Finn and Other Underused Characters of Colour

I wasn’t going to write about Finn because I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say about him.  Then I thought, “Maybe the fact that I can’t think of anything to say is itself worth writing about.”

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.”
  – John Boyega

In my Rise of Skywalker review, I expressed disappointment at the diminished role of Finn in that movie.  Coming amid so many disappointments and frustrations, I didn’t focus much attention on it, but the more I read about the production and reception of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, the more my disappointment is turning to annoyance and then outrage at the way his character was handled.  So I’ve decided to take some time to describe my own personal reaction to Finn and my frustrations with his story.

From a structural and thematic perspective, the three leads of the The Force Awakens, Finn, Rey, and Poe, can be lined up against the three leads of the original trilogy.  Rey, like Luke, is the hero of the story, the backwater orphan who must learn the ways of the Force, take up the legacy of her forbears, and restore the Jedi.  Poe, like Leia, is a representative of the Rebellion who kicks off the story but then spends a long period off screen.  And Finn, like Han, is the outsider, the one who gets drawn into the fight between the First Order and the Rebellion and who stays, at least in part, out of loyalty to the other two.

There are two big differences, though.  One is that, whereas Han doesn’t show up till forty minutes into A New Hope, Finn is there right from the beginning.  The other is that Finn’s introduction raises questions about his origins and how he was able to break free from the First Order’s conditioning, questions for the later movies to explore.  Thus, Finn is presented as even more important than Han, more like a second hero along the lines of Sam in The Lord of the Rings, Scully on The X-Files, or Spock in the Star Trek reboot.

The number of new and elevated characters in The Last Jedi means that Finn gets a bit crowded out, but he still gets a decent amount of screen time and a story arc that allows him to develop as a character.  The movie focuses a lot on Rey and her relationships with Luke and Ben, but those arcs seem more or less resolved by the end.  And, though Finn and Rey spend most of the film apart, they are eventually reunited, having grown and learned from their separate experiences.  I assumed this would lead into a final installment that gave Finn’s story more prominence and also developed his relationship with Rey more fully.

That’s not what we get, though.  The Rise of Skywalker lets Finn connect with some fellow former Stormtroopers and offers some vague hints that he might be Force-sensitive, but it never explores his background in a meaningful way.  This is a huge waste of his potential.  It’s also the reverse of what happened with Finn’s counterpart in the original trilogy.  In A New Hope, Han is given a fairly inconsequential backstory about how he owes money to a mobster.  The sequel films could easily have dropped this plot thread without anyone noticing or caring.  Instead, Han’s debt catches up with him in The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi devotes its whole first quarter to getting him out of it.  In The Rise of Skywalker, Finn is given an intriguing introduction: the first Stormtrooper we’ve been allowed to see as a person.  His rebellion against the First Order suggests that either Stormtroopers in general are more capable of goodness than was previously thought or (as seems more likely) there’s something unique about Finn’s nature or background that makes him different from the others.  Either one of these possibilities would be fascinating to explore, but the series does nothing with either of them.  For the original trilogy, Han’s storyline is an impressive example of preservation of detail.  For the sequel trilogy, Finn’s storyline is an almost equally impressive (but in a bad way) example of a setup with no payoff.

It also fails to bring any meaningful resolution to his relationship with Rey.  Many hints have been dropped that Finn has romantic feelings for her, but he is never allowed to articulate those feelings, much less act on them.  In The Rise of Skywaker, he begins to tell her something, but he never has a chance to finish.  Much is made of this by the other characters, but we never get to find out what it was.  Was it a love confession?  Was it something else?  Either way, it seems stupid to leave this question hanging.

Now, as you can probably guess, I’m not one to insist a movie has to end with heterosexual union.  And I know a lot of people prefer to see Rey as asexual or aromantic.  But if you’re going to set up a potential romance between two characters, then you have to at least do something with it.  Even if that something is Rey rejecting Finn and Finn learning to live in the “Friend Zone”, or Finn deciding that he likes Rey but his True Love is actually Poe.  Those would at least be resolutions.  I have nothing against stories about heterosexual romance.  I have nothing against stories about homosexual romance, either.  Or romantic friendship.  Or unrequited love.  Or celibacy.  You know what I do have something against?  Introducing a plot thread and then not doing anything with it.

