“Jar Jar’s the key to all this, if we get Jar Jar working,” Star Wars creator George Lucas famously said in the run-up to the release of 1999’s Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
“‘Cause he’s a funnier character than we’ve ever had in the movies.”
Twenty years on, history tells us that Lucas and his team did not, in fact, get Jar Jar working.
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Instead, when The Phantom Menace was released the gangly Gungan became a poster boy for everything people disliked about the film and the subsequent prequel movies.
“I had people come to me and say, ‘You destroyed my childhood’,” Ahmed Best, who performed motion capture and the vocal performance for Jar Jar, told Wired. “That’s difficult for a 25 year old to hear.”
Jar Jar’s broad humour, wacky – some would argue racially insensitive – voice, slapstick hijinks and generally child-friendly aesthetic all conspired to make him one of the most hated figures among the Star Wars fandom.
Writing in 2015, Vanity Fair’s Bruce Hardy noted that “Jar Jar has come to symbolise what many fans see as the faults of the prequel trilogy: characters no one much cares about; a sense of humour geared toward the youngest conceivable audience members; an over-reliance on computer graphics”.
Speaking to me more recently, cultural historian and anthropologist Matthew Kapell said that there were other problems with Jar Jar’s portrayal.
“I think when the character first shows up in Phantom Menace it’s easy to see the racism – especially the Caribbean stereotypes,” he tells me.
“And that movie was not very good, so everything was criticised more than it would have been had the film been a better movie experience.”
When I first saw the Phantom Menace, aged seven, I’m not sure I picked up on all the Jar Jar hate. I definitely had one of those sticky-tongue Jar Jar whip things, and was probably too young to draw anything from the film except a powerful desire for a double-bladed red lightsaber.
But as years went by, Jar Jar’s infamy became a part of Star Wars culture I absorbed by osmosis.
Given the strength of feeling against the character, who can blame me? What other pop culture character could be so reviled that someone would go to the trouble to make an entire alternate cut of the movie just to remove him from it?
Fan reaction was so extreme that the character was more or less written out of the next two Star Wars movies. The actor portraying him later revealed that he had received death threats online.
However, 20 years after Jar Jar Binks galumphed into cinemas for the first time, it feels like something has changed.
Earlier this year, Ahmed Best was welcomed onstage at Star Wars Celebration with a standing ovation, with hundreds of fans overjoyed to see the man behind Jar Jar Binks in person and thousands of YouTube comments expressing support for his performance. Elsewhere, Jar Jar Binks has begun to crop up again in Star Wars spin-off media and affectionate fan parodies.
Overall the hatred aimed at Jar Jar Binks seems to have dimmed.
In part, this change could be seen as inevitable. Put enough distance between you and a cultural event and you’re obviously not going to feel as strongly about it as you did in the heat of the moment. As the years – and other pieces of less-than-stellar Star Wars tie-ins, TV shows and spin-offs – have gone by, it’s hard to summon the rancour we once felt for poor Jar Jar.
For others, the fog of nostalgia is enough to make Jar Jar less difficult to watch – charming, even. Lest we forget, the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi were despised by many fans for similar reasons back in 1983 – clearly aimed at kids, defeating enemies through comedy mistakes – but now are remembered fairly fondly.
When it comes to Jar Jar, though, there are also other, more complicated reasons as to why some seem to be re-examining his legacy. While it’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment people’s interest in the character changed, a reddit post by “Lumpawaroo” was the first to suggest that there may have been more to Jar Jar than meets the eye.
The theory goes that the comedy Gungan was originally supposed to be a powerful villain who would be revealed over the course of the prequel trilogy, before the massive backlash to his appearance led to a rewrite.
While fairly unlikely, the idea didn’t seem completely out of the question – after all, “eccentric alien revealed to be a powerful Force User” is exactly how Yoda was introduced – and it led many to reappraise their reactions to Best’s version of the character, especially when the actor himself appeared to approve the theory.
