When Ahmed Best came on board to play Jar Jar Binks in 1999s "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace"—the first prequel for the highly bankable film franchise—the South Bronx native did not expect that he would become famous for all the wrong reasons.
Binks was widely reviled by critics and fans alike, dismissed for providing poor comic relief and thought by many to be a racist minstrel-esque character. The Chicago Tribune pointed out major criticisms, comparing him to the "Amos ‘n’ Andy" character Stephen Fetchit. Others remarked on his speech pattern, calling it a stereotype of West Indian patois. He was dim-witted, frequently got in other characters’ ways, and was histrionically devoted to his friends—all of which pointed towards him becoming one of the worst-received movie characters of all time.
Nearly 15 years after "The Phantom Menace" swept up at the box office, Best has largely rebuilt his career. He went to school at the American Film Institute and got involved in well-recieved programs like "The Nebula" and "Bandwagon" as an actor, producer and director. He spoke to Vice last week while promoting his latest project, the Seth MacFarlane-executive-produced "2 Black Dudes" (see trailer below) but largely spoke with them about the backlash to Binks.
The whole interview is insightful, but a few choice quotes suggest that he hasn’t let the criticism bring him down. Speaking about the backlash, he had the following to say:
To be 100 percent honest, none us, as we were shooting this, had any idea that anything like this was going to happen. …At the end of the day, it is the movie business, and if the character doesn’t work for the people who watch the movie then the character doesn’t work. I can’t take that personally.
Most crucially, Best had a lot to say about the criticism of Binks as a racist character—and most of it was directed at the critics themselves:
[The criticism] just further underscores the ignorance and the blind unrealness of dealing with racism in this country. The lack of education and the lack of exposure to what actually is racist to non-black folks is abysmal. For anyone to say that is offensive because it shows the ignorance of not knowing what a Rastafarian is and not having proper education and knowledge of what minstrelsy was in the time of vaudeville, Butterfly McQueen, and Stepen Fetchit. They really don’t know what those roles were and why those roles were.
I think that ignorance and that lack of education that’s pervasive in this country not only allows criticism like that to be actually voiced without any type of proof. It also allows what goes on in modern filmmaking as far as [limited] roles for black people—black people have experiences other than the jail- and gang-related [stories] being shown in movies today. They don’t believe that black actors, specifically black American actors, have enough depth to try these other roles and it has turned into the outsourcing of an incredible amount of American talent. The top black actors in the world right now are both British. And they’re the only ones being allowed to play these roles that have a lot more depth and gravitas. There’s nothing wrong with playing a brother in jail as long as there’s a lot more to the character than, "I kill people and I’m black." So, [Morganstern’s] criticism underscores that lack of intelligence and original ideas in folks who try to understand the black experience in entertainment.
Click here to read the full interview with Vice, and click below to see the "2 Black Dudes" trailer.