Ahmed Best: “There are so many layers to Jar Jar that people did not look at”
“[…] So Best wasn’t prepared for the response that summer, when Jar Jar was all but declared a menace in his own right. There were accusations that the character was a throwback to racially charged stereotypes from the early 20th century (the Wall Street Journal review called Jar Jar “a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen”). “I was shocked with the racial implications,” Best says now, “but always knew they had little to no merit.”
The majority of the complaints focused on the character’s child-like klutziness and cluelessness. Older Star Wars fans were the harshest, offended by the presence of a high-pitched, high-energy, floppy-eared amphibian in what they considered a grownup galaxy. “I had death threats through the internet,” Best says. “I had people come to me and say, ‘You destroyed my childhood.’ That’s difficult for a 25-year-old to hear.”
But as Best’s friend Seth Green notes, the Star Wars lovers who rejected Jar Jar’s kid-pleasing shenanigans weren’t the character’s target audience in the first place. “When Episode One came out, it was after many years of no Star Wars,” says Green, a co-creator of Robot Chickenand a longtime Star Wars aficionado. “Fans who were young kids when the original trilogy came out were now adults with kids of their own, and they were trying to compare this new film to feelings accumulated over their entire lives of loving and re-watching the original trilogy…Obviously, adults wouldn’t like Jar Jar. But Ahmed didn’t deserve any scorn.”
Because Best was online and connected to the greater Star Wars fan community, he couldn’t avoid the blowback. Two of the forces that had shaped his creative life—the fandom of Star Wars and the freedom of the web—had been turned against him, and the abuse he endured was a sign of how the internet, even in the pre-Twitter era, could both personalize and dehumanize a pop-culture figure all at once.
“There were a lot of tears, there was a lot of pain, there was a lot of shit I had to deal with,” Best says. He takes a break from his meal, and leans back in his seat. “Everybody else went on. Everybody else worked. Everybody else was accepted by the zeitgeist.” […]
While at school [at American Film Institute], he focused on figuring out how and why viewers forge emotional connections with the performers in front of them. It was around this time he also started thinking again about Jar Jar: Why didn’t this seemingly innocuous character—the result of so much devotion and time from Best, not to mention dozens of others—work with audience members?
“There is a heart to Jar Jar that people don’t really get,” Best says. “He is the most loyal character in Star Wars ever. As Qui-Gon and Jar Jar are walking through the forest, he says, ‘I owe you a life debt.’” But that sincere moment is soon eclipsed. “The jokes take over, and the slapstick takes over, and the physical comedy takes over,” he says. Ultimately, Best settled on the same answer some Phantom fans did nearly 20 years ago: “He was a little bit on the nose.”
In recent years, the Phantom Menace fans who adored Jar Jar when they were kids have attempted to redefine his legacy, at least online. There are numerous “In Defense of Jar Jar Binks” essays, not to mention an extensive (and sincere) [Jar Jar Binks Appreciation Threadon the long-running site TheForce.net. But the character’s most substantive stab at pop-culture rehab was a fan theory that first appeared on Reddit in October 2015, which quickly circulated around the web. It posited that Jar Jar Binks was secretly a Force-trained Sith who’d been quietly assisting Senator Palpatine in his rise to power (evidence includes: Jar Jar’s Jedi-like gesticulations, his inexplicable combat acumen, the fact that he and Palpatine share a home planet).
Whether or not his character was actually a secret insurrectionist doesn’t really matter; what does matter is that, years after Menace’s release, people are finally starting to take Jar Jar Binks seriously—much to Best’s delight. “There are so many layers to Jar Jar that people did not look at,” Best says, “because everyone was ready to be angry.””