British-Nigerian actor John Boyega rose to prominence with his breakthrough performance as Finn in the recent Star Wars films like The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker. While his on-screen presence has established him as a leading light of Hollywood, it was during the George Floyd protests that Boyega emerged as an outspoken activist who refused to stay silent about the systemic injustices in the country. On his 29th birthday, we take a look at John Boyega’s career as a celebration of one of the most promising stars in the world right now.
Born in the Peckham district of London in 1992, Boyega found himself drawn to the performing arts from an early age. He started out by playing the role of a leopard in a school production and continued to participate in other plays while studying acting at Theatre Peckham. Although Boyega’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a minister, he recognised his son’s talents and remained supportive of his artistic spirit. At college, Boyega took up performing arts and media studies to gain more knowledge about his chosen discipline. He eventually dropped out to pursue a career in acting and started training at the Identity School of Acting in Hackney.
Boyega secured his first film role soon after, starring in the 2011 sci-fi film Attack the Block, where his performance earned him critical acclaim and several accolades. He followed it up with another moving performance in the same year, playing the part of a drug dealer in Junkhearts. It wasn’t long until he received widespread recognition as one of the upcoming performers in the country. Boyega continued to elicit praise from audiences and critics for his work in the 2012 film adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Half of a Yellow Sun. However, the highlight of his career came in 2014 when it was announced that Boyega would play the role of Finn in The Force Awakens, but he would have to endure several controversies along the way.
During the Chinese advertisement campaign for The Force Awakens, Disney edited the Chinese poster to reduce the visibility of Boyega even though he was a major character in the film. Disillusioned with the significance of his role in the sequel trilogy, Boyega spoke out against Disney in an interview with GQ last year: “What I would say to Disney is do not bring out a black character, market them to be much more important in the franchise than they are and then have them pushed to the side. It’s not good. I’ll say it straight up.”
“I’m the only cast member who had their own unique experience of that franchise based on their race,” Boyega added in the same interview. “Let’s just leave it like that. It makes you angry with a process like that. It makes you much more militant; it changes you. Because you realise, ‘I got given this opportunity but I’m in an industry that wasn’t even ready for me.’ Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper.’ Nobody else had that experience. But yet people are surprised that I’m this way. That’s my frustration.”
In 2017, Boyega’s career took a different turn when he appeared in Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the 1967 Detroit Riots: Detroit. He played the role of Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard who was wrongly accused of murder. The previous year, Boyega received several prestigious awards as proof of his growing influence, including the BAFTA Rising Star Award and the Trophée Chopard at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. In addition to his achievements in acting, Boyega successfully established his own production company, which went on to produce financial successes like Pacific Rim: Uprising in 2018. Continuing to build his strong portfolio, Boyega recently starred as Leroy Logan in Steve McQueen’s critically acclaimed anthology series Small Axe for which he won a Golden Globe as well as a Critics’ Choice Award.
After he delivered a powerful and honest speech at the Black Lives Matter protest in London last year, Boyega was fearful that his career would be over because he chose to speak truth to power, but his colleagues publicly expressed their support for his stance. Boyega is set to star in Chase Palmer’s upcoming film Naked Singularity, based on Sergio De La Pava’s eponymous novel. Given his meteoric rise to the top of the industry at such a young age, it is safe to say that Boyega’s best performances are yet to come.
It is imperative that we acknowledge the importance of young artists like Boyega in a problematic system like the film industry. Boyega is a brave voice who is trying to dismantle the prejudices of Hollywood from the inside. His criticism of how Star Wars turned Finn into a token black character is very valid, proving how Hollywood’s normative practices are symptomatic of a flawed framework. We have arrived at a pivotal moment right now, a moment of moral crisis which demands young artists like Boyega who are not afraid to express their opinions despite the possibility of being sidelined by major corporations.