Fu Manchu on Naboo
Everyone's a victim these days, so America's touchiness industry is dedicated to seeing group slights everywhere. But sometimes even touchy people are right. Complaints about the new Star Wars movie, for instance, are valid. Episode I: The Phantom Menace is packed with awful stereotypes.
Consider the evil Neimoidians. They are stock Asian villains out of black-and-white B movies of the 1930s and 1940s, complete with Hollywood oriental accents, sinister speech patterns, and a space-age version of stock Fu Manchu clothing. Watto, the fat, greedy junk dealer with wings, is a conventional, crooked Middle Eastern merchant. This is a generic antisemitic image, Jewish if you want him to be, or Arab if you don't.
Law Prof. Patricia Williams says Watto looks strikingly like an anti-Jewish caricature published in Vienna at the turn of the century--round bellied, big nosed, with spindly arms, wings sprouting from his shoulders, and a scroll that says, "Anything for money." Perhaps Watto isn't supposed to be Jewish. Some people thought he sounded Italian. But by presenting the character as an unprincipled, hook-nosed merchant (and a slave owner, to boot), the movie is at least playing around with traditional antisemitic imagery. It shouldn't.
The loudest criticism has been directed at Jar Jar Binks, the annoying, computer-generated amphibian who looks like a cross between a frog and a camel and acts, as one critic put it, like a cross between Butterfly McQueen's Prissy and Stepin Fetchit. His voice, the work of a black actor, is a sort of slurred, pidgin Caribbean English, much of it impossible to understand. "Me berry, berry scay-yud," says Jar Jar, in one of his modestly successful attempts at English. For some reason, he keeps saying "yousa" and "meesa," instead of "you" and "me." He is the first character in the four Star Wars movies to mess up Galactic Basic (the English language) on a regular basis.
Racist caricature. Fractured English is one of the key traits of a racist caricature in America, from all the 19th-century characters named Snowball down to Amos 'n' Andy. Whether endearing or pathetic, this trouble with language is supposed to demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of blacks. Childlike confusion is another familiar way of stereotyping blacks, and Jar Jar shows that trait too. He steps in alien-creature doo-doo, gets his tongue caught in a racing engine, and panics during the big battle scene. He is, in fact, a standard-issue, caricatured black who becomes hopelessly flustered when called upon to function in a white man's world.
A stereotype on this level is more than an insult. It is a teaching instrument and a powerful, nonverbal argument saying that racial equality is a hopeless cause. If blacks talk and act like this movie says they do, how can they possibly expect equal treatment?
What is going on in this movie? George Lucas, director of the Star Wars movies, says media talk about stereotypes is creating "a controversy out of nothing." But many visual cues support the charge that stereotypes are indeed built into the film. Jar Jar has head flaps drawn to look like dreadlocks. The ruler of his tribe, Boss Nass, wears what looks to be an African robe and African headdress. A Neimoidian senator named Lott (Trent Lott?), representing the evil viceroy Nute Gunray (Newt Gingrich?) wears a version of a Catholic bishop's mitre and a Catholic priest's stole over a dark robe. This can't be an accident. It duplicates, almost exactly, the appearance of a real bishop. It's a small reference but an unmistakable one. So Catholics, along with Asians and Republicans, are at least vaguely associated with Neimoidian treachery.