“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh film in the George Lucas-conceived franchise that went into hyperdrive in 1977 and still has people wishing the force upon one another, already has grossed $1.3 billion worldwide, according to boxofficemojo.com. That’s about the dollar amount it would take to rebuild one of the worlds the Jedis, Stormtroopers, Darths, and their minions destroy from one film to the next.
While all of the “Star Wars” films deal with science fiction/fantasy themes of good versus evil, dystopian futures, and family dynamics, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” also joins the continuing spate of black-white buddy films coming out of Hollywood.
(possible spoilers ahead)
In the J.J. Abrams-directed, Disney-owned production of “The Force Awakens,” older viewers are treated to early “Star Wars” stalwarts Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess (now General) Leia, and Luke Skywalker. However, the stars of Episode VII are clearly Finn, Rey, and Poe.
Finn (played by John Boyega), who is black, is thrust into a life-or-death situation as the gunner for Poe (Oscar Isaac), who is white. Later, Finn comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), also white, and a similar situation arises.
The Walt Disney Company, which bought the “Star Wars” franchise in 2012, has a successful formula for its films. The main character becomes separated or orphaned from family and then reunites with or reestablishes family. In “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Disney sticks with its primary formula with Han Solo and Rey. With Finn, however, Disney resorts to the formula often reserved for black/white buddy films.
All around Finn are ruthless bad guys and the courageous warriors. But Finn begins as a frightened stormtrooper who deserts the First Order and wishes only to save his own hide. Sure, he eventually becomes a Resistance fighter, but not because he is strong or well trained — though he was a stormtrooper — but because he’s compelled to fight by the much stronger, smarter woman he loves.
Watching the film recently reminded me of a long-ago conversation, as well as a bit of research I once did on creation of the black-white film genre.
You’re OK for one of them
Rick graduated from an all-white high school in an all-white town in Texas before joining the Army. He claimed not to like (derogatory term removed*). Yet he called the African Americans he lived with and served beside “brothers.”
Rick’s story is not a parable. This real person confessed his bigotry to my then-husband and I over a leisurely dinner one night in 1989, the same year “Lethal Weapon II” and “Die Hard” appeared on big screen.
Why the disparity? As Rick explained it, acceptance and even friendship with soldiers of other races is necessary when your life is threatened and you must depend on them as your shield and defense in combat.
“Racial attitudes are improved and stereotypes are broken when diverse groups come together under circumstances that promote meaningful cross-group interaction, such as in the military,” wrote Mary J. Fischer, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut, who co-authored a 2015 study with Jacob S. Rugh, an assistant professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.
It started with a fight
Prior to the Vietnam War (1959-1975), African-Americans actors were mise-en-scene — background for affect, servants to demonstrate a character’s status (or lack of), the fall guy, and the fool.
During the war and almost concurrent Civil Rights Movement (around 1955-1965), African Americans became more visible than ever in American history.They appeared in American households by means of television news, emerging for the first time en masse in combat beside white soldiers with whom some created unexpected alliances.
The criminal element
The newly integrated battlefield and the Civil Rights Movement allowed Hollywood to create films with black actors in starring roles. There were provisos though. They had to star alongside a white actor to give the film legitimacy and to attract spending spectators, white audiences.
While these films opened doors for African-American actors, they also fabricated other constraints. Black actors, in addition to being cast only as criminals, police officers, and military grunts, portrayed the blessed primitive to white actors’ ruined sophisticate characters or the comic/minstrel to the serious actor.
The groundbreaking, Academy-Award winning “The Defiant Ones” (1958), starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis, is an early example of a film with a black-white, criminal-character scenario.
But there was nearly a ten-year gap before the next black-white buddy film emerged on big screens. It was then that roles for African-American film actors regressed with the rise of Blaxploitation films. Pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, excessive violence, and a “gotta get mine” ghetto mentality that still seeps into film-making typified this genre.
Everyone can’t be tough
“Firefox” (1981) and “First Blood” (1982) were among some of the first post Vietnam white male buddy films, but it wasn’t until the 1987 release of “Lethal Weapon” (“Off Limits” follows a year later) that African-American characters without a criminal background joined the party. Still, the black character had a bit of a coward in him.
While both stars, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, portray veterans and police sergeants, filmmakers emasculate Glover’s Roger Murtaugh while portraying Gibson’s Riggs as a super-tough (though ruined) hero. The film opens with Murtaugh’s family celebrating his 50th birthday; other officers are commenting (with feminine flair) on how he looks without his beard, and when he suspects that Martin Riggs (Gibson) is a criminal and proceeds to detain him, he is thrown to the grown; then he says, “I’m too old for this.” Throughout the original and its sequels, as Riggs performs dangerous feats, Murtaugh screams like a child not like the trained officer he is.
Primitives, sophisticates, minstrels, and actors
It was in the ’70s, just after the official end of the Vietnam War, when the black-white buddy film zipped to the forefront of film culture. Unfortunately, it came with familiar racist undertones.
Kicking off the bi-racial genre were “Silver Streak” (1976) and “Stir Crazy” (1980), starring Gene Wilder (the ruined sophisticate) and Richard Pryor (the blessed primitive and minstrel). Pryor plays the fool who uses streetwise smarts to teach Wilder’s innocent straight men how to survive. Pryor isn’t the only African-American actor known for playing the fool and the blessed primitive.
Kevin Hart recently joined the scene playing the fool. This year, he starred alongside Will Ferrell in “Get Hard,” a film with a similar relationship premise to the Wilder/Pryor films where Ferrell assumes Hart’s character understands prison and can teach him how to survive.
Here, though, Ferrell plays a far greater fool. But Ferrell’s James is an educated, white-collar executive, while Hart’s Darnell is a cash-strapped car wash attendant desperate enough to play the minstrel despite his ignorance of street smarts or prison.
Eddie Murphy alone starred in at least 11 black-white buddy films, where you can often find him singing or scamming. Thankfully, Disney — so far in its takeover of “Star Wars” — hasn’t taken up that part of the playbook. May we never see a singing, dancing, shucking, or jiving Jedi.
That said, I have to make my own confession: I have been the first in line at some of these prescribed black-white buddy movies whether violent or comedic. Some, like “Get Hard,” are annoyingly funny. And if I dig through my old VHS tapes, I can probably find a few copies of “Lethal Weapon.”
Yet, that doesn’t change my disappointment when yet another formulaic film hits theaters, makes a bundle, and keeps black actors spinning in the same suffocating quagmire. It says a lot about our interests when we spend $1.3 million on quick laughs and mind-twirling special effects when there’s only a little story fit into a big template.
*This essay originally used the actual derogatory term for a black person because I chose reality over politics. I’ve never known a bigot to spew, “N-WORD!” However, there are those who have had the word flung at them more times than they can count and don’t need to see it in my blog post.
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