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Reflections of Real Life, or Caricatures?

Unfortunately, there have been times when aliens’ roles in Star Wars have been severely criticized, an unfortunate side effect to Lucas’ desire to make them as human-like (at least personality-wise) as possible. As a Star Wars fan, my knee-jerk reaction to such bold claims is to staunchly defend the source material, which I will in a moment, but first, allow me to summarize some of these difficult, but sometimes valid, claims.

Jar Jar Binks may be the most hated character in pop culture. While I firmly believe he really is not so bad (please don’t let this statement devalue your opinion of my credentials), but my six-year-old self was the exact targeted demographic for his juvenile antics when Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, so I’ll always have that soft spot for the guy. But adults have always loved to hate him (even though, again, he is not that annoying). Part of the reason the more critical filmgoing audience dislikes the character is because he buys into racial stereotypes. With a botched Jamaican-sounding accent, a dopey neck-bobbing gait, and dreadlock-like ear flaps, Jar Jar is essentially a caricature of black stereotypes, perceived to fulfill the “Happy Negro” trope: a cartoonized version of a black character who isn’t quite as smart or graceful as his heroic white friends (Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Anakin), but consistently proves that he has a heart of gold. We know George Lucas loves tropes and pre-established storytelling constructs, so it’s no surprise that Jar Jar happens to fit this trope, as trite and offensive as it may be.

In the original trilogy, we had Return of the Jedi’s Nien Numb, Lando Calrissian’s Sullustan co-pilot. This character wasn’t fleshed out much, but he had a memorable enough appearance and voice to raise another red flag for critical viewers: Nien Nunb was a caricature of an Asian, as evidenced by his exaggerated eyes, large ears, facial construct, and a dialect that resembles how non-speakers hear Asian people speaking their native languages. In essence, he looks something like the Japanese soldiers and villains in World War II-era war and superhero comics.

I briefly mentioned earlier that this racism is very likely intentional; sometimes these accusations of racism in mass-media storytelling are simply an unfortunate side-effect of the storyteller’s attempt to represent the breadth of real life. George Lucas wasn’t trying to design the type of bizarre alien species that are likely to truly exist in the universe somewhere; that’s a job better left to more realistic science fiction films like Live/Die/Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow and especially Europa Report. Instead, Lucas is trying to recreate and make commentary on “extremes” of the world population, from outspoken, lighthearted islanders like Jar Jar Binks, to rough-and-tough bartenders like Dexter Jettster.

Let’s take a brief dive into George’s mind, shall we? He is a genius. He knows storytelling and mythology better than any Hollywood filmmaker in the past century. He wants to represent humanity through different, colorful alien species. He tells his concept artists, “I want to create a Jamaican-type character; we haven’t seen that before, and I think giving him a friendly vibe will really grab the attention of our younger audiences.” Here’s the problem: all of our main characters, except for the aliens who represent other ethnicities, are white (and male, but that’s another issue for another time). That puts all the non-white characters into caricaturized alien roles, which is when things get problematic, and the critics’ points become valid.

Stay glued to the Coffee with Kenobi Blog for “The Role of the Alien in Star Wars, Part Three of Three” next month!

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Email: alexw@coffeewithkenobi.com

Twitter: @tiboonda

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11 Comments

  1. Carsten
    September 6, 2014 at 17:28 Reply

    Good article. I also have a soft spot for Jar Jar, so I am perfectly fine with him. People need someone to take their anger out on, so they like to hate on him, Justin Bieber, and others and pretend that hate is well-founded.

    1. Alex Ward
      September 11, 2014 at 13:13 Reply

      Jar Jar is an awesome character (at least in Episode I). I do understand some of the criticisms from a sociopolitical perspective, though.

