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Star Wars
Star Wars Title

Most disturbing, however, is Jar-Jar Binks, servile sidekick to the film's Jedi heroes and the film's chief comic relief. Jar-Jar and his species, the Gungans (referred to as the "primitives" of Naboo) are clearly the ersatz blacks of the Star Wars universe. Jar-Jar himself comes across as a latter-day Stepin Fetchit. Forget for a moment his non-human physiognomy - eyes on stalks; long, floppy ears; a tongue that snatches food from the air like a frog's. His gait, his manner, his speech are an amalgam of nearly every negative stereotype of blacks ever presented by American popular entertainment. His walk is warmed-over Jimmie Walker (the ludicrous "J.J." in the 1970's sitcom Good Times.) He is cowardly, inept, inarticulate ("Mesa called Ja Ja Binks!") servile, unreliable, slave to his appetites (and endlessly in trouble over this weakness), and unable to accomplish much of anything except by accident. Finally, one has to wonder: Does Lucas use computer animation to create Jar-Jar because no human actor would touch such a role?

The Gungan people are clearly modeled on people of African descent (or images of them created in Hollywood). They are not represented as entirely without dignity - despite being referred to as "primitives" by the invading forces, they live in sophisticated (even beautiful) underwater cities, and in battle they wield "modern" energy weapons, defensive force fields, etc. And the decision to consciously model their culture on African forms could have been refreshing. But the Gungans are saddled with two figures who, as the most prominent members of the species in the film, set the tone for their reception: Jar-Jar, and the Gungan ruler, Boss Nass - bombastic, narrow-minded, even less articulate than Jar-Jar, and tending to slobber.

The Gungan dialect comes across as some mangled Caribbean-accented English, but generously larded with malapropisms and ludicrous verbal tics. (Jar-Jar's is worse than average, but not by much.) Most Gungans wear flared trousers which echo the 70's-pimp look in cut (if not in color), and share Jar-Jar's bouncing lope. In a post-battle victory parade (surprise, surprise - the good guys win) they march and dance with great verve, while playing drums probably lifted once again from the Hollywood-Africa of Lucas' childhood days (kudos to the animators for making this look so convincing - or perhaps not).

In the film's final tableau, the (now-) enlightened Queen Amidala, grateful for Gungan sacrifices on the battlefield, grants them equal status (though it is worth asking whether such equality needs to be earned); the Gungan leader mangles his English one last time ("Yousa no tinkan yousa greater den da Gungans"), then sprays slobber from his flapping jowls as a sign of his joy.

So Lucas' allegory on racism breaks down because he tries to have it both ways, in representing his ethnic minorities - claiming on the one hand that enlightened humanoids, at least, will see these alien others as equals, but on the other hand tracing the aliens from models in Hollywood cinema whose entire purpose was to render racial equality unthinkable. The real Phantom Menace, then, is the way in which this film works to turn the cultural clock back to a long, long time ago - to the days of European Empire in most of the world and white supremacy in the United States. It seems too shocking to suggest that his attempt at allegory was entirely cynical; so we are left hoping that Lucas, showing nothing worse than stunning naïveté, underestimated the power of the Dark Side of his own store of mythic images.

Best Moment

An early sequence where Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fight their way off a Federation battle cruiser

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