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Peckham Lad John Boyega Hits The Stars in The Force Awakens

Courtesy of www.guardian.com
Written by Hermione Hoby
13.12.15

 

JohnBoyega_StarWars

John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Photograph: Film Frame/AP

The two things happened in a tight 90 seconds. First, there was ​the matter of pop cultural history being made. When Lucasfilm released a teaser trailer last month for The Force Awakens, the hugely anticipated seventhStar Wars movie that fans have waited a decade for, every detail in short duration seemed to become world talking points. In its first week the trailer generated a record-breaking 58.2 million views. Now, it’s been watched more than 75 million times.

It opens with a shot of desert and the tense violins of John Williams’s score. Then, in an epically laryngitic voiceover, come the words: “There has been an awakening … have you felt it?” And with them up pops the first face and the first character those 75 million pairs of eyes saw: a black guy, dressed in Stormtrooper uniform, sweating profusely and looking hunted.

Within minutes, the hashtag #blackstormtrooper was trending on Twitter. It brought with it the kind of diehard, narrow-minded nerdery that postulated a Stormtrooper shouldn’t be played by a black man because this fictional fighting force were all cloned from one, lighter-skinned, human descendant. It came, too, with even uglier comments, the kind that were unconscionably racist.

The second thing, then, that happened in those 90 seconds was the catapulting of John Boyega, a 23-year-old, largely unknown actor from south London, to a level of galactic fame. But Boyega seems to have been fazed neither by the size of the film franchise nor by the colour of his skin being a talking point on online message boards. In the wake of the first trailer, he issued a cheerful response over Instagram by posting a still of himself in Stormtrooper uniform and a short, celebratory message that ended with: “To whom it may concern… Get used to it :)”

Boyega had played just one lead film role before he was cast in the biggest franchise in the history of movies. This was the 2011 cult favourite, Attack the Block, a sci-fi comedy in which he was Moses, a south London teenager battling an alien invasion on a housing estate. Among the film’s admirers was the American critic Roger Ebert, who singled out Boyega’s performance by praising director Joe Cornish for making such a “fortunate discovery”.

It was another eminent fan, however, who changed the course of Boyega’s life. JJ Abrams, the writer-director-producer most famous for his work on the American TV series Lost, also saw the movie and loved it. When Abrams and Boyega met shortly afterwards, the director told him it was his favourite movie of 2011 and: “We’re going to get you in something.” Which Boyega took with a pinch of Hollywood salt. Lots of people were telling him they loved him in the film; he didn’t actually believe any of them meant much by it.

But then, four years later, Abrams did indeed cast him in “something” and that something happened to be Star Wars. The decision came only after putting Boyega through an intensive, seven-month auditioning process.

“It was hard,” Boyega told Time Out London last week. “And rightly so. If I bought a company for $4bn, I’d make sure those actors were on point!” (Disney bought Lucasfilm for that enormous sum in 2012.)

On the day that Abrams finally contacted him, Boyega was at a friend’s house in Catford, south London, playing video games. Wishing to appear insouciant, he told the director that he was on his way to an art gallery. Abrams told him to get in a cab to a Mayfair restaurant and Boyega did, thereby draining his bank account dry on the £70 fare. Once there, he heard the words: “John, you’re the new star of Star Wars,” and at some point in the next few moments it may have occurred to Boyega that he’d never have to worry about a cab fare again.

Some analysts have predicted that the movie will be the first ever to gross more than $3bn at the box office and the film is also expected to generate $100m in advance ticket sales alone. For Boyega, however, the real thrill seems to be not the big bucks but the glorious geekery of, for example, wielding a lightsaber for the first time, seeing himself cast as an action figure, or getting to stroke a Wookiee – the furry, humanoid creatures whose most famous member is Chewbacca, Han Solo’s sidekick.

Star Wars has been a pop-cultural phenomenon since the first, eponymous 1977 movie that made household names of three unknown actors: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) and Harrison Ford (Han Solo). As the mythology grew so dense and enormous, it demanded more detail and so the original movie came to earn the subtitle, Episode IV – A New Hope. Despite being born 15 years after this first instalment, Boyega has been happy to let the world know that he is, in the words of one magazine profile, “the galaxy’s biggest fanboy” and that he grew up watching the movies and earnestly collecting its merchandise.

