Star Wars recruits a new stormtrooper... from Peckham
The seventh Star Wars movie is out this week, and a stormtrooper at its centre has caused controversy - because of his skin colour, writes Hermione Hoby
The two things happened in a tight 90 seconds or so.
First, there was the matter of pop cultural history being made. When Lucasfilm released a teaser trailer last month for The Force Awakens, the hugely anticipated seventh Star Wars movie that fans have waited a decade for, every detail in short duration seemed to become world talking points. In its first week, the trailer had a record-breaking 58.2 million views. Now, it's been watched 75 million times.
It opens with a shot of a desert and the tense violins of John Williams's score. Then, in an epically laryngitic voiceover, come the words: "There has been an awakening ... have you felt it?" And with them up pops the first face and the first character those 75 million pairs of eyes saw: a black guy, dressed in stormtrooper uniform, sweating profusely and looking hunted.
Within minutes, the hashtag #blackstormtrooper was trending on Twitter. It brought with it the kind of diehard, narrow-minded nerdery that postulated a stormtrooper shouldn't be played by a black man because this fictional fighting force were all cloned from one, lighter-skinned, human descendant.
It came, too, with even uglier comments, the kind that were unconscionably racist. The second thing, then, that happened in those 90 seconds was the catapulting of John Boyega, a 23-year-old unknown actor from south London, to a level of galactic fame.
But Boyega seems to have been fazed neither by the size of the film franchise nor by the colour of his skin being a talking point on online message boards. In the wake of the first trailer, he issued a cheerful response on Instagram by posting a still of himself in stormtrooper uniform and a shortnote that ended with: "To whom it may concern... Get used to it :)"
Boyega had played just one lead film role before he was cast in the biggest franchise in the history of movies. This was the 2011 cult favourite Attack the Block, a sci-fi comedy in which he was Moses, a south London teenager battling an alien invasion on a housing estate. Among the film's admirers was the American critic Roger Ebert, who singled out Boyega's performance by praising director Joe Cornish for making such a "fortunate discovery".
It was another eminent fan, however, who changed the course of Boyega's life. JJ Abrams, the writer-director-producer most famous for his work on the American TV series Lost, also saw the movie and loved it. When Abrams and Boyega met, the director told him it was his favourite movie of 2011 and: "We're going to get you in something."
Which Boyega took with a pinch of salt. Lots of people were telling him they loved him in the film; he didn't actually believe any of them meant it.
But four years later, Abrams did indeed cast him in "something" - and that something happened to be Star Wars. The decision came only after putting Boyega through an intensive, seven-month auditioning process.
"It was hard," Boyega said last week. "And rightly so. If I bought a company for $4bn, I'd make sure those actors were on point!" (Disney bought Lucasfilm for that enormous sum in 2012.)
On the day that Abrams finally contacted him with the news and asked him where he was, Boyega was at a friend's house in Catford, south London, playing video games. Wishing to appear insouciant, he told the director that he was on his way to an art gallery. Abrams told him to get a cab to a Mayfair restaurant and Boyega did, thereby draining his bank account dry on the £70 fare. Once there, he heard the words: "John, you're the new star of Star Wars," and at some point in the next few moments it may have occurred to Boyega that he'd never have to worry about a cab fare again.
Star Wars has been a pop-cultural phenomenon since the first, eponymous 1977 movie that made household names of three unknown actors: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo). As the mythology grew so dense and enormous, it demanded more detail and so the original movie came to earn the subtitle, Episode IV: A New Hope.
Despite being born 15 years after this first instalment, Boyega has been happy to let the world know that he is, in the words of one magazine profile, "the galaxy's biggest fanboy" and that he grew up watching the movies and earnestly collecting its merchandise.
Boyega was born in Peckham, south London, to a dad who was a minister and a mum who worked with disabled children; both immigrated from Nigeria before their son was born. He has described his childhood as "fantastic" and has talked about how much he loved performing at both Westminster City school and then at South Thames College, where he was a performing arts student.
Nonetheless, he has had to shut down a certain narrative that some corners of the British press have been keen to push. When one newspaper ran a profile of the actor that described him growing up "on the tough streets where Damilola Taylor died", Boyega slammed it in a succinct tweet: "Inaccurate. Stereotypical. NOT my story."
Boyega never knew Taylor, the 10-year-old boy who came from Nigeria and was stabbed to death in a Peckham stairwell, and the description of "gangs, guns and knives" didn't chime with his memory of performing at the Royal Albert Hall when he was 13.
Days ago, he was asked by the New York Times how he felt when some threatened to boycott the movie simply because it featured a black man as a stormtrooper: "It made me feel fine. I'm grounded in who I am, and I am a confident black man. I wasn't raised to fear people with a difference of opinion. They are merely victims of a disease in their mind.
"To get into a serious dialogue with people who judge a person based on the melanin in their skin? They're stupid, and I'm not going to lose sleep over people."
Thanks to the watertight secrecy that Abrams has insisted on, there aren't many more details than that sweaty forehead. We do know that Boyega's character is called Finn, that he's a disaffected stormtrooper who's defected from his unit and that he's in possession of the lightsaber that Luke and Anakin Skywalker owned before him.
Everything else will have to wait until the film launches on Friday. By which point the most overexcited fan may well be the star himself. As Boyega said: "If you hear someone at the back of the cinema screaming and laughing and crying, it's probably me."