Part 5: What the Prequels are All About
First, in the 1983 TV documentary From Star Wars To Jedi: The Making of a Saga, there is behind-the-scenes footage of a scene in the Ewok village, as Lucas and Mark Hamill are discussing Luke’s willingness to allow the Ewoks to capture him. Lucas tells Hamill: “You sort of realize these would be good allies, so what you’re going to do is make them allies … In a fairy tale, it’s always being nice to the little bunny rabbit on the side of the road that gives you the magic …”
Second, think back to The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke first meets Yoda. As a test, Yoda behaves as foolishly and annoyingly as possible, and when Luke gets fed up with him, Yoda takes it as a warning sign that Luke – like his father – has too much anger in him.
Third, the backstory of Han Solo and Chewbacca – never stated in the films, but given in other sources dating back to the early 1980s – is that Han rescued Chewie from slavers, with the result that Chewie owes Han a “life debt”.
In Episode I, the Jar Jar Binks subplot is basically all three of these concepts combined: Be nice to a goofy, long-eared woodland creature, instead of getting annoyed with him, and you’ll be rewarded by loyalty and an army of warriors.
So Jar Jar is really just a reworking of ideas that the series has used before. That doesn’t mean you have to like him, but it does mean that he’s far from being an unprecedented invasion of the sanctity of the Star Wars universe.
Many critics have described Jar Jar Binks – his foolishness, his clumsiness, his cowardice – as representing degrading African-American stereotypes from the 1930s or earlier. What critics strangely forget, however, is that Jar Jar is not the only member of his race shown in the film. When we meet the other Gungans, they do not share his naivete or ineptitude. The entire point is that Jar Jar is not like others of his kind. He was banished because he was clumsy. Basically, he is a nerd!
Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean that the Gungans, as a fictional race, aren’t problematic on some level. Science fiction has a long history – both well-meaning and patronizing – of presenting made-up alien races as metaphors for non-Western (or merely non-white) peoples. It probably dates back to the days when publishers or networks or studios were unwilling to deal with controversies such as the civil rights movement or the war in Vietnam, so presenting imaginary aliens was a way of smuggling those themes to a mass audience. Ursula K. Le Guin famously used this trope in her Vietnam-era sci-fi novel The Word For World is Forest, and James Cameron more recently pressed it into service for his film Avatar.
Stay Tooned for the epic conclusion to What the Prequels are About next week!