”

The intergenerational trauma has evolved, guiding Boyega to this point – and that’s why it goes beyond Disney, or Star Wars, or even entertainment. Black people – similar in ways to, but not exactly like, other marginalized people – are expected to extend grace when they are wronged and withstand whatever happens to them as some form of righteousness. Individually, many of us do this day in and day out. Collectively, we often have for periods of history – but as evidenced by the collective actions of so many Black people around the world right now, grace in the face of disrespect only benefits the status quo. Boyega’s Star Wars experience is quintessential to that.

John Boyega at the Star Wars: The Force Awakens Red Carpet. Source: Getty Images

As he told GQ, “During the press of [Star Wars: The Force Awakens], I went along with it, and obviously at the time I was very genuinely happy to be a part of it. But my dad always tells me one thing: ‘Don’t overpay with respect.’ You can pay respect, but sometimes you’ll be overpaying and selling yourself short.”

His rejection of the social expectations of Black entertainers to be grateful is rarely so public, yet far from new. Entertainers from the likes of Ella Fitzgerald to Harry Belafonte to Dave Chappelle have refused to remain silent and stood up to societal or industry standards at the potential detriment of their career. In 2016, music artist Solange crafted the hit album A Seat at the Table, largely inspired to defy the expectation that she should not ‘bite the hand that feeds her’, paraphrasing how a white New York Times commentator put it when she decided not to appear on his podcast. At the end of 2019, Gabrielle Union left the competition TV series America’s Got Talent because of the treatment she received and the derogatory statements about non-Black people she overheard on set.

As all of these people determined, and as Boyega’s father’s advice illustrates, ‘grace’ is not always a righteous response. In fact, extending grace in an industry where people are replaced in the blink of an eye means taking your power and giving it over to someone likely intent on harming you. Boyega knows that – and if he’s going to go down, he’s going with his truth intact.

Imagine that you get your dream job, just to find out it sucks – but no one cares how you felt about it because they find it inconceivable that such an opportunity wouldn’t come with perfect conditions. Who is he to challenge the integrity of the second top-earning film series of all time? That’s exactly where John Boyega has found himself.

As Famurewa surmised in his profile, “to dismiss these words as merely professional bitterness or paranoia is to miss the point… [Boyega] is trying, really, to let you know what it feels like to have a boyhood dream ruptured by the toxic realities of the world.”

Boyega isn’t the first to express his dislike for being a part of the Star Wars lexicon. Harrison Ford, who played lead character Han Solo in several films, has made it well known that he, too, disliked it. When asked about passing on ‘the sword’ to Boyega or someone else as the lead of the franchise, Ford told the New York Times in 2018: “I don’t know that I thought of it that way at all…And I didn’t really give a rat’s ass who got my sword.”

Ford’s infamous annoyance over Star Wars, which now spans decades, hasn’t affected the actor’s image and is generally only bought up as entertainment fodder. Yet, people are defining Boyega by his critiques of his time in the franchise and negatively scrutinizing them from outside of it. These are the very differences between Boyega and others that he talks about – he is detracted for doing anything other than praise working on the films, which is not the same reception others (like Ford) get for being honest about jobs they’ve had.

Boyega’s and Ford’s feelings on the franchise – and their positions in it – sound remarkably similar. Both expressed critiques about the directions of their characters and the series, while also saying that they are thankful for taking part in it. Their frustrations are, in part, due to his personal feelings about how the series unfolded.

Ford had honed the lead character for years – before the franchise became a Disney-operated jackpot – by making constant changes and trying to direct his character’s story. Boyega, whose character’s importance was slowly minimized in favour of other characters in the most recent films, also expressed similar complaints about the “iffy” The Last Jedi script. It’s not surprising, considering that Ford also noted that Boyega would “bring a uniqueness” to the franchise with “bigger ideas” than being a cog in the franchise.

Ford also said that Boyega was “bold, confident and complicated, with intelligent ideas.” If the former lead, who doesn’t even care as much anymore, could recognize that, why couldn’t (or wouldn’t) others? Why is Boyega not afforded the same unfettered ability to express himself over a breakout role in his career as Ford has? Why is his autonomy over his perspective such a problem to begin with?

Boyega’s recent interaction with industry veteran Michael Rappaport says it all. Rappaport tried to shape Boyega’s comments as him not understanding “show business”, telling the 28-year-old via Twitter to “Again be grateful for all u [have] done so far which is a lot more than TONS of great actors of all races” – to which Boyega simply responded, “:) no. Thanks, though.”

The issue of honesty and individuality in the industry hasn’t begun and won’t end with Boyega, but his willingness to stay himself unapologetically will undoubtedly give power to him, and others that come after. “Sometimes, you just need to be mad,” he reckons. “You need to lay down what it is that’s on your mind. Sometimes you don’t have enough time to play the game… Because you realize, ‘I got given this opportunity, but I’m in an industry that wasn’t even ready for me.’”

That will be viewed as egotistical. It will be construed as ungratefulness. It may even go down, eventually, as righteousness.

For now, it’s best put by Steve McQueen, a director working with Boyega – “right now, he’s dangerous…and that’s where I want to be.”

Danger – there’s definitely power in that. Maybe, just a dash of grace, as well.

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