Boyega was born in Peckham, south London, to a dad who was a minister and a mum who worked with disabled children; both immigrated from Nigeria before their son was born. He has described his childhood as “fantastic” and has talked about how much he loved performing at both Westminster City school and then at South Thames College, where he was a performing arts student. Nonetheless, he has had to shut down a certain narrative that some corners of the British press have been keen to push. When one newspaper ran a profile of the actor that described him growing up “on the tough streets where Damilola Taylor died”, Boyega slammed it in a succinct tweet: “Inaccurate. Stereotypical. NOT my story.” Boyega never knew Taylor, the 10-year-old boy who came from Nigeria and was stabbed to death in a Peckham stairwell, and the description of “gangs, guns and knives” didn’t chime with, for example, his memory of performing at the Royal Albert Hall when he was 13.

In more progressive and optimistic quarters, the “awakening” that the trailer’s voiceover refers to has been interpreted as the enlightenment of diversity – the slow and overdue change that finally seems to be coming over Hollywood. One writer characterised the original Star Warsmovies as “largely just a bunch of white American dudes fighting a bunch of white British dudes”, and it’s bewildering to remember that their only female character was Princess Leia, who spent a lot of time bikini-clad and bound by Jabba the Hutt. In this seventh movie, Carrie Fisher reprises her role as the newly named General Leia and is joined by a female lead, Daisy Ridley, a 23-year-old British newcomer, who plays the main role of Rey. And then of course there’s Boyega, who wears his status as some kind of champion of casting lightly.

Days ago, he was asked by the New York Times how he felt when some threatened to boycott the movie simply because it featured a black man as a Stormtrooper: “It made me feel fine. I’m grounded in who I am, and I am a confident black man. I wasn’t raised to fear people with a difference of opinion. They are merely victims of a disease in their mind. To get into a serious dialogue with people who judge a person based on the melanin in their skin? They’re stupid, and I’m not going to lose sleep over people.”

In another recent interview, he spoke about how the franchise now being “reflective of the world we live in today is fantastic”. He then joked: “Apart from the Wookiees and the green people. We’re giving them attention just in case that happens. You never know where the melanin is gonna go. It could go pink. You never know.”

He was also light-hearted about getting recognised. As he told the New York Times, people “know where this forehead comes from. They see it, and they go, ‘Hmm, looks like that Stormtrooper that’s sweating all the time.’”

Thanks to the high level, watertight secrecy that Abrams has insisted on, there aren’t many more details than that sweaty forehead. We do know that Boyega’s character is called Finn, that he’s a disaffected Stormtrooper who’s defected from his unit and that he’s in possession of the lightsaber that Luke and Anakin Skywalker owned before him.

Everything else will have to wait until the film launches on Friday. By which point the most overexcited fan may well be the star himself. As Boyega said recently: “If you hear someone at the back of the cinema screaming and laughing and crying, it’s probably me.”

THE BOYEGA FILE

Born John Boyega, 17 March 1992 in Peckham, south London, to Nigerian parents. He trained at east London’s Identity School of Acting.

Best of times Before his Star Wars “moment”, being chosen as one of Screen International’s UK Stars of Tomorrow 2011. More recently, being told by JJ Abrams that he was the new star of Star Wars: “Everything froze for a moment.”

Worst of times The racist online responses that followed the movie’s first teaser trailer in which Boyega appeared as a Stormtrooper.

He says “All the films I’ve done have had a secret commentary on stereotypical mentalities. It’s about getting people to drop a prejudiced state of mind and realise, ‘Oh shit we’re just watching normal people.’”

They say “All I know is John Boyega does an extraordinary job in the movie. The people who are complaining about that probably have bigger problems than, ‘there’s a black Stormtrooper’.”
​JJ Abrams

David Oyelewo Undoubted Shining Star

By Leslie Byron Pitt
Written: 04.03.15

 

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In the last five years, the likes of Idris Elba (Thor), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle), John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) have called attention to the wealth of black British actors making strong waves within the Hollywood system. 2014 helped continue the trend, with films such as Interstellar, A Most Violent Year and Selma highlighting the remarkable talents of David Oyelowo.

Oyelowo was born in Oxford, 1976 to Nigerian parents who both worked within the transport sector. At age 6, Oyelowo relocated to Nigeria and during his time there; Oyelowo discovered that his family was of royal lineage. He returned to England seven years later. Quoted in his BBC bio for Spy drama Spooks, it was during his Theatre Studies A-levels at City and Islington College, in which Oyelowo was inspired by a teacher to continue his dramatic pursuits.

David Oyelowo started his stage career in 1999 with the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing in roles for plays such as Oroonoko and Volpone. His performance as Henry VI in 2001 had him awarded with Ian Charleson Award for Best Newcomer in a Classic Play. This landmark of colour blind casting, caused controversy in some media circles. In the book The Henry VI plays (by Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Carol Chillington Rutte), Oyelowo states on remembering a Daily Telegraph article which complained such casting “opens us to ridicule”. A Mail on Sunday Piece remarks: “I’m not sure you could have a black actor playing a monarch with such a familiar face, but with Henry VI it’s fine because your average theatre goer starts with a pretty blank slate.” A hilarious remark considering the west’s history of white washing minority characters (Laurence Olivier in Othello anyone?).