Reimaginings of Jar Jar didn’t stop there. In 2017 Chuck Wendig’s official Star Wars: Aftermath – Empire’s End book (the third in a trilogy set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens) revealed what had happened to the character in the years since his last appearance in Revenge of the Sith.
Largely blamed for the rise of the Empire (in Attack of the Clones, Senator Jar Jar pushes through emergency powers for Chancellor Palpatine, which leads to the latter seizing power), Jar Jar now performs on the streets of his home planet of Naboo for spare change, explaining to a young boy that he made “some uh-oh mistakens” in the past that have led him to a new life as a clown, beloved by children but hated by their parents.
Not a bad analogy to the fandom’s initial reaction to the character.
More appearances in animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and other ancillary material (including a comic where he fights with a lightsaber) also helped to lessen Jar Jar’s status as the galaxy’s perpetual punchbag in recent years.
However, it was really Ahmed Best himself who changed the way we think about Jar Jar Binks.
20 years next year I faced a media backlash that still affects my career today. This was the place I almost ended my life. It’s still hard to talk about. I survived and now this little guy is my gift for survival. Would this be a good story for my solo show? Lemme know. pic.twitter.com/NvVnImoJ7N
— Ahmed BEst (@ahmedbest) July 3, 2018
Writing on social media in 2018, the actor revealed that the criticism his performance faced led him to consider suicide many years ago. Re-visiting the place he had contemplated ending his life, Best reflected on what he’d been through and how he’d found greater happiness with his family (and more specifically, his son).
“20 years next year I faced a media backlash that still affects my career today,” he wrote.
“This was the place I almost ended my life. It’s still hard to talk about. I survived and now this little guy is my gift for survival.”
Best’s post inspired an outpouring of support on social media.
“As a person who bashed Jar-Jar left and right, it’s time I said I’m so sorry for contributing to that backlash,” Kimmers Hickey wrote on Twitter. “You didn’t deserve it (still don’t deserve it), the hate and derision. I’m glad you’re still around.”
“I just will never understand the harshness of people’s dislike of him,” Frank Oz, best known as the puppeteer and voice of Yoda, added. “I do character work. He is a GREAT character!”
“When people make things you don’t like, they’re not trying to hurt you,” responded Bryan Edward Hill, also on Twitter.
“Keep this kind of honesty in mind when you’re thinking about piling on people in entertainment.”
The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson added his voice to the messages of supporting, writing that “there are many of us who’d get quite a lot from hearing your story”.
Lots of love to you Ahmed. I think there are many of us who’d get quite alot from hearing your story.
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) July 3, 2018
Maybe this is the lesson to take from Jar Jar Binks – not necessarily to ignore when we don’t like some element of popular culture, or to stifle fair criticism, but to try and imagine the person behind the (rubbery, CGI) mask who’s taking the abuse. To engage with culture vigorously, but not be heartless when we do it.
“It’s been 20 years –the distance from the film and the hope that we can all discuss it without causing actors to consider suicide has allowed everyone to think about it again,” Kappell tells me.
“I’m not sure where we got, but at the very least it’s, ‘Let’s not make Ahmed Best feel like he’s responsible for a character he didn’t write, he didn’t conceive, he merely played.’ And I think that’s a good thing.”
Jar Jar Binks may never be fully redeemed, and perhaps shouldn’t be. It’s legitimate for fans and critics to express their feelings about creative choices they dislike.
But maybe, with a little bit of hindsight we can at least realise our reactions to a funny character created for kids was a little over the top. For Best, at least, there appears to be some redress.
“Of course Jar Jar is my favourite character,” George Lucas said in a pre-recorded message during Star Wars Celebration, during the same panel where Best received his standing ovation. “Ahmed, you did a fantastic job. It was very, very hard.
“The fans are always such a big part of these films and obviously those of you who are here are the fans of Episode I, and I love each and every one of you.”
Jar Jar Binks may never be mui bombad. Oyl, moole, mole, nosa.
But after 20 years, by this point I feel confident in saying he’s more or less okeeday. And whosa would want to deny him that?