Sometimes when critics especially enjoy a film, we’re asked to host a Q&A screening, at which the film itself is followed by an on-stage discussion during which audience members can put questions to “the talent”. You get to watch actors play themselves – or at least, versions of themselves that can think of no better way to spend an evening than on the publicity circuit – and the gulf between their screenbound and flesh-and-blood selves is often striking.
That said, I’ve met three whose blockbuster charisma was entirely undimmed in person, and who at the end of the talk have had the auditorium spellbound, hanging on their every word. One was Tom Hanks – well, duh. Another was Meryl Streep – ditto. And the third was John Boyega.
It was at an opening night screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in central London, and the panel was crammed with big names and bigger personalities, from Harrison Ford to Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy. But Peckham-born Boyega stole the show. Just 25 years old at the time (he’s 28 now), he spoke in a way that made the whole room crane in, even though most of it had probably neither seen nor heard of him before that night. (Pre-Star Wars, his biggest credits were a stint on the London-set 24 miniseries, a handful of independent dramas and the cult alien invasion thriller Attack the Block.)
He told stories about his life on set, and before and after, with the almost mathematically calculated bounce and cadence of a great stand-up comic, but with none of the emotional distance that kind of technique often entails. I suspect everyone in that room believed we were listening to the real him speaking, regardless of whether we actually were, or if it was just another, more invisible kind of performance.
Either way, what stuck with me was this: amid the buzz and pomp of the first Star Wars premiere in a decade, he’d given an audience something that felt like a genuine human encounter. Whatever the it factor is, there it was.
Over the last week, neither Hanks nor Streep have passed comment on the catastrophic happenings in America, despite being two of the most famous voices of reassurance in the business. Boyega, though, has fearlessly weighed in.
Today (June 3), he appeared at the Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park and gave a powerful, heartfelt speech on his experience of racism: “I need you to understand how painful this s___ is," he implored through a megaphone. "I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing and that isn’t the case anymore, that was never the case anymore.”
He's been on a tear since last Wednesday, when he made a seemingly uncontentious post on Twitter – “I really f---ing hate racists” – in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
But when other users of the social network took issue with this – either over the language he’d used, or the absence of a minimising “in all its forms” disclaimer – he didn’t strategically buckle. “I am talking about WHITE on BLACK racism... the kind that has ruined the world,” he went on, giving short shrift to those who requested he moderate his tone, or cite examples of anti-white bigotry for balance’s sake.
“Don’t waste time tweeting ‘you need to talk about police brutality against white people’, go for one of your celeb coons for that,” he said in a now-deleted follow-up post. (“Coon” is a derogatory term for a black person who becomes humiliatingly, even self-loathingly preoccupied with white acceptance.) “That Star Wars movie got you lot all the way f----d up. I am staying on topic. We are addressing a specific issue.” And when another follower called his use of the word “coon” divisive, Boyega countered that the more conciliatory tone taken by other celebrities had “divided” them from the issue at hand.
Now, both the circumstances and content of all this could hardly be more different from the stories told by a young actor about his blockbuster break on the stage of a London cinema almost five years ago. But I found my mind flashing back to it, because the attitude – the spirit – was the same.
Boyega is the kind of movie star we often claim to want more of: one with the confidence to speak freely and honestly from a position of personal experience, rather than toeing the most politically opportune PR line of the day. And yet when he actually did this, a not-insignificant number of his fans lost their minds.
He’s well-practised in shrugging off this stuff, though, having clashed with sections of the Star Wars fanbase, and even Disney themselves, on a number of occasions throughout his four-year tour of duty with the franchise. Shortly after the release of The Rise of Skywalker, he was besieged by angry comments after joking that his character Finn was now free to pursue a romantic liaison with Daisy Ridley’s Rey following the on-screen death of his prospective rival, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. To wit: “It’s not about who she kisses but who eventually lays the pipe.” Prudes bridled for days, but Boyega stood by the quip.
In an interview around the same time, he described some of the plotting choices in the previous Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, as “a bit iffy”, and later frankly described the trilogy’s closing chapter as “very fulfilling” with “some disappointments”. Asked recently if he’d consider reviving the character for a streaming series, he laughed: “You ain’t going to Disney Plus me!”
Boyega is far from the first actor to have an ambivalent relationship with the Star Wars series: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness all winced in their time over the original trilogy, with Ford once famously telling George Lucas on set, “You can type this s---, but you sure can’t say it.” But far from diminishing the films, owning their occasional corniness and stiltedness is a crucial part of enjoying them fully – and having been to a couple of conventions in my time, I can honestly say there’s no one more attuned to the foibles and quirks of Star Wars than its fans.
So what makes Boyega different to Ford, Hamill, Fisher and the rest? The answer, I’m afraid, is as unpleasant as it is obvious: as a young black actor in Hollywood, there is an unspoken assumption that he should be eternally grateful just to be there, and not speak up and rock the boat. What goes for anti-racist protest apparently goes for Star Wars too.
The truth of the matter is that Hollywood should be grateful and relieved they ever found him. Born to a pastor and a carer on a Peckham council estate, Boyega is the opposite of the kind of Brit who habitually thrives in the industry these days – the Hiddlestons and Cumberbatches on the Eton-Rada/Lamda-Marvel fast track. Boyega’s talents were nurtured at a local community theatre and developed at the Identity School of Acting in Brixton, where the casting director Nina Gold picked him out for Attack the Block.
I wasn’t convinced by that film, though it certainly found an appreciative audience, and also secured Boyega the lead in a Spike Lee boxing drama for HBO. Only a pilot episode was made, but during his time in Los Angeles he was able to meet with a number of filmmakers including JJ Abrams, who said he’d enjoyed Attack the Block and would bear him in mind for future projects. A little over two years later, the casting of Star Wars began.
Naturally, the role of Finn has defined the first phase of Boyega’s career – and it is, in that fine old Star Warsian way, a great charisma-cranking showcase for a young star on the rise. His best work, though, lies elsewhere: in Kathryn Bigelow’s fact-based period thriller Detroit, about a police raid on a motel in the American city in 1967 which left three black teenagers dead.
Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard: an ally of law enforcement by trade, but also a member of the race the cops are persecuting, who finds himself stranded between the two sides as the siege unfolds. It is an extraordinary performance, one of the best of its year, with something of James Stewart in its subtle, intuitive depiction of an Everyman ensnared in a spiralling crisis.
At the protest in Hyde Park, Boyega spoke from the heart. “Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this," he said. "But f___ that." How much of this Boyega we get to see in future – and I sincerely hope it’s a lot – depends on our and Hollywood’s willingness to take his talent on its own terms.