It is this role of Henry, however, that not only convinced his father that David had found correct career choice, such criticisms unsurprisingly foreshadow and consolidates Oyelowo’s feelings of strong roles for black British talent. The press interviews for Selma have highlighted Oyelowo’s forthright opinions on how race in the arts is viewed. That Oyelowo made his mark with this portrayal, only highlights his considerable talents further.

David Oyelowo became more of a household name due to his stint as doomed case officer; Danny in the BBC’s praised espionage series, Spooks (2002 – 2011). Playing alongside the likes of Matthew Oyelowo_SpooksMacfadyen and Keeley Hawes, Oyelowo spent two years on the highly popular show before bowing out to pursue other projects. Oyelowo found himself in leading roles such as Matt Wellings, in the critically acclaimed drama Five Days, in which he won the 2007 award for Winner of Best Actor in a Mini Series or Motion Picture for Television, Golden Satellite Awards. In 2008 he was cast alongside British actors Colin Salmon and Idris Elba in the Anthony Minghella directed pilot of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The Botswanan set show, while award winning and enjoyed, unfortunately, never obtained a second series.

Oyelowo also starred in the 2009 television mini-series Small Island. An adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel, which focuses on the diaspora of Jamaican immigrants during and after World War II. Oyelowo was nominated for Best Actor at the BAFTA television awards in 2010, for his portrayal of the unlucky but noble Gilbert Joseph.

Despite finding minor cinematic roles in the likes of Derailed (2005) and The Last King of Scotland (2006), it was 2011 which marked out new and exciting territory for the young actor. Oyelowo was cast as the selfish antagonist, Steven Jacobs in the surprise blockbuster hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Often recognised as more noble characters, the role of Jacobs allowed Oyelowo to not only star in one of the biggest hits of the summer, but also allowed him to expand his range in a much pulpier type of cinematic feature.

2011 also saw Oyelowo take a small role as Preacher Green, in the successful civil rights drama, The Help. In Red Tails, the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, Oywlowo was allowed to broaden his range further with the “physically demanding” role of 1st Lt. Joe “Lightning” Little. In an article for blackflix, Oyelowo was quick to not only comment on how proud he was being able to take a role that belongs in the history books due to the Airmen’s role in desegregation of the American Armed Forces. Oyelowo also noted on the shortage of opportunities of an all-black leading cast, being able to star in a movie, which didn’t feel like a niche feature, solely aimed at the African American audience. Hollywood mogul George Lucas financed and produced the film himself after gaining no support from the Hollywood studio system, but in the end the film didn’t set the international box office alight, however, Red Tails helped reinforce Oyelowo’s board range of talent to Hollywood.

It was in 2012 in which Oyelowo, first worked with Selma director Ava DuVernay, in the Independent drama, Middle of Nowhere. Gaining strong reviews and positive recognition at the Sundance Selma_Ava_OyelowoFestival, the film was a chance for DuVernay to work with an actor she had long been a fan of. Oyelowo’s role in Middle of Nowhere found itself sandwiched in-between releases of Lee Daniels’ Southern Gothic tale The Paperboy and Steven Spielberg’s historical biopic Lincoln. Oyelowo’s small yet poignant role in Lincoln, as Ira Clark perhaps has one of the most resonant moments of the film. In his most touching scene, the young Clark is reciting one of Lincoln’s most famous addresses, to help highlight his knowledge and admiration of the man. The scene itself is one of the film’s strongest moments.

His role as Louis Gaines in 2013’s The Butler gained Oyelowo even more recognition (NAAC image award for best supporting actor in a Motion picture), however, it was 2014 that has proved to be the one of the highest peaks of David Oyelowo’s career. The actor found him starring in a small but droll role as an ignorant school principle in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as well as a cagey and corrupt DA in the subtly engaging A Most Violent year. Of course the crowning achievement is Oyelowo’s complex and rousing portrayal of Dr Martin Luther King in Selma. Despite his Golden Globe nomination, many found his lack of nominations to be a snub.

However Oyelowo’s cool, calm demeanour when approaching his role of King in interviews, as well as his upfront and intelligent engagement about race and talent range of black British actors, show that his words alone may provide more inspiration for young black actors, than an award. For Oyelewo we believe…. the sky’s the limit.