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Weekly Alibi The Real Phantom Menace?

Fans Agree: Jar Jar No Har Har

By Devin D. O'Leary

JUNE 21, 1999:  Is he a space-age Stepin Fetchit, a Roger Rabbit retread or a fruity alien with an attraction to big light sabers? No matter how you choose to look at it, even hardcore Star Wars fanatics seem to agree: Binks stinks!

Almost as soon as George Lucas' overhyped first chapter in the Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace, hit multiplex screens, the criticism began. The largest portion of that criticism now seems leveled at one goofy, computer-generated alien called Jar Jar Binks. He steps in poop, he gets farted on, he trips, he slips, he gets his tongue stuck in an electrical socket -- is it any wonder most moviegoers over the age of ten have found Binks' "comic relief" questionable? Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal's film critic, called him "a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen." In a particularly vicious anti-Star Wars tirade, Time magazine's cultural guru Robert Hughes slammed Jar Jar as "a wrist-flapping, deer-faced twit of an alien with the voice of a Jamaican drag-queen, who encumbers every scene he's in with his overacted dippiness."

Critics aren't the only ones venting, however. The Internet is swarming with anti-Jar Jar sentiment. Deja.com has seen over 80,000 messages dissing the floppy-eared irritant. There are so many anti-Jar Jar Web pages floating around cyberspace now, that Yahoo.com has created an entire category for them. Among the more than one dozen Web sites are Delete Jar Jar Binks!, Jar Jar Bites, The Jar Jar Hate Page, JarJarMustDie.com, JarJarSucks.com, Killing Jar Jar and The Jar Jar Job Hunt. Typical is Killing Jar Jar (www.dailymovies.com/news/1702_main.html), which features the Web page's designers torturing a Jar Jar action figure in a series of cruel, if amusing, video clips. The Jar Jar Job Hunt (www.mrshowbiz.go.com/features/phantommenace/jarjar.html), run by Mr. Showbiz.com, is a little more constructive, offering up employment opportunities which would keep Jar Jar out of the next Star Wars movie. (Suggestions include taking over for Regis Philbin on "Live with Regis and Kathy Lee.")

Jar Jar's few defenders have chalked him up as a silly, childlike bit of comic relief. Still, when you compare the humor of the original Star Wars (Han Solo's cynical verbal asides, for example) to the humor of Phantom Menace (all pratfalls and baby talk), it makes one wonder just how juvenile George Lucas thinks his fans really are.

Those who haven't dismissed Jar Jar as an annoyingly calculated stab at kiddy cuteness, however, find more sinister elements to the character. Few critics have passed up the opportunity to compare Jar Jar to Stepin Fetchit, an actor during the '20s and '30s who helped perpetuate the eye-rolling, servile black stereotype. Lucasfilm has been tight-lipped on the subject, issuing only a simple statement reading, "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." Lucasfilm's position seems to be "he's just a cartoon," to which one could easily respond, "Yes, and Amos and Andy was just a radio show. Little Black Sambo was just a nursery rhyme. Minstrel shows performed in blackface were just vaudeville acts." Nonetheless, these are cultural stereotypes whose time has long gone. Is Lucasfilm telling us that no one involved in the creation of Phantom Menace ever considered -- even for a second -- that a character who speaks in a mumbly Jamaican patois, is portrayed by a black actor and announces himself by squealing the line, "Meesa your slave!" might be interpreted as African American in nature?

The latest blow to Jar Jar's credibility came last week when a cover story in New York's Village Voice announced that Jar Jar Binks was gay. First Tinky Winky, now Jar Jar? Richard Goldstein's rather serious article ultimately called the Internet critics to task for their anti-Jar Jar campaign. Goldstein believed that the criticism was just a symptom of current anti-gay hate crimes -- a theory that is spurious at best. Still, the article added a further twist to the deconstruction of Jar Jar's character.

Actor Ahmed Best, a member of the Stomp! dance troupe who provided both voice and movement for the digitally animated character, has expressed shock and outrage at this interpretation of Jar Jar. "Not only do I think that has no validity," Best told reporters, "I think it's really stupid for anyone to put their own prejudices and their homophobia on a complete fantasy movie."

It's doubtful that George Lucas consciously intended Jar Jar to be a stereotype of either blacks or homosexuals. It's also doubtful that Lucas intended the creature to be painfully annoying. In this, however, he seems to have succeeded.

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