J O H N. B O Y E G A
It is incredible that I now live in a world where a black guy from Peckham could be the lead actor in a top franchise film, The Star Wars. Boyega’s success cannot be attributed to growing up in luxurious Chelsea where his parents may have sent him to the best schools, nor from East London where you might associate his childhood with art and culture. Rather, he grew up in Peckham – one of London’s most notorious estates for it’s knife crime and gang culture. John Boyega’s success is not only an inspiration, but a testament in itself that growing up in that type of environment does not mean one will automatically amount to nothing. His success defies expectations.
The “Me too” Effect
Boyega’s success hit close to home because growing up, I remember my mum dragging me to Peckham’s high street (shopping center) every Saturday to buy meat and spinach for the Nigerian stew she would be making. Although now gentrified, Peckham was (and still is) the place I sometimes go to buy hair extensions for my braids. Knowing that Boyega more than exceeded societal expectations by becoming the Star Wars lead and Not the extra who’s face we acknowledge for two frames because #representationmatters is inspirational. His existence creates this “me too effect” that takes the level of possibility and achievement to a whole new level for anyone who can relate to him.
Boyega’s journey to stardom began at the age of 9 when Teresa Early (the artistic director of Theatre Peckham), invited him to join Theatre Peckham. At the time, Boyega recalled that his dad had asked her, “Will acting make you a bad person?”
Later on in his teens, Boyega joined the Identity School of Acting in Hackney run by his mentor, Femi Oguns. John describes Femi as, “My agent, my manager, my best friend, my brother…who has repped (represented) me since I was 16”. He continues to expresses gratitude for the school who trained him and then put him out in the industry. This Summer, he returns to his roots on stage. He plays the titular character Woyzeck, in Georg Büchner’s powerful classic of the same name.
Director Joe Murphy who cast Boyega in the play because of his following said, “We’re excited about the Old Vic crowd and John’s crowd coming together.” And come together they did. On the last night Woyzeck showed at the Old Vic theatre, the Peckham massive turned up to support “our boy”.
The mixed demographic Murphy set out to attract was delivered and Boyega did not disappoint. I felt the ‘stage presence’ others had described, and it was incredible. John hadn’t performed on stage in more than 8 years and his return to the stage must have weighed heavy on him for him to pull off a performance. In fact, Paul Taylor (The Independent) describes his acting as having “an exceptionally powerful presence… until deep emotional vulnerability turns his raw need to be needed by Marie [his stage girlfriend] into obsession.”
Being lead in a London West End production is a big deal. However, being lead in a West end production at the Old Vic Theatre is a bigger deal. It means that film and theatre-makers recognise the power of the market he brings. In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens went on to become the third highest grossing film after Avatar and Titanic. At the time of its release, Vue cinema chain sold 10,000 tickets in the first 90 minutes while Odeon sold tens of thousands ‘before lunchtime.’
In a production that wasn’t so well received overall, critics agree that John is “compelling to watch” and was the stand out performer.
Joe Cornish noticed him during his performance in Category B because of his stage presence. “He didn’t say much but he had a real presence and really expressive face. He drew the eye, even though he wasn’t saying much.”
Cornish cast him as Moses in Attack The Block (2011), John’s big screen debut. Once again Boyega’s stage presence launched him into a new phase of his career. JJ Abrams later bumped into John in LA, and promised to cast him “in something” after watching Attack The Block. 9 months of auditioning later, “something” turned out to be Star Wars.
“The Star Wars” guy
His presence is clear off stage and off screen too as an old friend we recognise. He never holds back. With moments such as taking Harrison Ford to eat pounded yam on London’s Old Kent Road, the firm backlash he gave to Samuel L Jackson on his negative comments about Daniel Kaluuya’s role in the Get Out movie, turning up at the O2 and Brixton Cinemas to surprise Star Wars fans, to His cat’s name being Oluwalogan – Is it necessary to say more?
When Star Wars finally arrived, Peckham came out to represent. #johnboyega was trending on Twitter and Peckhamplex was packed. One fan tweeted,“Gonna watch Star Wars in @Peckhamplex cos I wanna hear audience participation when man draws for the light sabre!”
All that he has achieved so far is only the beginning. We are looking forward to seeing John in Detroit, directed by Katherine Bigalow (Hurt Locker) later this year. And in “Pacific Rim: Uprising” with John co – starring Scott Eastwood next year. Now for John, being on stage or onscreen is not enough. He understands the business he’s in, the real influence is in running things off stage, off camera. Last year, John set up Upperroom Entertainment with Femi Oguns. The production company is currently working with Legendary Entertainment to co-produce the second Pacific Rim movie.
I have high expectations of John’s career. No matter what he does I’ll count on the Peckham massive turning up to show their love and support. For all our claims of coming out to repp him, in reality, he repps us. Showing us what is possible if you simply commit to doing all you do with presence. Shout out to the westend audiences and industry heavy weights too, who didn’t allow the “Peckham” on John’s cv blind them to his insane talent.
By Adesola Ajilogba