Hyper-Tokenism: 'The Force Awakens' While the Black Man Sleeps
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Hyper-Tokenism: 'The Force Awakens' While the Black Man Sleeps

Finn - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

From the moment the original trailer debuted earlier this year, J.J. Abrams’ reboot of

the "Star Wars" franchise, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" for its new owner,

Disney, stirred controversy and curiosity with the sudden entrance of a Black man

into the middle of the screen. As racists choked the internet with hateful comments

regarding the sudden appearance of a Black man as the first human image revealed in

what would be the triumphant return of this beloved global film franchise, those "Star

Wars" fans who happened to be Black reveled in anticipation for the character we now

know as Finn who is performed by London-born actor of Nigerian descent, John Boyega.

As a franchise known primarily for its careful placement of Black token characters

performed by recognizable Black actors like, Billy Dee Williams as Lando Cairissian in

the original trilogy and Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi Master Mace Windu in the

subsequent prequels trilogy, the original "The Force Awakens" trailer seemed to suggest

that, with Disney’s 4 billion dollar purchase of the "Star Wars" franchise, and the

coronation of J.J. Abrams (handpicked and lobbied for by none other than

blockbuster wunderkind, Steven Spielberg himself) as the new director at the helm, these profound changes seemed to suggest that the "Star Wars" franchise would shift

into a mode of greater diversity in regards to the race and gender of its principal

characters than ever before.

But alas, a curious thing happened on the way to a galaxy far, far away…

The character of Finn as the penultimate symbol of racial inclusiveness for this

franchise reboot is knocked unconscious during a climactic battle scene in the final act

of the film, and he remains unconscious for the rest of the film. While this is not the

first, nor will it be the last time that a character has been held in abeyance at the end

or the beginning of a series installment, whether knocked unconscious, frozen in

“carbonite”, abandoned or running away to a hidden land, world or fortress, robotic

parts separated and/or power disconnected – the unconsciousness of Finn

throughout the final act of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" as I shall discuss it here in

this piece, reveals to us that, White Hollywood, as we near the beginning of the last

year of Obama’s presidency, is ushering in a new and more powerful form of racial

tokenism.

The Finn character, from the moment we saw him as the first image in the original

trailer, to the moment he was knocked unconscious and remained unconscious

throughout the final act of the film, is a manifestation of what I will call: Hyper-

tokenism in the White film.

Hyper-tokenism in a White film can be defined as the marked increase in screen time,

dramatic involvement and promotional images of a Black character in a White film, while simultaneously reserving full dramatic agency as the providence of White

characters by the end of the film. (1)

Dramatic agency is measured by the ability of a character to change, influence, control

and/or survive the circumstances within a story. White supremacy is maintained

within a White film by the ability of a White character to change, influence, control

and/or survive the circumstances within a story through the seduction of the

spectator into not questioning this ability. The seduction of the spectator is primarily

performed through costly CGI effects, high production values and skillful editing. (2)

If tokenism was an effective method of securing a Black audience for a single White

film in the years before Obama’s presidency, then Hyper-tokenism is an effective

method for securing a Black audience for a series of White films that are part of a film

franchise during the Obama presidency.

Hyper-tokenism increases the profile of the Black character(s) within a White film

with greater screen time, greater involvement with the circumstances, but – and this is

very important – in the final act of the film, dramatic agency must be completely

controlled by the White characters. Hyper-tokenism has a latent affect upon the

consciousness of the Black spectator in that it allows the Black spectator to hope,

imagine or believe that the Black character will be given more dramatic agency in the

subsequent films of the franchise, and therefore secures Black viewer loyalty and Black

money to fill the coffers of the White controlled studio with its massive profits gained

from the reboot of beloved film franchises, like "Star Wars."  

But the films in these franchises will remain White films.

In the context of the "Star Wars" franchise, full dramatic agency (the ability to influence,

change, control and survive the dramatic circumstances within the story) is defined

ultimately by a "selected" character’s ability to wield "the force" by intuition or

training – the decision to not give Finn this final defining characteristic forces (no pun

intended) this character into a supporting role for the Whites who are wielding this

power. But when we add the fact that Finn is rendered unconscious for the final act

of the film (not even able to applaud the efforts of his White cohorts) it can be said

that we were not really following the heroic exploits of the Finn character so much as

we were being led "by the nose" as it were, to a point where dramatic agency is

ultimately still the providence of the White characters in the film.

Thus, Finn is really a "hyper-token" given more screen time than usual for a token

and a modicum of dramatic agency (as long as he is aiding those other non-black

characters), but rendered useless in the final act of the film because the White

filmmakers were not capable of sharing equal dramatic agency among the White and

Black characters. The film still resolves itself upon the emotional circumstances of its

White characters, while simultaneously holding Finn’s circumstance in abeyance for

yet another film where I would wager a similar manifestation of Hyper-tokenism

will be followed. (3)

Another latent effect of Hyper-tokenism upon the consciousness of the Black

spectator is that the White controlled studio can release tantalizing information

concerning the future production of a singular film concentrating solely on the

exploits or back-story of the Black character(s), release graphic novels that

concentrate more on the Black character(s), or promise to increase the role or the

roles of Black characters in subsequent films to keep the Black audience’s loyalty to

the franchise, even as the subsequent films to be produced remain as White films.

