The internet is still cooling down after the official teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens dropped last week.
With a re-imagined lightsaber, general JJ Abrams’ shininess, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice-over (fine, it’s not him, but we can all dream), the trailer had plenty to get us nerds foaming at the mouth. But it was five seconds of the 90-second long trailer that caused the most buzz.
The black Stormtrooper played by John Boyega.
Put a different way, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo can be best friends with two robots and alien Sasquatch and people are like, “sure, alright”, but a black Stormtrooper in the same universe has people talking.
In the midst of the new Civil Rights Movement sprung out of Ferguson, the #BlackStormtrooper hashtag is not only happening at a fitting time – it’s happening in a fitting genre.
It’s ironic considering that non-white Stormtroopers are canon. They were originally clones of the non-white Jango Fett, and Donald Faison from Scrubs has been voicing Stormtroopers in animated shows for years (but who has time to go find that nerdy info, right?)
Plus, when has an army of white men in white uniforms and masks ever gotten us anywhere good?
Sci-fi has always provided a platform for social commentary. Even the most innocent of geeky acts, like gender- and race-bending cosplay, has a commentary of acceptance and equality. Because geeks and nerds may be sub-cultures, but their influence effects society as a whole, and always has.
“That’s always been the really cool thing about science fiction and fantasy,” says Matthew Kadish – author of sci-fi book “Earthman Jack“. “You can tackle subjects that might be un-PC or unpopular in a way that doesn’t set off alarm bells.”
Take the original series of Star Trek. Running from ‘66-‘67, the world it created presentedconcepts as alien as Vulcans or Klingons, and directly commented on all the major issues going on at the time: The Civil Rights Movement, Space Race, and Cold War. Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) was the first black woman to have a starring role on television. The navigator of the U.S.S Enterprise, Chekov, was wery Russian (that’s a Star Trek joke). And the show created massive controversy when it displayed one of the first televised interracial kisses between Uhura and Kirk.
Ahh, yes, Race: the Final Frontier.
But Star Trek is far from the only sci-fi work to have a social commentary. The 2005 reboot of the British show Doctor Who has been doing for the Gay Rights Movement today what Star Trek was doing for the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. With characters like the pansexual Captain Jack Harkness and the interspecies Victorian lesbian couple (read that again) Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint, Doctor Who normalizes alternative sexualities.
Godzilla and fear of nuclear power, Orwell’s fears of totalitarianism and corruption in “1984,” District 9 and South African Apartheid; sci-fi has been a means of social commentary for as long as sci-fi has existed. Because the minds behind the sci-fi genre all do the same thing: re-imagine our world in a way that is either better than the present or serves as a warning to the present.
Going back to Star Trek for a second, the show’s use of colorful alien races was more than just skin-deep. Matt Kadish said it best when he posed,
“Kirk with all those green-skinned women…it’s like, what’s that a metaphor for? It’s like ‘well, she’s not black, she’s green – oh, ok. That’s cool.’ So…you do that and eventually people are like ‘ok, I think I agree with that, I think that’s acceptable.’”
These big issues presented in a fictional way set up a “safe” way to start a dialogue and plant the seed for changing how people think.
The term, “be nice to the nerds, they’ll be your boss one day” is actually an underestimation. Because whether it’s in the form of cosplay or seemingly out of this world concepts, geeks and science fiction aren’t just running the world you live in – they’re changing it. And ultimately, the potential for the new Star Wars to stir up some change can best be summed up by John Boyega’s spot-on response to the racist comments: “get used to it ;)”
It’s unfortunate that we still live in a world where John Boyega’s Stormtrooper is getting this much attention, and it’s clearly a sign that racism is still very much alive.
But while people may be focusing on the wrong thing with the new Star Wars trailer, man is it happening with the right genre.