As the newly released teaser trailer for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens, the appearance of John Boyega, one of the fresh faces who will be introduced into the "Star Wars" universe in the film, is meant to startle. When his head pops onto the screen in front of rippling sand dunes, he is wearing an imperial storm trooper's body armor but no helmet, and he appears to be in a state of distress.
To some viewers, though, what has been most startling is that Mr. Boyega is black.
The Twitter hashtag #blackstormtrooper began. Online message boards started buzzing.
"So why is there a black storm trooper in the new Star Wars movie?" asks one thread on the boards of gaming site ign.com. "They're supposed be all white. I'm tired of this political correctness [expletive]."
In the comments beneath the YouTube video, others accused filmmaker J.J. Abrams of "pandering to the politically correct-obsessed social justice warrior types." A number of the comments used racial epithets and accused the filmmakers of "race-mixing."
In some cases, the debate was "Star Wars" nerds being nerds. Are all storm troopers still clones of Jango Fett (played by a Polynesian actor), as was laid out in "Episode II: Attack of the Clones"? If so, how could there be a black one? Or is Boyega's character just pretending to be a storm trooper?
Such are the arcane online arguments over "Star Wars" canon. Yet to some observers, some of these debates have become proxies for the fractious state race relations so conspicuously on display in Ferguson, Mo., this past week. As one (presumably black) poster commented on a thread in the "blackladies" section of Reddit.com: "Not even in a fictional universe are we allowed to exist to them."
He suggests racial tensions in America have worsened in recent years, beginning with the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, when an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain in 2012. The #blackstromtrooper comments "are indicative of just how polarized the discussion has become."
This type of outpouring often happens when a pop-culture icon is altered, say Allan Austin and Patrick Hamilton, professors at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., who team teach a course on race and comic book heroes. In the "Thor" franchise, which is set in a world inhabited by Norse gods, fans pushed back against the casting of Idris Elba, an African, in a key role. They said that the source material was being violated for political correctness.
“Whenever you have racial changes, you get these sorts of reactions, unfortunately,” says Professor Hamilton.
The material can serve as an entry point for a more important discussion, adds Professor Austin. “Both of these situations, the 'Star Wars' trailer as well as Ferguson protests, are about similar issues, namely the dehumanized views of a racial group,” he says.
The inclusion of a black character can be a kind of tokenism that needs to be the beginning, not the end of the discussion, he says. "This points to a larger problem of racial issues where the solution gets reduced to mere inclusiveness."
By all accounts, Boyega and fellow African actress Lupita Nyong'o will be more than tokens in "Episode VII." And most of the comments on the online boards are overwhelmingly in support of the casting. That is one of the redeeming functions of social media, says Mr. Hutchinson.
"Even in the most vile bigoted stuff online, there is always someone to step up and challenge it," he says. "There will always be a counter to whatever anyone says that is shrill or bigoted."
The two Misericordia professors suggest that popular culture is a good hook to start racial conversations in the younger generation. "Many of these kids feel they have had the race conversation over and over," says Austin. "But one of the nice things about comic book characters is they are simple on the surface, but can lead into a more complicated discussion."
The fracas over a popular film "just adds another layer to the conversation about race that needs to happen across America," says Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. in Los Angeles. Dialogue is "the only way we can begin to heal in a country still divided by race."