Yet the most destructive aspect of Hyper-tokenism is not actually found within

dramatic boundaries of the White films themselves, but instead in how Hyper-tokenism

seduces the Black audience to remain loyal to White film franchises and White

controlled film studios who are only exploiting that loyalty as a means of increasing

the box office of their White films, with little to no intention of increasing the

budgets, number of productions or worldwide distribution of Black films. Moreover,

hyper-tokenism takes a toll on the creative consciousness of Black filmmakers and

writers in the sense that it makes it even more difficult to breech the loyalty of the

Black audience from White films that have Hyper-Tokens and get that Black audience

to support Black films where Black characters can exercise full dramatic agency

without the approval of White characters or the guidance of the "White Savior Trope." 

The battle for racial inclusiveness and equality in the cinema begins and ends with the

degree of dramatic agency that is shared among characters of different races and

genders within a film’s story. Black representation in White film must not solely be

based on the presence of a Black actor or actors within that White film, but instead

we have to understand that it is the degree of dramatic agency that the Black character

wields within the context of the White film that ultimately determines whether that

Black actor is used as a token or as a fully realized dramatic entity.

A few other critics have noted the lack of dramatic agency of the Finn character in

nominal configurations such as: his inability to comprehend “droid speak”, “Wookie

speak” and other languages that come easily to the White characters; inability to pilot

spacecraft; lack of weapons knowledge even though he was a Stormtrooper; and finally

his lack of knowledge of “the resistance” when in fact as a Stormtrooper he would

have known whom the Empire considered its enemies. These nominal inabilities are

contradicted by Finn’s ability to wield a light saber with no training; his courage in

various battles; his decision to leave the Empire; his choice to return to participate

with the rebels of the resistance.

The pointing out of such contradictions in the consistency and the ability of the Black

character to wield dramatic agency in a White film is often seen as “nit-picking” from

loyal fans – both White and Black – of a White franchise film because, as long as the film

ends with full White dramatic agency, there is less spectator investment in questioning

the loose ends or the problematic construction of the Black hyper-token. The White

filmmakers have the noblesse oblige to say to Black critics, ”Hey, be glad that we even

cast a Black in this film,” and Black loyal fans can say, ”Thank you for casting one of

us,” by their ticket purchases, glowing reviews and repeat viewings.

One could say that the age of the Hyper-Token Black character in a White film

franchise (and even the cable television series) is a consequence of the Obama

presidency. Those liberal Whites who voted for Obama, of which many Hollywood

studio execs, White writers, directors and producers are a part, could no longer justify

the lack of diversity in their films with their "supposed" racial tolerance. But these

liberal Whites cannot and will not concede full dramatic agency to a Black character, and nor will they share that agency equally between White and Black characters in a

film; the Hyper-Token Black character is the compromise position that allows the

White filmmakers the ability to feign racial diversity and tolerance, while retaining

White control over the dramatic agency in a series of films.

But much like how the election and reelection of Barack Obama as the nation’s first

Black president can do nothing to stem the violent injustices against Blacks around

the country by law enforcement, racist terrorists, ineffectual Grand Juries, blind-eye

prosecutors, hung juries and other sundry inequalities – because in the final act, Whites

can insure that they can influence, change, control and survive the circumstances of

their perfidy – so also is this political condition reflected within White controlled

filmed entertainment as dramatic agency that supports a White supremacist illusion of

dominance.

The need to “Make America Great Again” as Trump’s campaign slogan tells his White

male supporters is really a discrete code to “Make America White Again” by returning

the Hyper-Token Black male in the form of Barak Obama back to his subordinate

place in the domestic and global racial hierarchy. That "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" ends with a powerful White female returning a legendary light saber to an aged and

seasoned Luke Skywalker, fulfills the both the slogan and the code in the minds of

those spectators of a return to greatness as a return to Whiteness (read: White male

hetero-normativity).

As the force awakens, it is no surprise that the Black man within the film remains

unconscious during the final act because, in many ways, the Black man watching the

White film is unconscious also…

But is he content to remain so?

***

Andre Seewood is author of  "(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker." Pick up a copy here.

***

NOTES

(1) For a full discussion of the definition of a White film and a Black film please see

the article: Towards Defining the Black Film: The Genuine, The Compromised and

the Token. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/towards-defining-the-black-

film-the-genuine-the-compromised-and-the-token-20150302

(2) For a full discussion of other techniques of White supremacist illusions in

cinematic narration please see the series of articles, Black Film Theory 1, 2, and 3.

http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/black-film-theory-fighting-the-illusions-

of-white-supremacy-in-cinematic-narration-part-one

http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/black-film-theory-fighting-the-illusions-

of-white-supremacy-in-cinematic-narration-part-two

http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/black-film-theory-part-3-subversion-

liberation-from-the-illusions-of-white-supremacy-in-cinematic-narration

(3) For a comparison discussion of traditional Black tokenism in a White film please

see the article: The Black Character in White (“Interstellar”) Cinematic Space

http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/the-black-character-in-white-interstellar-

cinematic-space-20141110

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