“THE CALL FROM George Lucas came in the summer of 1999, while Ahmed Best was out for a walk in New York City’s Washington Square Park. It was like a lifeline. At that moment, the then-25-year-old actor and musician was on screens across the world, starring in one of the biggest movies of the year, if not the decade: Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. Thanks to pre-emptively ecstatic press leading up to the film’s release, Best’s face had been everywhere, grinning widely from the covers of Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, and even landing a corner flap on the front of Time magazine. But because he’d always been in character as Jar Jar Binks, his CGI-assisted alter ego, Best’s fellow parkgoers likely didn’t recognize him that day. Which means they couldn’t have known they were in the presence of the most hated-upon alien in the galaxy.
For the previous few weeks, Jar Jar and Best had been the twin villains of the internet, with Best’s performance eliciting all sorts of ire-ridden accusations: that Jar Jar was a kiddie-pleasing drag who was wesa– and mesa-ing his way through a grown-up movie; that he’d been crassly concocted by George Lucas solely to sell more toys; that he was a bafoonish, borderline-racist caricature. These days, such pop-culture controversies are usually snuffed out within a few weeks and swiftly replaced with more up-to-date outrages. But the Jar Jar jeremiad lasted for years. A site called JarJarMustDie.com was launched before the film’s release, and numerous fan forums emanated a loud, shared anti-Gungan din. Best’s creation was so toxic that a Jar Jar gag wound up being jammed at the last minute into that year’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, and in 2000 a Star Wars fan released a homemade version of Menace—dubbed The Phantom Edit—that pared down some of Binks’ antics.
By the time Lucas called, Best was stuck in a cruel limbo that few actors experience—a state of being infamous and anonymous, all at once. “It’s really difficult to articulate the feeling,” Best says now. “You feel like a success and a failure at the exact same time. I was staring at the end of my career before it started.”
Throughout the controversy, Best had largely remained quiet. But Lucas wanted to talk. “George said, ‘This happened with the Ewoks. It happened with Chewbacca. It happened with Lando Calrissian,’” Best recalled. “He was used to this. He knew what was going to happen.”
Twenty years from now, Lucas said, things were going to be very different, and people were going to see this character in a new way. Best just needed to focus on the future. […]
One of Best’s dream guests [for his podcast], he says, is Lucas himself. The two occasionally still talk, though Best says he’s closer to Menace costars Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor. “I’d like to have the definitive Jar Jar episode with him,” Best says. “I would really want to know how he saw that this type of filmmaking was going to be pretty ubiquitous. And I’d want to ask him why he went there.””