I recently saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Twice. (Don’t judge my ways.) The first time was at The Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, California with my group of friends. It was an experience—akin to interactive unofficial showings of The Labyrinth or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was opening weekend when I saw The Force Awakens. Lines formed with fans all waiting to be whisked away to Jakku and beyond. All awaiting the magic. All shivering in the cold huddled together, with nothing but our comfortable strangeness and common appreciation for the Star Wars film series (or most of the series) to keep us warm.
I was intimidated by the crowd, at first when I noticed it from the parking lot. I am often intimidated by crowds, but I know how to “woosah” through it in most cases, especially when I know darkness and mental isolation lies on the other side of social interaction. Everyone with whom I went was personally trusted, and I was standing in an overall line of fellow geeks.
With just the title screen, applause erupted throughout the theater. And the applause returned when old and familiar faces appeared on the screen. Laughter followed Finn’s verdant and heroic actions—his journey into humanity. I appreciated seeing him and Rey as the new stars of the series, and what it meant to see them both being allowed those roles in the series.
Aside from Billy Dee Williams from the original three, the ever-recognized voice of James Earl Jones, and Samuel L. Jackson in the prequels, the series has been a little lacking of black faces. I will admit I was a little upset when I realized Lupita Nyong’o was not going to be wielding a light-saber as a Jedi in the flesh, but her character was still imperative to the climax of the film.
The second time I saw The Force Awakens was in Fredericksburg, Virginia—my hometown. The theaters in town are placed along the borders of the city so the densely populated counties can have easy access to the silver screens and overpriced snacks. You see the usual city/county ideological divide here, as you see in most places, the counties are naturally more conservative and homogenously whiter than the inhabitants within the cities—the city in subject being Fredericksburg, Virginia.
We have our problems. We have our Jim Crow sympathizers, those who choose not to interact with certain races and cultures, we have our outright racists; but we also have a double-digit percentage of black citizens, and a noticeable and rising number of Latino/a residents. For a growing southern city—that many still consider a town (despite the title of city within the county seat)—we are diverse—and mostly proud of it.
Even when the Confederate Flag sympathizers found their way from their usual protesting grounds in front of the Stafford and Spotsylvania Courthouses to the Fredericksburg General District Courthouse—most townspeople knew they were not from the confines of our liberal college city. Spotsylvania County in particular has been in recent news for its intolerance of its Muslim inhabitants and taxpayers. Both Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg are names repeated during Civil War units in history courses across the United States, and there are a lot of denizens in the area who wish to keep that history alive and represented in the rampant defense of the Confederate Flag.
This theater in which I saw The Force Awakens in particular has been one that has always given me a dis-ease when I have patronized it in the past. It serves the Caroline County, known for its discrimination against the interracial Lovings family in 60’s, for whom we’re thankful for the eradication of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, border; and Spotsylvania County, the death place of Kunta Kente, border to Fredericksburg. I recollect seeing full sized 3’ x 5’ Confederate Flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks several times in the parking lot of that theater in the past, as clear as I see the flags flying now in protest to the recent most expressions towards it. There is something about the flag, no matter who wields it, that will trigger feelings of being unwelcome in a space in my memory. It is a statement to the possibility that one may want to bring harm to the black body. I don’t think anyone can deny that with its linking to the infamous KKK. Something becomes pronounced when one sees racist artifacts flying from the cars of patrons of the same theater, and then noticing the lack of blacks and brown faces in the films on which they too paid monies to view.
I felt an extra sense of pride when I saw black faces on the screens in that theater, and I felt a heavy absence when black faces were not be found on the screens at all. The initial Lord of the Rings film, I recall viewing in that theater, trips to Narnia, all made me feel my flesh—in that theater—it was the first place in which I realized that Hollywood had a problem with me because of the way I looked, and while sitting amongst faces that did not look like my own; and realizing that some of those faces did not want my black body in the same auditorium.
A main component for the upkeep of movie theater culture is the immediate creation of community. When one is sitting in that room in the dark with strangers, one is trusting that those other persons in that space have no ill wishes towards another’s existence, and that they just want to have a good time at the movies just like everyone else in the theater. But something is twisted when black patrons of public spaces, in some communities, are forced to overlook such artifacts and just trust that their own bodies and their family member’s bodies are safe from harm whether physical or vocal in those spaces. Then there is the scarier fact of realizing that there was not any semblance of your race represented on the screen. There is no refuge, no comfort, and reason to not think this way, because instinct and history are the causes for this fear and discomfort.
