Reflections of Real Life, or Caricatures?
Unfortunately, there have been times when aliens’ roles in Star Wars have been severely criticized, an unfortunate side effect to Lucas’ desire to make them as human-like (at least personality-wise) as possible. As a Star Wars fan, my knee-jerk reaction to such bold claims is to staunchly defend the source material, which I will in a moment, but first, allow me to summarize some of these difficult, but sometimes valid, claims.
Jar Jar Binks may be the most hated character in pop culture. While I firmly believe he really is not so bad (please don’t let this statement devalue your opinion of my credentials), but my six-year-old self was the exact targeted demographic for his juvenile antics when Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, so I’ll always have that soft spot for the guy. But adults have always loved to hate him (even though, again, he is not that annoying). Part of the reason the more critical filmgoing audience dislikes the character is because he buys into racial stereotypes. With a botched Jamaican-sounding accent, a dopey neck-bobbing gait, and dreadlock-like ear flaps, Jar Jar is essentially a caricature of black stereotypes, perceived to fulfill the “Happy Negro” trope: a cartoonized version of a black character who isn’t quite as smart or graceful as his heroic white friends (Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Anakin), but consistently proves that he has a heart of gold. We know George Lucas loves tropes and pre-established storytelling constructs, so it’s no surprise that Jar Jar happens to fit this trope, as trite and offensive as it may be.
In the original trilogy, we had Return of the Jedi’s Nien Numb, Lando Calrissian’s Sullustan co-pilot. This character wasn’t fleshed out much, but he had a memorable enough appearance and voice to raise another red flag for critical viewers: Nien Nunb was a caricature of an Asian, as evidenced by his exaggerated eyes, large ears, facial construct, and a dialect that resembles how non-speakers hear Asian people speaking their native languages. In essence, he looks something like the Japanese soldiers and villains in World War II-era war and superhero comics.
I briefly mentioned earlier that this racism is very likely intentional; sometimes these accusations of racism in mass-media storytelling are simply an unfortunate side-effect of the storyteller’s attempt to represent the breadth of real life. George Lucas wasn’t trying to design the type of bizarre alien species that are likely to truly exist in the universe somewhere; that’s a job better left to more realistic science fiction films like Live/Die/Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow and especially Europa Report. Instead, Lucas is trying to recreate and make commentary on “extremes” of the world population, from outspoken, lighthearted islanders like Jar Jar Binks, to rough-and-tough bartenders like Dexter Jettster.
Let’s take a brief dive into George’s mind, shall we? He is a genius. He knows storytelling and mythology better than any Hollywood filmmaker in the past century. He wants to represent humanity through different, colorful alien species. He tells his concept artists, “I want to create a Jamaican-type character; we haven’t seen that before, and I think giving him a friendly vibe will really grab the attention of our younger audiences.” Here’s the problem: all of our main characters, except for the aliens who represent other ethnicities, are white (and male, but that’s another issue for another time). That puts all the non-white characters into caricaturized alien roles, which is when things get problematic, and the critics’ points become valid.
Stay glued to the Coffee with Kenobi Blog for “The Role of the Alien in Star Wars, Part Three of Three” next month!
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