Within the Star Wars universe ranging from 1977 to present, there seems to be the idea that the planets that are primarily inhabited by a single race are Utopias. Each planet that was inhabited by several species and races, were the ones that most of the fighting occurred. Using the Cold War context is a way to view some of these Utopias as anything other than a political issue or to view these Utopias in a positive light is impossible since within a Utopia there are various horrors of communism and a hive mindset that will lead to a dysfunctional Utopia (Jameson, xi). The Empire within the Star Wars story arc was a representation of a Cold War image of socialist Dystopia, a totalitarian government that was a negative representation, whilst the Republic had some Utopian elements due to the fact that most of the protagonists existed within the Republic. Within the different types of Utopia, there could be socialist ones that would result in a realization of the underrepresentation of other cultures that are blatantly missing from Utopian texts as of now (Jameson, xi). These socialist Utopias were similar to the Republic and the Separatists that were in control of the galaxy in Star Wars. Jameson along with Darko Suvin reference the early 1950s, discuss the principle idea of cognitive estrangement when describing, “Utopia to be a socio-economic subgenre” of Science Fiction (Jameson, xiv). Simply put, cognitive estrangement is taking something that is familiar and managing to make it strange. By Star Wars providing a thriving society that has aliens and humans intermingling together, this created the idea of the Utopian form of cognitive estrangement. Jameson and Suvin both agree that this is what is valuable and necessary when creating a Utopia.
The film, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, directed by George Lucas in 2001, introduced the character Jar Jar Binks, whose voice and motion-captured movements were provided by an African American actor. This character is one of the most obvious illustrations of racism through an alien species, from his prominent lips, slouched demeanor, and his slow lumbering “pimp” walk. Jar Jar Binks is characterized throughout the film as having, “eccentricities in his behavior, dress, and speech” (Wagner 41). In this film, there is a planet Naboo that is inhabited by two races: the cultured humans who have an operating government, technology and are obviously superior. The other race represented is the one that birthed Jar Jar Binks: they are the Gungans, the underground reptilian dwelling species that remained close to their center of creation, who are unintelligent with no understanding of technology.
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
20th Century Fox
Lucas first introduces Jar Jar, in a scene where the character is running from some unknown pursuer through a dense forest in Naboo. Jar Jar is dressed tattered and torn brown clothing, in contrast to the green trees and grass that surround him. The dense forest that Jar Jar is frightfully running through is eerily similar to the lush green forests that are located in the United States southern regions. Jar Jar, with his personification of an African American male, is fleeing from what could be presumed as his white captors. The entire scene could easily be a representation of what a runaway slave would be look like in the 1800s.
As Jar Jar is haphazardly running through the forest, he collides with the Jedi character Qui-Gon Jinn, as they both narrowly escape being crushed by a hovering space craft that is crushing everything within its path, thanks to Qui-Gon’s quick reflexes and fast thinking.
Qui-Gon: You Almost got us killed! Are you brainless?
Jar Jar: I spake!
Qui-Gon: The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.
Lucas creates the character Qui-Gon to represent sensibility, power and knowledge. By having Jar Jar use a type of ignorant colloquialism when he encounters Qui-Gon, sets the premise that Jar Jar is the lesser or the two. It is within this scene that Lucas shows the hierarchical breakdown amongst human and alien. After this brief interaction, Jar Jar takes his white hero Qui-Gon Jinn to an underwater Gungan city as a way of showing his gratitude for being rescued from death. In this scene, there is a political debate amongst the Gungan “bosses” that is settled by arguing very loudly and the occasional raspberry. The way that the Gungans who are supposedly in charge of the decision making are acting, illustrates how savage this species is. Jar Jar is merely comically inept and his people are civilized, but just barely. Here Lucas represents that the minority race of Naboo is somewhat organized, but still inferior to the humans. For the Gungan people, wars are fought by slingshot, since human technology is apparently too complicated. This child-like race that is a clear parallel to the representation of African Americans in this film, seem to need the superior Naboo to help them become civilized. Here we see that Lucas is pointing out the obvious differences of the two races on the planet Naboo, so that the audience is led to believe that inferior races were those who were anything but white Europeans, but in this case the film substitutes the European for the Naboo.
Jar Jar Binks is an idiotic character that was thrust into the limelight with a clear representation of a Sambo-like vernacular that is a barely understandable form of English that could not have been mistaken as to represent African Americans in some sort of Science Fiction minstrel show by saying lines like, “Mesa called Jar Jar Binks. Mesa your humble servant” and “Yoosa should follow me now, okeeday” (Episode I). A “sambo” is what an African American person was called if he resembled a, ‘traditional plantation negro, who was always foolish lazy and careless”, who was incapable of living as an adult, without the guiding hand of a white man (Wagner 44). A Minstrel Show is one that was, constituted as entertainment as early as 1769. These shows, “whose base is Negro folk art, either comic or lachrymose, plagiarized, staged, and frequently falsified by low grade white actors who ‘played Negros’ by blackening their faces with burnt cork” (Wagner 40). By having a character portrayed as what was once a way to make light of and find humor in regards to the persecutions that African Americans endured, was an obvious way of showing that the negative stereotypes have manifested into fictional characters that are obviously meant to represent African Americans.
The way that Lucas created Jar Jar’s speech, was a way of making the character appear as an idiotic moron that would be nothing but a burden to those who encountered him. The way that Jar Jar spoke is more like a child that has just learned how to frame a single thought and form incomplete sentences. This portrayal of Jar Jar as an obvious minstrel character, invites the, “dissemination and the authentication of the mythical portrait which is deeply rooted in the American popular tradition” to become popularized once more (Wagner 48). Through this representation, African Americans were characterized and illustrated to be ignorant and childlike in opposition to the superior educated Caucasian counterparts in the film. African Americans were not the only race that was personified through an alien species. In this introductory scene, the director shows the viewer how in fact “science fiction serves as a useful medium through which to observe how a culture’s obsession with race is reproduced and its racial hierarchies projected” (Russell 194). Jar Jar Binks was the perfect example of racial stereotyping that paved the way for introduction of other characters that would negatively represent other races. These characters are a reminder of just how negative people of color are viewed in Hollywood Science Fiction and how little society cares about that fact. Later the Star Wars franchise would seek to resolve the problem through the introduction of characters that were various races in the newer computer animated series. By Star Wars seeking to resolve the problem, it tried to address the limitations of characters of various races of earlier Science Fiction films.
Many Science Fiction films since the Star Wars franchise emerged, have slightly increased the inclusion of characters that are portrayed by African Americans as well as Black people from various countries throughout the world. Even with the slight increase, there have still has been some backlash when feature films employ African American/Black talent, and yet these actors are not seen in their physical form. This is due to, “nonwhites in general and blacks in particular [remaining] invisible to western cinematic science fiction, if somewhat less so to its literary counterpart which occasionally has featured black characters” (Russel 193). These actors are often in computer-generated imagery (CGI) to represent monsters, aliens or simply an “other”, in regards to the human species. Within the Science Fiction genre, there has been a failure or in a sense some form of refusal to imagine African American actors in roles that would actively challenge the existing stereotypes of African Americans (Russel 193). One such film, that will be discussed next month, that was highly successful and guilty of masking its colored actors was the Science Fiction blockbuster, Avatar, directed by James Cameron in 2010.