This time around in that theater there was comfort in seeing Finn on the big screen in front of a whitewashed audience, and there was a silence during moments that were audibly adored during the Oakland viewing—this silence can be accredited to cultural differences—I will admit that. Oakland even has its own race issues with gentrification, racial profiling, and cultural illiterates; and there were the noticeable guffaws that followed the first utterance of nigger during my viewing of the Hateful 8 at The Grand Lake Theater. I cannot deny that Oakland doesn’t have racist and ignorant inhabitants—no one can. Just like I cannot deny that I have hometown comfort in Fredericksburg, so my comfort in that place could very well be another person’s “let’s get out of here before the Shirley Jackson actions near the climax.”
But no matter what part of the United States I am in, there is a comfort in seeing black heroes on movie screens, and there is a dis-ease when I leave theaters without seeing any representation of myself on the screen, and that absence is felt even more when historic racism is slapped on top like a pickle on a sundae. There is a comfort when Hollywood does the right thing and helps minorities tear down barriers and have conversations on race and gender—does the right thing such as interjecting young black males in positive lead roles when young black males are inhumanely being killed in the streets. There is comfort in seeing female lead heroes when women are still being denied equal pay, and access to and respect within both the actual and fictional sciences.
I re-experienced past moments of discomfort in that theater “back home”. In those moments when I did not hear the audible expressions for Finn and Rey’s developing friendship amongst the audience in Fredericksburg. My argument is just as superficial as that, because the trauma is tied to that space, in the homogenously casted films which I viewed there; and being in that space while viewing films that I imagined in my head while reading them books totally differently than the ways in which Hollywood casted their characters for films—seeing them rinsed cleaned of my own imagination and existence.
Yet I still went on those journeys in those darkened rooms, only to leave and see the reality of lifted trucks and flying flags—two truths in one day in the life of a black youth in the 80s, 90s, aughties, and this has to stop. There was a moment of comfort in seeing Finn on the screen in that space, but I cannot help to remember those moments when Finn wasn’t there. We need to declare the perpetual presence of Finn and Finn-like heroes in films. We need to fight to see more heroes like Rey to save the day during those impossible moments that take place in the infinite worlds of science fiction.
I assume the black actors choosing to attend the Academy Awards this year, regardless of the vocalized boycotts from Jada Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee, Quincy Jones, among others—and Chris Rock choosing to host the event, hopefully with an arsenal of banter to shine light on the lack of diversity—will feel the way I felt in that small city theater the night when I heard a voice casually refer to the ticket taker as an “apish mother-fucker.” Maybe those actors will, in ways, feel the way I felt being a patron at that movie theater, and on many occasions not even being able to find escape from the reality that made the films I viewed lacking of diversity in the first place.
We have gone past the age of Selma, the actual event, to Selma the film depicting the actual event with actors playing the roles of actual black heroes, and those actors are still not reaping the awards from the historically white institution that is Hollywood. I get it, the film industry started during World War I to brainwash citizens into having a sense of nationalism, and blacks and browns just did not fit into America’s ideas of nationalism that close to the abolishment of slavery. But there’s no excuse in these days of David Oyelowo, Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, Viola Davis, Audra McDonald, Michael Ealy, Naomie Harris, and many magnificent others.
When I put the final punctuation on this, I will still just be an observant moviegoer in this scenario; but what does it feel like to be the black actor? Is the trauma that they feel in the Dolby Theater the same as the trauma I experienced in that small local theater “back home”?
Vernon Keeve III has been published in Ishmael Reed’s Konch online magazine, received the Zora Neale Hurston Award from Naropa University, and was a featured reader at the SF Jazz Poetry Festival of 2014. He earned his M.F.A. from the California College of the Arts, and a M.A. in teaching from Bard College. He is a high school English and history teacher for the Oakland Unified School District. Look out for his book of prose and poetry Conversations with a Southern Migrant from Nomadic Press in Spring 2016.