'I ain’t waiting': John Boyega shows movie stars what political engagement looks like

His Hyde Park speech is a teachable moment in the history of race, racism and celebrity. He’s part of a vigorous, distinguished tradition

Already, the sneery backlash has begun – as so much Trumpism is founded on that keynote of faux-underdog self-pity in the face of supposedly all-powerful liberalism. When actor John Boyega, from Star Wars and Attack the Block, addressed protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in London’s Hyde Park, he said: “I’m speaking to you from my heart. Look, I don’t know if I’m going to have a career after this, but fuck that.” Social media exploded with knowing jeers and giggling gotchas about how, actually, Boyega had to protest, or else his career would suffer! People on Twitter who had shown no very obvious knowledge of or interest in the issue of civil rights or Hollywood politics before this, were suddenly intoxicated by their delicious paradox, and made Boyega’s comments the pretext of once again righteously smashing the 5G mast of liberal power.

I don’t think Boyega’s comments will have any effect on his career, either good or bad. The career of this excellent actor was in great shape before this and it will continue to be in great shape. But vehement protests of this high-profile kind are not quite as commonplace as you might assume. Although protests about George Floyd have been replicated in cities around the world, there is no evidence of compulsory virtue-signalling from actors. In the US, there have been protests from Jamie Foxx and Michael B Jordan and many others, but it’s naive to imagine agents in LA calling their clients and ordering them to join in. For every celebrity or public figure who speaks out, many more keep their heads down.

John Boyega’s words strike me as a gallant, passionate, heartfelt gesture of solidarity – which will have real impact. As a black British actor who has been given a platform by Hollywood, and who has spoken himself about his own sense of kinship between black British and African American communities, Boyega has used his public profile as a force for idealism and consciousness-raising. (Which the world of mainstream-punditry once praised when Princess Diana did it for landmine-clearance and Aids patients.) One note of support has come from the Star Wars brand itself: his decision to speak out sealed its corporate decision to associate itself with the protest.

His dramatic speech is part of a vigorous and distinguished tradition: Harry Belafonte performed at a benefit for Martin Luther King in 1966, and at many other occasions and civil rights demonstrations, and the white British singer Petula Clark infuriated racists by appearing on the same stage as him.

Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark in 1968.
Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark in 1968. Photograph: NBC via Getty Images

Vietnam galvanised Hollywood protesters including Jane Fonda, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. In recent years, George Clooney and his father, journalist Nick Clooney, were arrested in 2012 outside the Sudanese embassy in protest at the lack of humanitarian aid and the killing of Sudanese civilians. Danny Glover was arrested in 2010 outside a food service corporation in Maryland as part of a solidarity protest in support of the labour union there. There are many such events, and Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen have become protest veterans. Of course, these events have become understood as a species of media event: the bien-pensant star marches with a placard – many are irritated by what they see as an affectation; some more notice only the star’s appearance and do not remember what the cause was, but some will, like iron filings sticking to a magnet that’s been shaken.

It brings us back to John Boyega. His Hyde Park speech is a teachable moment in the history of race, racism and celebrity. It has become a truism to note how Hollywood now gives black British actors who can do American accents real career chances that might well not be available back in Blighty. Perhaps in the UK they would be stuck playing minor roles or bad guys or hopeless social-realist cases; in Hollywood they can get to be heroes, who take on the Evil Empire. That may well resonate with black British audiences and black Britons who wonder why the history of empire does not have the urgency of Tudors and Nazis in British schools or historical TV programmes, and they are impatient with people in this country who behave as if racism in Britain is a minor bad-apple affair compared to that in America. John Boyega has spoken out on racial injustice in his own person on his own terms and challenged all of this.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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