In a recent Washington Post column (in the Lifestyles section, to be sure, but a column nonetheless), Lonnae O’Neal complains that Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not give John Boyega a sufficiently heroic role to atone for Hollywood’s past misapprehensions about “the direction this country is really going in.” She quotes a Washington writer, Tim Gordon, who observes that “every time [Finn] picks up a lightsaber, he’s getting beat down and the lightsaber is getting taken from him.” That Boyega’s character is not an annoyingly flawless, Superman-like character seems to O’Neal and Gordon sufficient evidence that the creators of Star Wars are still mired in the racist past, although they admit that the film’s casting represents about as much progress as might be expected given the persistence of reactionary elements in the highest echelons of American filmmaking.
It’s not my intention to defend Star Wars to the hilt, or to offer a blanket condemnation of O’Neal’s style of socially conscious film criticism; movies certainly exercise an outsized influence on the American imagination and understanding their subliminal messages is a worthy project. But in fact O’Neal and Gordon’s criticism is a fascinating testament to the hollowness of the atheist approach to anti-racism that’s evidently been gaining ground of late in contemporary civil rights activism.
The obvious response to their argument about Finn is that because the character (a) is black and (b) sometimes loses fights, they overlook the fact that he’s the movie’s most compelling character. (I venture this undefended assertion because I’m confident that most people who see the movie will join me in ranking him alongside Han Solo as their favorite characters in the Star Wars series; both have a kind of authentic humanity that most of the cast lacks.)
I don’t know anything about O’Neal or Gordon’s religious convictions, but it seems likely that they’re blind to the qualities that make Finn such an interesting character because trends in anti-racist discourse have induced them to see race relations, and human relations in general, in purely material terms — as the collision of bodies moving in spaces. Foucault made this approach, and the language that comes with it, immensely popular in 70s left-wing circles, and now the vocabulary of “bodies in space” has returned with a vengeance on the lips of people who don’t appear to know much of anything about Foucault and probably aren’t ready to accept some of his more radical Nietzschean premises.
One derivative bit of Foucauldian jargon that one can hardly help encountering nowadays is the use of the phrase “black bodies” to refer to what were, in simpler times, generally called “black people.” O’Neal and Gordon watch Star Wars and see Finn as a black body moving through a series of decidedly unsafe spaces and being continually subjected to physical attacks against which he is not always able to defend himself. Meanwhile, other characters, like Finn’s love interest Rey, are more impervious to assault and therefore less problematic.
O’Neal also objects to the fact that Finn and Rey do not have sex. Sure, they clearly like each other, but because of circumstances, possibly including the fact that by the end of the movie they’ve known each other for something like forty-eight hours, they don’t even kiss. For O’Neal, this is proof that Boyega’s character is “remarkably anodyne” — unlike Billy Dee Williams as Lando in the original trilogy, he doesn’t even “bring it to the party.” In O’Neal’s universe of bodies, the frustration of Finn’s physical desire can only represent the frustration of his personal development. A power more pervasive than the Force — Hollywood racism — diverts Finn’s body from its Newtonian collision course with Rey’s. It distorts his natural subjectivity and reconstitutes him as a submissive character who desires nothing more than the good of the powers that control him.
But whatever we think about the existence or nonexistence of transcendent properties in our own world, Star Wars takes place in what can only be described as a moral universe — one that is quite literally divided into darkness and light. It’s not just his acts of bodily resistance against constitutive powers that make Finn a compelling character, it’s his moral resistance against the evil, cowardice, and selfishness that threaten to overtake him and the galaxy at large. For O’Neal, as for Foucault, participation in meta-narratives of that sort counts for very little and generally ends up as a fatal distraction from the vital work of self-care. (Foucault’s materialism, of course, is quite sophisticated and seeks to valorize a great deal of what we think of as moral experience. But it has no room for Star Wars’s stark vision of good and evil.)
The (broadly) Foucauldian approach to anti-racism emerges from premises with which we should at least be ready to sympathize. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in Between the World and Me, slavery represents the radical reduction of black people to black bodies, material resources that were reshaped into the physical foundations of an American republic which now disowns any special responsibility for their descendants’ welfare. Much of Coates’s work is devoted to demonstrating the extent to which 19th-century Southern whites conceived of slavery in brutally material terms. But what I dare say is Coates’s important historical depiction of the materialist conception of slavery becomes confusingly commingled with his own atheism, as in the memorable passage in which he echoes King’s famous assertion on the “arc of the moral universe”: “My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent towards chaos then concluded in a box.”
Coates’s renunciation of sanguine progressivism may be refreshing, but he leaves us with few resources with which to accept his own calls for justice in articles like “The Case For Reparations,” in which he argues that America owes blacks material restitution for the material robberies of slavery and subsequent forms of discrimination and disenfranchisement. His arguments are compelling, but they seem to appeal to a sense of transcendent, inter-generational justice that is foreign to his bleak universe of bodies in space, colliding, multiplying, rising, falling.
O’Neal and Gordon, in turn, leave themselves, and us, with few resources with which to appreciate Boyega’s character, or anything in Star Wars, or really any movies at all except the most brutal and hedonistic action flicks, and, I suppose, pornography. Given that O’Neal was writing in a lifestyle column and Gordon was delivering extemporaneous remarks, we can hardly blame them for blindly reflecting what has become one of the dominant forms of discourse of their time. Nevertheless, it’s the overwhelming prevalence of precisely this sort of talk that in July gave us the curious spectacle of many figures on the left insisting, contra Clarence Thomas, that slavery and slaveholders did in fact succeed in robbing black people of their innate dignity — not merely in ignoring it. If dignity is innate and non-material, as the Western human rights tradition claims, then the government could not have harmed it. But if it’s the sum of certain physical properties of a body, then we can readily imagine that the ravages of slavery might actually have wrested it from the slaves.
It remains the case that few people outside the academy take the Foucauldian view of reality. Star Wars is absurdly lucrative in part because George Lucas’s moral universe is enormously appealing to popular tastes. Materialism may have its consolations for a Coates or a Richard Dawkins, but most Americans believe in justice, dignity, and history. A movement that views everyone but the most doctrinaire materialists as suspect will probably struggle to take root in the public consciousness.