Jar Jar jarring
June 14, 1999
From Michael Okwu
NEW YORK (CNN) -- He's a wide-eyed, floppy-eared amphibian with a speech impediment. Jar Jar Binks, a member of the Gungan tribe from the planet Naboo, is the first breakout character from "The Phantom Menace." He's even made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Some moviegoers say they think he's hysterical.
"I thought it was funny," says one man. "You know, a comedic aspect of the movie."
Another movie-goer agrees. "I mean, like the way he moved was really funny."
Others -- well, lots of people find him annoying.
"You know, he kind of got on my nerves, and you couldn't understand what he was saying," one person complains. "You missed whatever comedy points they were trying to make with him."
"His voice was annoying," adds another.
That appears to be an understatement. Internet sites have been set up just to complain about him. There's even a song calling for his demise with the lyrics: "Jar Jar Binks must die. Jar Jar Binks must die."
Besides being annoying, other aspects of Jar Jar's character proved particularly bothersome for some people.
"There was something about his demeanor that suggested blackness and that suggested, more specifically, stereotypical blackness," says Michael Dyson, professor of African-American studies at Columbia University.
The notion that Jar Jar Binks is an offensive stereotype has spread quickly on the Internet. Deja.com has seen over 80,000 messages posted about Jar Jar, some from outraged viewers deriding him as a "classic coon stereotype," "a combination pimp and Barney" or "the star of 'Sambo Wars.'"
The issue has even been raised in newspaper reviews. From The Globe And Mail: "Jar Jar has a loose-jointed amble of a black drag queen." The Wall Street Journal called the character, "a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit." (Fetchit was the actor who critics say personified negative black stereotypes in the 1920s and '30s.)
The stereotype was obvious to Dyson.
"I think that I immediately knew that there were some stereotypical elements to this character that suggested black culture -- the way he spoke, the way he walked," Dyson recalls. "Even when he said 'meesa'... taken very quickly, it could be like "massa, massa."
Lucasfilm issued a statement saying, "There is nothing in 'Star Wars' that is racially motivated. 'Star Wars' is a fantasy movie set in a galaxy far, far away. To dissect this movie as if it has some direct reference to the world we know today is absurd."
And actor Ahmed Best, who was the voice for Jar Jar, vehemently denies racist claims against the character.
"Not only do I think that has no validity, I think it's really stupid for anyone to put their own prejudices and their own homophobia on a complete fantasy movie," Best says.
The feeling persists among other observers -- and not just concerning Jar Jar. Some find the Gungan oddly suggestive of a primitive African tribe.
"The leader of Jar Jar's tribe is a fat, bumbling buffoon with a rumbling voice, and he seems to be a caricature of a stereotypical African tribal chieftain," Dyson says.
There are more claims that it isn't just black culture Lucas is offending with his characters. In a recent article for the online magazine "Slate," Bruce Gottlieb discussed Watto, the hooked-nosed, winged creature who owns the young slave, Anakin Skywalker.
"Even in a galaxy far, far away," he writes, "the Jews are apparently behind the slave trade."
The article even provides a link to what they call Watto's Yiddish accent.
The Anti-Defamation League, however, disagrees. It issued a statement saying it doesn't find the Watto character anti-Semitic.
Yet there's more. Steve Murray, a film reviewer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, writes: "It's questionable that Lucas has two of the shadier alien species sounding Chinese and Middle Eastern."
"(Jar Jar) seems to owe something to Disney characters. If you go back and look at cartoons from the '30s and the '40s and the '50s, they're full of racism. And it's deliberate. And Dumbo, the black crows, were meant to remind you of black people," Dyson says.
"Maybe this time around in reaching back to borrow from old movies, maybe Lucas or his people had trouble separating stereotypes from the sort of things that would help strengthen the movie."
Larry Elders, a conservative talk show host in Los Angeles, tackled the issue on his show.
"First of all, I haven't seen the film," Elder confesses. "However we did an entire show on it, and people liked it, didn't like it, thought it was good, thought it was bad. But nobody even suggested that the movie had racist characters in it... In short: get a life."
The people who find offense in the characters are nuts, according to Elder.
"These people are, what I call 'victocrats,' people who go through life looking for slights... people who go through life with race-tinted glasses, looking for some sort of offensive statement, offensive image, offensive gesture. When in fact, maybe it's just a character," he says.
Dyson warns there's a danger in saying "it's just a cartoon."
"It's a cultural phenomenon. So, saying it's a cartoon doesn't dismiss it, doesn't denigrate it, it even makes it more powerful. Because why? Now it's getting into the unconscious or the subconscious and the minds of our children."
Kirk Honeycutt, a film critic for The Hollywood Reporter, disagrees.
"I think that at a certain point in time, you have to put your tongue in your cheek a little bit when you're talking about this, because it's a little bit like worrying about violence in a 'Roadrunner' cartoon," he says.
Many fans support Honeycutt's argument.
"I think they're reading, too, much into it, you know, because I think characters are characters," one man says.
"It's all about me, me, me. I'm the critic. I want all the controversy," says another.
Dyson emphasizes he's not suggesting that George Lucas is a racist.
"What I am suggesting," he says, "is that George Lucas has tapped into unconsciously some racist and stereotypical conceptions of blackness that need to be identified. Hold on a minute, we find this problematic."
Again, George Lucas has responded only in a short press release insisting his film contains no racial slights. "Jar Jar," he says, "is just part of the imaginative fantasy that is 'Star Wars.'"
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