The Utah-based artist tells StarWars.com about his experience and why black representation matters.
There is hope in Finn’s eyes. The stormtrooper who escaped from the First Order and went on a secret mission for his friend, Poe Dameron, has become a full-fledged hero of the Resistance. And it’s that story, and the promise of other untold adventures yet to come, that inspired artist Mel Milton when he sat down to create a portrait of the character for Black History Month.
But there’s a complexity to Milton’s relationship with Finn, which is shared by other fans who saw the first look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015 and expected more from Finn’s journey. After two more films, Milton says he still doesn't feel Finn's journey was complete. Finn has shed his armor and his borrowed jacket to become his most authentic self, as seen in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Yet in this portrait, his eyes are focused in the distance, looking toward the horizon and all that lies ahead. "I myself enjoy this character but there’s also something that was missing for me," Milton admits to StarWars.com. “To be able to sit and say when we tell people stories, it’s when we overcome something. There's a moment where the main character overcomes a conflict and it’s like, 'That’s why I want to be that character! Because I have my own problems. I have my own things to overcome.’ And I think the potential of Finn was that."
Milton’s solution was to paint Finn at his best. “I moved him up a little bit, made him more proud to [be] a part of it because that’s how I imagine him to be,” he says. “But I wanted to portray him how I had him in my mind. That hope. Those dreams.”
Milton expected the portrait would generate much-needed conversation around the issue of black representation in media in general and in Star Wars in particular, “because I have that dialogue in myself," he adds. “This is where representation becomes important. I remember when they showed that trailer and he popped up and everybody was just like, Here it is! Here is this moment that someone like me is on the screen.’ And so I think it built up…especially in the Star Wars realm. To have the representation dialogue gives a perspective from someone who hasn't been represented very much to those who have been represented a chance to see beyond the labels and stereotypes that having little representation creates. Our country was built on diversity and our stories should be equally diverse to show that richness."
Growing up half black and half Filipino in a military family, Milton embraced his love of art and Star Wars. But it wasn’t until his family settled in San Diego that he began to understand how his experience differed from that of his primarily white neighbors in California. "I was picked on a lot because of 'not fitting in,' which lead me to carry a lot of anger growing up. I understand why I was angry now , but as a child it wasn't something that made sense. When I got older, then I started looking into this stuff. But as a kid you’re like, ‘Why don’t I fit in? What is that?’"
Overcoming homelessness and drug addiction in his teens that led him to drop out of high school in the 10th grade, Milton went to school to learn graphic design, then discovered his calling in the Artist’s Alley of San Diego Comic-Con. At 21, he planned to move to New York City to become an artist and animator, but made a stop in Utah where he had family and ultimately settled there, where he now has a wife and a young daughter.
Through his art, Milton says he can start conversations and express himself, bringing people joy and making them think. Prior to the release of his Finn portrait on the Star Wars and Disney social channels, Milton had been commissioned to create two Star Wars comic book covers -- one with an epic clash between Yoda and Darth Maul and another featuring Kylo Ren. But on his own social media, he frequently posts quick sketches and half-finished works. Along with the phrase “Keep on keeping on,” it’s a reminder to himself and to other aspiring artists to keep doing what they love even when it gets difficult or they don’t see themselves represented in the industry they aspire to work in.
“You want to destroy a civilization? Kill their art. Right?” he says. “Because it’s at the heart of the people. Storytelling is this thing that resonates with people.” As he notes in the post accompanying his Finn art, “Storytelling is at the heart of being human, and black representation in all media gives us the opportunity to feel like we are a part of the world we are living in. To be seen and heard more gives us a chance to feel like we are understood by those consuming our stories. Stories can show how a character can overcome struggles and conflict and to see someone like yourself in that story is a springboard for the imagination. Introduce that to an eager mind of a child and you inspire the next generation of story tellers and beyond.”
And for Milton, that’s the core of why black representation and the celebration of Black History Month and beyond is so important. “To have a time and a place to celebrate, embrace and showcase black creativity and beauty is something that gives me a sense that I am a part of something wonderful and to me that is something that should be shared and experienced,” he says. “When I was growing up, being an artist seemed impossible to me as it wasn't something that I saw or could nurture properly. I didn't have a lot of people like me to turn to for advice. In those early years, a lot of people were surprised I said I wanted to be an artist. I'm hopeful for those young artists now and look forward to seeing them bloom as more and more black stories are told."