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A Galaxy Far, Far Off Racial Mark?

Commentary

Movies: 'Star Wars' characters like Jar Jar Binks, Nute Gunray and Watto prompt comparisons to insensitive stereotypes.

May 26, 1999|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before the newest entry in the "Star Wars" saga opened last week, a comic-book store clerk in Seattle had organized a group called the International Society for the Extermination of Jar Jar Binks and set up a Web site with an address that sounds like a battle cry: http://www.jarjarmustdie.com.

From all indications, the digital animated character who debuted in "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" is irritating moviegoers across North America. A floppy-eared amphibian who speaks a Caribbean-flavored pidgin English, Jar Jar has a snout like a sea horse and an anteater's quick darting tongue. He has been described variously as an annoying distant cousin to Disney's character Goofy and as a racially offensive throwback to Stepin Fetchit.

"I've talked to 100 people and nobody likes him," says John Hernandez, 29, a Los Angeles county worker who was among the first to see the movie. "When I came out of the theater people were talking about how annoying he was. At first I thought I was the only one, but I've heard it everywhere."

Rarely has a movie character--and a glorified cartoon character at that--inspired so much vehemence. Much of the criticism centers on what some see as Jar Jar's stereotypical racial traits. An Internet discussion group dedicated to him on deja.com had more than 13,000 postings as of Tuesday morning, many along the lines of this one: "He's written like a character out of an Uncle Remus story, and does everything but call Qui-Gon (the Liam Neeson character) 'Massah.' "

Some other Internet postings compare Jar Jar to the radio and TV characters "Amos 'n' Andy." One writer says of the movie: "It could be 'Sambo Wars.' "

Lynne Hale, a spokeswoman for Lucasfilm, called such interpretations "absurd."

"There is nothing in 'Star Wars' that is racially motivated," she said in a statement. " 'Star Wars' is a fantasy movie set in a galaxy far, far away. It is populated with humans, aliens, creatures, droids, robots and other fantastic creatures. . . . To dissect this movie as if it has a direct reference to the world that we know today is absurd."

Still, some people say the racial references are obvious.

Audience members have complained that Nute Gunray, the evil Viceroy of the Federation, seems based on Asian stereotypes. And Watto, young slave Anakin Skywalker's sleazy owner, strikes some viewers as an offensive caricature of an Arab. In addition, the Gungan, the primitive tribe of which Jar Jar is a member, is ruled by a fat, buffoonish character, seemingly a caricature of a stereotypical African chieftain.

Even though Jar Jar was performed by a black actor who says he had free rein to create the character, movie reviewer Joe Morgenstern, in an essay last week in the Wall Street Journal, called Jar Jar "a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen."

The complaints call to mind the animated cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s, some of which used animal species knowingly to represent specific racial groups. (Think of the jive-talking, jazz-singing crows in Disney's 1941 classic "Dumbo.")

Todd Boyd, a USC cinema studies professor, says the practice continues in animation today, although in subtler form and sometimes for different purposes. Many American animated cartoons were blatantly, unrepentantly racist before their makers bowed to protests in the 1950s. Today, racial subtexts are more likely to promote brotherhood. Sometimes, though, even those cartoons skate on thin ice.

In "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988) the sympathetic cartoon characters--"Toons," they're called, and they inhabit Toontown--were clearly treated as a racial group separate from the human race. But while the movie did not seem in any way an endorsement of racism, Boyd says he was struck by how much "Toon" sounded like "Coon," a derogatory term used against African Americans.

"It seemed so obviously racial that I didn't want to believe that one could get away with being so overt and not know it and have no one else pick up on it," he says. "It was so obvious to me, and yet it wasn't made into an issue."

He thinks that is because non-human cartoon characters and fantastic settings can obscure the subtextual messages of movies.

"If you take 'American History X' and say the character's a racist, people have no problem understanding that," he says. "But if you were to suggest that 'Roger Rabbit' had issues that were problematic racially the response would probably be, 'It's a cartoon.' The assumption seems to be that if something is geared for children then it couldn't be sophisticated enough to carry those sorts of messages."

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