Why John Boyega’s protest speech is worth a listen

    9 June 2020

    Last Wednesday afternoon Star Wars actor John Boyega stood up to give a passionate, if somewhat chaotic address at the Hyde Park BLM demonstration.

    Boyega was speaking, not into the usual coppiced stumps of media-branded microphones familiar from Star Wars press ops, but instead through the sort of loudhailer that may have to become standard issue on set if Hollywood is to overcome social distancing obstacles and start shooting again.

    The subject of his speech was also unfamiliar from Star Wars promo-land. Rather than mumble about how wonderful his co-stars were, Boyega talked about the frustrations he had faced on account of being black and the strength that could be found in protest – the physical manifestation of collective grief and anger.

    But the line that caught most people’s attention, that was most widely shared, and that first alerted me to his having spoken at all, was something he said towards the end:

    “Look, I don’t know if I’m even going to have a career after this…”

    John Boyega addresses protestors with a megaphone

    This brought me up short. Without taking a closer look at Boyega’s speech, the claim would seem spurious. Pretty much the one thing that makes you a credible force in the arts, or indeed in the corporate world, is to speak out against structural racism in the US police force and Western society generally. In the last week alone, we’ve seen support for BLM in the most apolitical of places – from whimsically flavoured sugar-sludge to children’s toys and sportswear on Instagram.

    It being late, and the wine having flowed, I tweeted to that effect –

    and in doing so gained a certain amount of approval from my bubble.

    But a few other friendly voices suggested I was being a bit hasty to dismiss these as crocodile fears. It was pointed out to me that Boyega had a record of speaking out before it had become the de facto doctrine of the mass media, and that he had yet to establish himself as reliably, Tom-level bankable (Hanks or Cruise, that is. Not, you know, Uncle) to be invulnerable.

    And in particular, just how nakedly racist Disney’s overseas marketing dept. had shown themselves willing to be, in order sell the Star Wars product overseas.

    Not being a Star Wars fan, I’d missed this at the time. But there it is. Boyega’s face, not quite excised, but shrunk, in the Chinese version of the poster. More Stalin than Star Wars. And not so much as a show trial for his time.

    Whether this was done in response to polling and analysis indicating that Chinese teenagers don’t go and watch movies featuring black men in prominent roles, or whether it was a matter of there simply being too many faces in the original – who can say? But still, one has one’s suspicions – given all the more weight by recent treatment of black people in Chinese cities.

    So perhaps my first judgement of Boyega’s remarks was hasty. Whilst there’s been a sea change on these issues in the West, cinema now has an international market – not every part of which is enamoured with the idea of racial equality. Much was made last week of various Bollywood actors who were endorsing Black Lives Matter on social media and yet were simultaneously hiring out their faces to market whitening creams and other racially-charged beauty products. These are issues that are not going to go away as Western actors like Boyega build international profiles.

    For his part, Boyega is the perfect advertisement for how to play the celebrity game without self-censoring your beliefs or your background. The son of a pastor and a carer in Peckham, his roots are refreshingly ordinary – a rare thing in Hollywood. As I used to joke when I lived there in the ‘90s, if you only know Peckham from Only Fools and Horses then let me tell you – television has a way of glamourising neighbourhoods. I can understand why he has not yet allowed his shoulders to drop.

    The trouble is, the arts has a poor track record when it comes to dissident political views– and lately it has all flowed one way. They’ve thrown their collective weight behind BLM, but actors, writers, and comedians who were even sceptical about the EU – let alone actively in favour of Brexit – largely found themselves out in the cold, or forced to adopt a sort of apologetic devil’s advocate persona in order to gain access to the bigger broadcast audiences. The one or two exceptions only seem to prove the rule. I made a radio documentary about this, for the BBC. Police brutality and bias is an altogether graver issue than where you stand on Brexit but many performers do indeed fear for their careers if they speak their minds on even these more minor political concerns.

    And this self-censoring applies all the more strongly to any who support demands for justice and the calling to account of homicidal police officers and yet question both the methods and some of the less well known items in the BLM agenda.  Take this one example: “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages.” It sounds like a line lifted from Marx rather than a straight-forward campaign for racial equality.

    Calling out the Marxist-Leninist elements of BLM is a stance that might really end a career. And anyone holding it might well envy Boyega’s instant assembly of support, as writers, directors, and the Star Wars brand united behind his decision to speak out.

    However, I watched the speech again, as I’d been urged – the full length version this time. And I saw with interest that immediately prior to the line quoted at the top (but excised from the first clip I’d seen) Boyega made an equally impassioned plea for renewed commitment within the black community to creating a better society. He called for men to “be there” for their women. To create a society built from strong families. To raise children in love. In all, an even-handed approach that was a far cry from the full BLM manifesto.

    It was a strong and powerful and genuinely brave message. Because if anything he said last Wednesday is likely to get John Boyega cancelled, it will be this insistence that responsibility for a better society lies squarely at the feet of every individual and every community.