Remember in my Rise of Skywalker review, when I said there must have been a scene between Finn and Rey that got cut?  Well, what got cut from the movie may not be exactly what I imagined, but the point is you can see the hole left behind.  You can see where something is clearly missing in terms of both Finn’s story and his relationship with Rey.  And if you make a movie where people can see the hole left by a deleted scene, you probably shouldn’t have deleted it.

Even the platonic relationships are a failure.  For me, one of the most important aspects of the original trilogy has always been the Romance (in the literary sense) between Han, Luke, and Leia.  And, going into the sequel trilogy, it seemed like the movies were setting up a similar Romance between Finn, Rey, and Poe.  I spent the first two movies waiting for these three to start acting together as a trio.  But, even though they do plenty of adventuring together in The Rise of Skywalker, the interpersonal side of their relationship is missing.  Finn and Poe are just a comic duo.  Finn and Rey share a few brief moments but never get to the important conversation.  And all Rey and Poe do is fight.

The most joyful scene in Return of the Jedi is, of course, the ending: with the Empire defeated, Luke returns to the Ewok village, hugs Han and Leia, and joins in the revelry.  There’s a similar moment at the end of The Rise of Skywalker: amidst the celebrations of the First Order’s fall, Finn finds his friends, Rey and Poe, and the three wrap their arms around each other.  The resulting hug looks ten times more heartfelt than what happens in Return of the Jedi and, taken in isolation, would probably be one of my favourite movie hugs ever.  The problem is, there’s no set up.  The ending of Return of the Jedi works because Luke has reached the end of his arc: he has come into his Jedi identity and succeeded in saving his father’s soul.  And it also works because three movies have established his friendship with Han and Leia, who have also concluded their own, much more heteronormative arc.  The joy of the scene doesn’t come from any specific act of physical affection; it comes from the fact that they have all completed their respective journeys and are back with the people they love.  The same cannot be said for Finn, Rey, and Poe.  Since Poe and Rey have never established any real connection with each other, they’re not really a cohesive team.  More importantly, it isn’t the end of Finn’s arc.  Unlike Luke, Finn hasn’t really had an arc in this movie.  He hasn’t learned anything about himself, found his true purpose, or faced his worst fears.  He didn’t discover his true parentage, become a Jedi, or even play a crucial role in another character’s arc.  So the hug isn’t the joyful resolution to anything, and the moment feels wasted.

And I might not think anything of this in isolation.  But after reading John Boyega’s GQ interview, reading this blog post about the marketing and reception of Finn, and watching a bunch of YouTube videos like this one, it’s hard not to see this as part of a pattern involving characters of colour.  Asian character Rose is equally mistreated: having been built up as a Lando-style fourth hero in The Last Jedi, she’s barely in The Rise of Skywalker, and no mention is made of the kiss she shared with Finn.  The other underused major character, Poe, is played by a Latino actor.  And the more I notice things like this, the more I start asking questions about other works, like “Why was D.L. the least developed character on Heroes?”  Turns out, actor Leonard Roberts has some things to say about his experience on the show.

Look, Finn got shafted; that much is obvious.  And, yes, characters get shafted every day, and it’s not that big a deal because no one cares, outside of the fandom for that particular work.  But I think Finn’s significance goes beyond just the Star Wars fandom.  Finn was the black man who was introduced as the male lead to one of the biggest (and probably the single most influential) movie franchises of all time.  And that gave him a cultural significance that went beyond the movies themselves.

Remember when The Force Awakens came out, how excited we (and by “we” in this context I primarily mean women and girls) were about Rey?  How cool it was for us to finally see a strong female character leading the cast of a Star Wars movie?  To have an icon for all the little girls who dreamed of being adventure heroes, proof that Star Wars was no longer just for boys (as if it ever had been!)?  I’m guessing a lot of people felt the same way about Finn.  I’m guessing Finn was an icon for all the little black kids who dreamed of being adventure heroes, proof that Star Wars was no longer just for white people (as if it ever had been!)

Well, we got our Rey.  Whatever you think of her storyline or of where she ended up, Rey was consistently represented as the hero of the sequel trilogy, the girl from nowhere who became a Jedi and defeated an emperor.  And she remains a character that little girls will be able to look to and point to when they want to see themselves as heroes.  I don’t think the same can be said of black kids and Finn.  And that makes me really sad.

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