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An emotional speech, a rising star and a new wave of black protest: John Boyega seizes the megaphone

"Look, I don't know if I'm going to have a career after this, but f--- that," the actor said, tears streaming down his face.
Image: Actor John Boyega speaks to the crowd during a Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park on June 3, 2020 in London, United Kingdom.
Actor John Boyega speaks to the crowd during a Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park, London.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

LONDON — British actor John Boyega, known for his leading role in the Star Wars movies, thanked his fans at the weekend after an emotional speech he made on race — following the police killing of black man, George Floyd, — went viral last week.

With tears streaming down his face, the 28-year-old Hollywood star, who is black, told protesters gathered in London's Hyde Park: "I'm speaking to you from my heart."

"Look, I don't know if I'm going to have a career after this, but f--- that," he said in a video clip that was widely shared on both sides of the Atlantic.

His comment sparked a debate on principles and paychecks, and whether speaking out on race and politics could endanger his career and that of everyday people in their workplaces, as well.

Boyega, who was born in south London, thanked fans on his Instagram page on Sunday for the "love and support" he had received since his speech, which drew both criticism and praise.

"I'll continue to use my platform to fight against the injustices and inequalities in our community, no matter what," he wrote.

Boyega was speaking out in support of George Floyd, 46, who died when a white police officer in Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, pinned him to the ground and knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, while Floyd pleaded for both air and his mother.

Chauvin and three other police officers were charged last week with a series of offences in connection with Floyd's death.

"Today is about innocent people who were halfway through their process," the actor told the London crowd, during his rousing speech. "We don't know what George Floyd could have achieved."

Boyega's Hollywood career took off in 2015 when he landed the role of Finn in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Since then, he has collected multiple awards and featured in movies alongside Tom Hanks and Emma Watson.

His 2017 movie "Detroit," by the Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, was a hard-hitting examination of the racial protests that erupted in that city in 1967.

For schoolteacher Hafsa Hassan, who joined demonstrations in London this weekend, Boyega's words resonated.

"The air has changed ... It feels like the whole world has had enough now," said the 34-year-old.

"Everyone has got into formation."

Hassan, who co-hosts a podcast examining black female Muslim identity, told NBC News that Boyega, like other black celebrities, had a duty to use his public platform, regardless of any social or financial backlash.

"If you're black, it’s a political situation," she said.

"Just because you're a black celebrity doesn't mean you exist out of the confines of white supremacy ... It is our collective responsibility."

Image: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, left, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, left, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game.Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP file

In 1990, basketball player Michael Jordan was criticized by some for avoiding the political fray. When asked to support a black candidate running for a North Carolina senate seat, the sports-star famously quipped: "Republicans buy sneakers too," referring to his brands and endorsements.

But times are changing.

Jordan recently issued a statement on Floyd, declaring his sadness and anger at his death. Jordan's brand also pledged $100 million over the next decade to improve the lives of black people.

And in 2016, the American NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Last week, in a dramatic U-turn, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to players for not listening to their concerns on race.

"We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest," Goodell said.

President Trump tweeted on Monday that he hoped Goodell’s "rather interesting" statement wouldn't make it permissible for players to kneel during the anthem, "thereby disrespecting" the country and flag.

But Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, said black celebrities like Boyega and Kaepernick should now be wary of the commodification of race by corporations.

"They're just capitalizing on the moment ... It's a way of branding, virtue-signaling," Andrews told NBC News.

"To be honest, it's stuck in my throat a lot of this, all these institutions coming out ... let’s see if they’re actually going to start hiring people, treating people fairly."

Andrews said, in the past, those in the public eye who had spoken out on race, faced career blows and financial losses but that since Floyd's death, there seemed to be more "receptiveness" in society.

"It's profanity-laden, it's unapologetic," Andrews said of Boyega's stirring speech.

"Typically, that would definitely get him black-balled, but this seems to be different ... it might not cost him as much as it would have done."

Hollywood has not been immune to racial concerns.

Since 2015, #OscarsSoWhite has trended on social media each awards season, as the Academy faces public criticism for a lack of diversity.

The makers of Star Wars movies, Lucasfilm, expressed immediate support for Boyega.

"The evil that is racism must stop," the company said online. "We will commit to being part of the change that is long overdue in the world. John Boyega, you are our hero."

Boyega addressed the crowd passionately and joined demonstrators in the British capital as they marched towards parliament.

"If celebrities are seen talking about and taking action on an issue, it makes it easier for 'ordinary' people to do the same," said Marcus Ryder, who writes "Black On White TV," a blog.

"We all need to create an environment where we can be confident to speak our truths and not fear whether we have a job the next day," he added.

But for Los Angeles based media worker Stacy Hood, 41, it's not that simple.

"People are still afraid; there's always a power imbalance," said Hood.

"I don't think it translates, people might be more confident to protest — but at work, I don't think so."

Hood said when livelihoods were at stake, speaking out meant risking being sidelined by employers — from not being invited to after-work drinks to missing out on promotions.

Boyega's comments, although "amazing", she said, may not trickle down.

Image: Protest against the death of George Floyd, in London
Demonstrators wearing protective face masks and face coverings hold placards during a Black Lives Matter protest in London.John Sibley / Reuters

The black British poet and actor, Benjamin Zephaniah, is a veteran of speaking out against racial injustice and has often faced a public backlash for his opinions, he told NBC News.

Zephaniah, 62 — who has been the brunt of online scorn and fronted tabloids for publicly declining a royal honor from the Queen — said that, for his generation of black celebrities, speaking out on race was the norm.

"This is what we did, as soon as we got a voice, we used it politically," he told NBC News.

"We are still desperate for voices ... for people to listen to us."

Zephaniah said Boyega’s speech would encourage more black people to be heard, and would shift the public conversation in both Britain and the United States.

"When I see this new generation of black actors, athletes and footballers speaking up I go, 'Yeah, good on you,'" he said. "Sometimes people just need to tell it like it is and be angry."

Further protests are set to continue in Britain, where last weekend the statue of a slave owner was toppled into a river. It is unclear whether Boyega, who did not respond to a request to be interviewed by NBC News, will attend.

"I need you to understand how painful this s--- is," he said in his speech.

"I need you to understand how painful it is to be reminded every day that your race means nothing."