Is the character of Jar Jar Binks, introduced in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a racist caricature? If so, was this done deliberately?
My answers may be summed up as follows:
No, he isn’t, but he is an example of questionable creative decision making and poorly thought-out science fiction. And absolutely not, though this doesn’t quite exactly let George Lucas and company off the hook. Not quite.
In this week’s Blog I’ll talk about my answer to the first part. I’ll save the second part for next week.
In filmed science fiction, there are two characters who have been the object of countless fans’ death fantasies; which is to say, countless fans have devoted unhealthy amounts of time and energy to coming up with ways to kill them out of sheer small-mindedness and meanness of spirit. One of them is Wesley Crusher of Star Trek, who was the object of the cruelest and most unfair wishes for his death over the one--count it, one--occasion when he was directly, personally responsible for saving the Enterprise before he was even a Starfleet Cadet. (By the way, I’ve met Wil Wheaton and he’s a perfectly nice young person.) We’ll talk about him some other time. The other is the nabob of planet Naboo, Jar Jar Binks.
Now, scholars of storytelling and popular and classical mythology will tell you that Jar Jar, who belongs to the semi-aquatic species of Gungans, is an example of a particular character type: the immature clown who grows up fast, becomes responsible, and makes good. (His role is greatly reduced in Episodes II and III, but he becomes a Senator of the Republic before the revenge of the Sith brings the tyranny of the Empire.) What a lot of fans will tell you is that Jar Jar is fit only to have a target painted on him and be used for Imperial Stormtrooper target practice. Why? Not just because he starts out as a bumbling buffoon, but because he’s a bumbling buffoon who speaks in a patois reminiscent of that of certain African-descended ethnic groups. There are some who consider Jar Jar a kind of intergalactic Stepin Fetchit, and his species an insulting caricature of Caribbean cultures. But is this really the case?
In the defense of George Lucas and company, what I’ll say first is this. Jar Jar and the Gungans are partly animated characters, and there are certain realities inherent in trying to bring an animated character to life on screen, if it is a character with humorous intent. When you’re working with data and pixels (or ink and color on cels in traditional animation), you have to work even harder to create a lifelike personality than you would with a director and actors. That means you have to exaggerate qualities about the character, and the character has to have qualities that lend themselves to exaggeration. Think about the great characters of Warner Brothers cartoons. There is a reason why they all had peculiarities or impediments of speech: Bugs Bunny’s inner-city New York dialect, Daffy Duck’s slobbery sibilants, Sylvester the Cat’s lisp, Porky Pig’s stammering, Foghorn Leghorn’s “Ah say’s” and repetitions, and so forth. That was to give the animators mannerisms that they could work with in making them...well, animated. The same principle applies to the Gungans. They were made to talk and behave that way to make them seem more lifelike. Unfortunately, the choice of dialect for them, and the particular ways in which they were exaggerated, came across to some people as a racial slur. It really wasn’t; it was just animators doing what animators do. They weren’t trying to be racist; in my opinion they just made a questionable creative decision, one that they failed to think through.
I dismiss out of hand any allegations of racism against George Lucas and his company. A lot of filmmaking racists would not have given us Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian and Samuel Jackson as Mace Windu. No, I just don’t accept that. This wasn’t bigotry, it was ill-considered characterization. I reject both the allegations and the allegators. (An old gag from Flip Wilson that I always loved.)
Creative decisions made without thinking are, in my opinion, an overall problem with The Phantom Menace. When it was first released, there hadn’t been a Star Wars film in 16 years and I welcomed it with open arms. At that point I would have applauded a film of the cast reciting the Tunisian telephone directory. But as I had time to think about it, I realized that there were some problems with the science fiction in this picture, and the Gungans were part of it.
I used to keep newts as pets--or I tried to keep them as pets, anyway. My little salamanders had a habit of launching themselves out of the fishbowl and going off and hiding, and weeks later someone would move a piece of furniture or an appliance, and behind it would be a hard, dry, shriveled up thing that used to be a newt. Now, the Gungans are basically big, two-legged, talking salamanders. Look at them; that’s what they are. They’re sentient amphibians. And there is a significant part of The Phantom Menace that takes place on planet Tatooine--with Jar Jar. I have every belief that after about five minutes on the arid surface of Tatooine, Jar Jar should rightly have come to the same fate as my little newts. (Which would have made some people happy!) But he doesn’t, and it doesn’t make sense. What would have made sense would have been for Qui Gon and Obi Wan to make Jar Jar stay aboard the ship in a specially humidified chamber. Or failing that, it would have made sense for Padme Amidala to have a medic in her entourage (she was a Queen, after all) who could slip Jar Jar some temporary DNA that would adapt Jar Jar for a desert environment, endowing him with a more coarse and water-tight skin like that of a desert-dwelling toad or horned lizard. (Commercially, this would have paid off by giving the studio a chance to license toys of both Aqua Jar Jar and Desert Jar Jar; you see, things can make both sense and money!)
Anyway, the problem with the Gungans is not just one of physiology but anatomy. Look at the design of their bodies, specifically their ears. In what kind of natural history do amphibians have long, floppy ears? Look at real amphibians--bullfrogs, for example. The ears are flat membranes against either side of the head--perfect streamlining to complement an overall streamlined body form for a creature that lives partly in water. The Gungans should have had bullfrog ears, not those long, clumsy, floppy things.
Oh, and speaking of living in the water, there’s a problem with the planet Naboo itself. There is a sequence in which Qui Gon, Obi Wan, and Jar Jar must travel through what is explicitly called the core of the planet in a submarine. An aquatic, water-traveling submarine. Again we look to our own planet to see the problem with this. Naboo is a terrestrial planet; that is, a planet similar in nature and composition to Earth. It is a life-bearing, thoroughly Earthlike world. Humans, or humanoids, live there. The core of Earth is not filled with water. On the contrary, it is filled with molten rock and iron at tremendous temperatures under colossal pressure. (I don’t care how powerful The Force is; no one is going to pilot a submarine through that and live to battle Darth Maul later on!) And lucky for us that it is so, because the rotating molten iron core of Earth creates a powerful magnetic field that screens out harmful radiations from the Sun that would otherwise render terrestrial life impossible. If Naboo is an Eartlhlike planet with Earthlike surface conditions and life comparable to that of Earth, it stands to reason that it has a core like that of Earth, not a core of water! A lot of people are going to sit reading this and roll their eyes at what a nit-picker I am, but how nit-picky is it when the problem can be fixed without hurting the story at all, just with a single line of dialogue? Change the expression “core of the planet” to “underwater caverns” and you get the same story, just truer to nature! Hollywood screenwriters get paid big bucks for writing this stuff; it’s not petty to expect them to think about what they’re writing! Much of the problem with our culture, popular entertainment and otherwise, is that people don’t like to think!
And frankly, people who aren’t going to take the trouble to think about this stuff shouldn’t be writing science fiction anyway.
So...they didn’t think about the creative process that went into Jar Jar. They didn’t even think about the nature of Jar Jar’s (and Padme’s) planet. And a lot of people took the character as an insult, a throwback to less enlightened filmmaking and storytelling. But I maintain, he was not so much a racist creation as a thoughtless one. Exactly how thoughtless will become even more clear next week, when we actually do put the character into a racial context. Jar Jar unintentionally harks back to a character that degraded African-Americans--but it’s not Stepin Fetchit! You’ll see what I mean in the second part of this entry.