I know I’m not supposed to read too much into a movie like Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but when you’re living with a 6-year-old whose entire generation role-plays and reiterates each and every line, you tend to sit up and take exception when what comes out of those innocent little mouths suggests some not-very-subtle ethnic stereotypes of simpletons and shysters. Let’s just take the movie’s chief comic relief, the popeyed, brainless Jar Jar Binks, who is, apparently, a black man in frog face. Nothing wrong with that, says Lucasfilm; this is science fiction. Except he’s a froggy alien who talks, yet says nothing. And who “lopes” (as per George Lucas’s specifications, according to Ahmed Best, who plays Jar Jar) in a prancing, high-stepping cakewalk. He is a “Gungan Chuba Thief,” as a Star Wars card in my son’s little trading collection proclaims.
Whether intentionally or not, Jar Jar’s pratfalls and high jinks borrow heavily from the genre of minstrelsy. Despite the amphibian get-up, his relentless, panicky, manchild-like idiocy is imported directly from the days of Amos ‘N’ Andy. And whether it were a white man, a black woman or Al Jolson himself beneath the mask, what would still make all the clowning so particularly insulting is the fact that Jar Jar’s speech is a weird pidgin mush of West African, Caribbean and African-American linguistic styles.
Jar Jar bubbles with soundbites: “You-sa Jedi not all you-sa cracked up to be.” “Me berry berry scay-yud.” “We-sa goin in da wah-tah, okeyday?” Or, every time he does something so buffoonish as to require outright sanction: “Why me-sa always da one?” None of the Gungans have mastered much in the way of oratory. Indeed, Star Wars Episode I: The Visual Dictionary, now peddled in bookstores everywhere, assures us that “few Gungans speak the pure Gungan language.” Yet English (or “Galactic Basic,” as the dictionary calls it) is also beyond their command. The fat-faced, toadlike ruler of the Gungan race, who is called Boss Nass and who seems to be wearing the distinctive West African robe known as a boubou, expresses his resentment of his grammatically coherent planetary neighbors, the Naboo, in the following terms: “Dey tink dey so smartee, dey tink dey brains so big.”
The Phantom Menace is filled with the hierarchies of accent and class status. The Jedi knights speak in full paragraphs, resonant baritones and crisp British accents. White slaves (like Anakin Skywalker and his mother) and the graceful conquered women of the Naboo speak with the brusque, determined innocence of middle-class Americans. The “status-obsessed,” hive-dwelling Neimoidians, on the other hand–who are “known for their exceptional organizing abilities,” and who lead “a labyrinthine organization of bureaucrats and trade officials from many worlds that has insinuated itself throughout the galaxy”–speak like Charlie Chan. (In the dictionary, pictures of the Neimoidians are embellished with explanatory captions like: “underhanded gesture,” “wheedling expression” and “insincere gesture of innocence.”)
And then there’s Watto, the “shrewd and possessive” junk dealer with a “sharp eye for a bargain” and a “dubious squint” who owns the tow-headed Anakin Skywalker. Watto sports a “three-day stubble,” has a hooked nose that curves to his chin, cheats at games and doesn’t give credit. He speaks in a gravelly Middle Eastern accent. Although a number of groups have protested that Watto is an insulting Arab stereotype, he struck me as more comprehensively anti-Semitic–both anti-Arab and anti-Jew. Indeed, Watto bears a striking similarity to a caricature of a Jewish journalist published in a Viennese magazine called Kikeriki at the turn of the last century. Reproduced in Sander Gilman’s insightful book The Jew’s Body, the cartoon shows a large-nosed, round-bellied man with spindly arms, bandy little legs and flat feet. An enormous fat chain, perhaps a giant watch fob, hangs across his waist. Wings sprout from his shoulders, and in his left hand he carries a scroll that says “anything for money.”
Watto has a similar set of wings. He has an almost identically distended belly (the dictionary says it is “mostly composed of gas”). Watto’s arms are spindly, his legs are bandy, and his feet are large and webbed. He has a pocket welder with a long, spiraling power cord that loops across his belly with almost the same degree of conspicuousness. And in the dictionary portrait, Watto’s left hand grasps a data pad in which he is “careful to maintain accounting records.”
As this movie is distributed worldwide and dubbed into a variety of languages, it will be interesting to see just how the accents are translated. If, as the studio maintains, the voices were assigned without thought to the stereotypes against which they play, the translation process provides an opportunity to rethink all that. If, on the other hand, they are merely reiterated in a multitude of tongues, then I fear this signals a determination to perpetuate some pretty poisonous prejudices on a global scale.
It’s depressing. Given all the money spent on special effects, what would it have taken to have used computer-generated voices, let’s say–to create comic effects or menace or innocence by a mixture of accents and tones and inflections and images that were not at the expense of historically demonized groups? It is the fervent hope of many of us of the post-civil rights generation to launch our children into a social galaxy far, far away from all the old prejudices. Yet for all such efforts, the phantom menace of popular culture seeps in through the cracks in the windows, the attitudes in the movies, the games children play with their friends, bearing prejudices at least as complex and pervasive as those of generations past, if somewhat more subtle.
At a moment when the media are being held accountable for all sorts of farfetched conspiratorial causes and violent effects, let’s not let them off the hook for what they accomplish most directly. Films provide an expressive lexicon and romanticized reinforcement of cultural attitudes. They endow with mythic status the sight and sound of those whom the camera makes larger than life; they seduce us with, if not instruct us about, whom to love or hate or mock–and how.