He was the most despised character in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels, which was no simple feat considering the ire other characters received from fair-weather fans who arrogantly pounced on movies they felt should have been exactly as they’d imagined them. To them, the screechy, hysterical amphibious Gungan represented a shift in tone away from the formula established in the original trilogy that was detrimental to the quality and audience enjoyment of the newer films.
Criticisms of the Binks character were all-encompassing. His speech pattern and walk were considered offensive, his presence in the films was extraneous, and he supposedly added nothing to the overall narrative flow. Those who found the character offensive felt his demeanor came across like what the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern referred to as a “Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs.” Some even went as far as comparing the character to the shameful tradition of white actors in blackface.
Binks was also seen as a final move into shameless commercialism begun in 1983 with the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi,” a blatant appeal to children. As Lucas remarked, adult fans of “Star Wars” don’t like to be reminded that, essentially, his films are for children. This isn’t a flippant comment either. Lucas based his films on the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s which were specifically aimed at children matinee audiences.
In spite of the all the hostility the character engendered, what purpose does the he serve in Lucas’ mythology? For one thing, he symbolizes his creator’s most poignant concept using the broadest, loudest strokes available. “Stars Wars” is, at its core, the story of the disempowered and disregarded rising up and asserting themselves against an oppressive, seemingly undefeatable power.
The original trilogy, referred to as the “OT” by fans in a giddy stab at blasphemous bad-assery, dealt with a group of ragtag rebels fighting the Galactic Empire. The rebels were people like Han Solo, a former Imperial officer turned criminal. One can imagine many of the rebel pilots and soldiers had checkered pasts as well.
The new trilogy (Yep, it’s referred to as the “NT”) was the equivalent of telling the story of Rome before it fell. Characters were more formal in their speech and far more established in their positions in life. There were no smugglers or con men turned governors to shake up the mixture of rigid, mannerly Jedi Knights.
Jar Jar Binks was a member of a mostly unknown alien race of aquatic beings whose pridefulness caused them to assume that their human counterparts on the surface of the planet Naboo considered themselves superior. He was a clumsy screw-up who was banished from his home and wound up encountering a Jedi Master during an invasion of his homeworld. Jar Jar immediately annoyed the crap out of two men whose patience would be the envy of the gods and, through being rescued, wound up accompanying them on an interplanetary adventure where his propensity for stumbling and breaking things served to be a minor challenge to the other characters in the film. But again, what purpose did he serve?
Those of us who have seen all three prequels know that it is Binks whose vote in the senate determins the Chancellor’s emergency powers. So, we know he is ultimately the most important being in Lucas’ universe regarding the plot of the NT. However, on a less concrete level, he is also one of the most important ideas to appear in the films and here’s why:
Jar Jar Binks is that annoying person we all know and refuse to tolerate. He talks too much, he trips over his own feet, he gets into skirmishes just by walking past people. His voice is grating as well. But he is also someone who deserves a chance. Why? Because he’s a good-hearted person at his core who only wants to be accepted and to help those in need. He might be childlike and loud, but he is also willing to stand in a field of much more powerful adversaries and do his best to be a commanding general.
The character of Jar Jar represents that small, seemingly insignificant outcast society has no use or place for. Yet he proves himself as a friend, a fighter, and leader. And much like that annoying person we dismiss so readily, once the characters get to know him, they also learn how to curb his more obnoxious traits, resulting in a much more toned down Binks by the second film in the series. He gets it now. He doesn’t need to act that way anymore because he has found his acceptance and made a difference in the lives of people who might normally have ignored his potential contributions.
Isn’t that what Lucas is saying with every “Star Wars” movie?