  2. Melinda
    September 11, 2014 at 09:24 Reply

    Alex, I am going to go on record — again 😉 — and announce that I NEVER found Jar Jar Binks offensive. I also NEVER saw him as some stereotypical caricature of African Americans. I found him endearing — and yet one more example of the theme that EVERYONE can make a difference! (That theme runs rampant throughout the Saga!) People see what they want to see. It’s a shame most fans did not pick up on what/who Jar Jar ALWAYS WAS MEANT TO REPRESENT!!! Maybe I was not the target age to whom Jar Jar was meant to appeal (I was in my 40s when TPM emerged on movie screens 😉 ), but I certainly liked him — quite a bit! And still do. 🙂

    I don’t buy into the ethnic caricatures of any of the Star Wars aliens. The creative, artistic teams were tasked with developing different beings from different planets — diving deep into their imaginations to do so. I think they have done an outstanding job. 🙂 And the Star Wars Galaxy is the richer for it. 🙂

    I’m looking forward to Part 3! 🙂

    1. Alex Ward
      September 11, 2014 at 13:11 Reply

      Melinda, I agree. I am simply summarizing the concerns some of the critics have, and adding the concession that, because there are so few people of color in primary character roles, other ethnicities are marginalized in alien forms that represent their cultures. We don’t see humans in South American tribe-like cultures, or in island-dweller type cultures. Instead, we see those people represented as ALIENS, while the humans are all white and “civilized.” As stated in the article, I think this was an unintentional consequence of aiming for diverse alien cultures. Instead, we got diverse human cultures transposed into “caricaturized” alien cultures. Now, that’s simply a concession to the opposition; I still don’t fully agree with the argument that Star Wars’ aliens can be racist 🙂

      1. Melinda
        October 2, 2014 at 11:00 Reply

        I understand from where you’re coming, Alex, and I know there has been some criticism of how various ethnicities have “appeared” in Star Wars. People forget — or so it seems to me — that both Captain Panaka and Captain Typho were NOT white, that one of the Naboo pilots featured in the battle above Naboo was African American, that Lando was African American, that white actors/actresses played some rather unsavory aliens throughout the Saga. That’s all I’m saying.

        I can’t wait for Part 3! 🙂

  3. Mike Quinn
    September 13, 2014 at 05:39 Reply

    Interesting read. Actually I really don’t think Nien Nunb was ever intended to infer Asian at all. He was sculpted by ILM creative Dave Carson just to look weird, slightly human and slightly alien. He was originally just a background mask but much like Miss Piggy, got pulled forward from the chorus line 😀
    To me he reminded me more of a cross between a mouse and Dopey the Dwarf. His voice was actually a dialect of Kenyan, so no Asian there either. I think the Asian thing came accidentally as it just “happened to remind people” of that in some way, but I never ever thought of him in that way at all. I really think that was accidental, coincidental and the human brain trying to relate it to something.
    As Nien Nunb’s puppeteer, that is truly my viewpoint on this. Thanks!

    1. Alex Ward
      September 15, 2014 at 20:00 Reply

      Hi Mike, truly honored that you took the time to read and respond to my post! I absolutely agree that none of the perceived racial implications of ANY Star Wars characters were intended to be offensive; you are absolutely correct that it was more accidental than anything.

      It’s extraordinary that Nunb’s language is actually a Kenyan dialect! That’s an amazing piece of information, and goes to show how layered, diverse, and rich the Star Wars films’ influences from real cultures are.

      Again, I appreciate your taking the time to read my post, and I hope I didn’t offend you. It will make more sense in my third post when I wrap it all together, but my intention is to sum up the critics’ perceptions of racism in the aliens of Star Wars; I concede to some points and some aspects of some points, but not all of them.

      Hope you stick around for the third installment!

      1. Mike Quinn
        September 16, 2014 at 02:59 Reply

        Hey Alex, my pleasure. Of course no offense taken at all, lol! It’s good to ask and see what’s really going on otherwise how will we really know? For Nien it seems to be mistaken identity but I can’t speak for the other characters – ha ha!!!
        Looking forward to the third installment!
        Cheers and be well!

  4. Dan Z & Cory Clubb
    September 15, 2014 at 14:30 Reply

    Mike,
    Wow! We are honored you took the time to read the post by Alex. Thanks so much for your insight, as it really is illuminating and informative. If you ever want to be on the show, we would be happy to have you. 🙂

    Dan Z

    1. Mike Quinn
      September 16, 2014 at 03:01 Reply

      Thank you Dan and I’m happy to participate 😀
      Be delighted to join you in a little while when things get less hectic for me here – thanks!!!

  5. The Role of the Alien in Star Wars, Part Three of Three | Coffee With Kenobi
    October 17, 2016 at 12:44 Reply

    […] and final installment of my series on aliens in Star Wars! You can find Parts 1 and 2 here and here. Before we get back into my regularly scheduled blog, I want to give a shout out to fellow blogger […]

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