I've Got A Slur In My Bonnet

Thu, 27 May 1999 07:30:37 EDT

(reminiscent of Billy Crystal's loveable yiddish character in "The Princess
Bride" . . . I guess we could get all gottlieby over the not-so-subliminal
Jewish/Wizard association.)

SLATE MORNING DELIVERY: Thurs., May 27, 1999

hey, wait a minute

The Merchant of Menace: Racial stereotypes in a galaxy far, far away?

By Bruce Gottlieb

I don't think there's anything wrong with ethnic jokes per se. Some
of my best jokes are ethnic. Like the one about the Jewish mother
on a beach who screams "My son! My son the neurologist! Is
drowning!" Or the two Scotsmen who tuck $10 bills into their
friend's casket and the third who swaps the bills for a $30 check.

But what about a sober drama featuring evil mercantilists whose
technologically advanced robots enslave a peace-loving nation and
all at the bidding of man known as "Emperor"? Oh, right, the
mercantilists also have slanty eyes, wear long robes, and talk just
like Charlie Chan. They attempt to hide their crafty schemes from
the outside world by forcing the conquered nation to sign a faux
treaty. They are ruthless and cruel in their occupation.

When Michael Crichton wrote a Japan-bashing film (and novel) back
in 1993 called Rising Sun, critics roasted him for exploiting
racial fears. But the racial stereotyping in George Lucas' latest
Star Wars epic, The Phantom Menace, is far worse, and nobody seems
to care.

Crafty Japanese trade villains aren't the only heavy-handed ethnic
stereotype in The Phantom Menace. As the story continues, the
heroes slip past the evil Japanese to a nearby planet. There, they
attempt to repair their broken spaceship but are stymied by the
hook-nosed owner of the local parts shop--Watto--who also happens
to have a thick Yiddish accent! Psychological manipulations that
work on almost everyone fail with Watto--"Mind ticks don'ta work on
me ... only money! No money, no parts, no deal!," he cries--and the
heroes get what they want only through the bravery of a gifted
slave boy (Anakin Skywalker). At the end of the desert planet
sequence, Anakin is emancipated but separated from his mother, who
still belongs to Watto. Even in a galaxy far away, the Jews are
apparently behind the slave trade.

And then there's Jar Jar Binks, the childlike sidekick with the
unmistakably West Indian accent and enormous buttocks. Jar Jar is
likable, easygoing, and dumb as dirt--always being scolded or saved
from death by the Jedi knights. His stupidity and cowardice are
running jokes throughout the film. And his people, the Gungan, are
a brave but primitive tribe who throw spears and rocks at the
oncoming army in the climactic battle sequence. Only Hispanics
escape Lucas' caricature, which is actually something of a mixed
blessing since Hispanics often rightly complain that they are
ignored in the national race debate.

In fairness to George Lucas, he gives Japanese traits to at least
one heroine (Princess Amidala), and there is a black man (Samuel
Jackson) on the august Jedi Council. And true evil in this
movie--the so-called Phantom Menace--resides in a handsome white
man (Sen. Palpatine) and a towheaded tot (Anakin Skywalker/Darth

Until this last episode, the Star Wars series has shown a happy,
multiculty universe, in which thousands of sentient species
coexist, more or less peacefully. This hardly gives Lucas license
to revive racist stereotypes. But it makes the latest characters
seem like a lapse in taste rather than morals. What's especially
puzzling, though, is that film reviewers have by and large given
Lucas a free pass. A smattering of reviewers griped about Jar Jar
Binks, and the Village Voice was offended by the "blatant ethnic
stereotype" behind Watto, "the hook-nosed merchant insect." But far
more typical was the Time reviewer, Richard Corliss, who gushed:
"the junk dealer Watto is a little masterpiece of design: cinnamon
stubble on his corrugated face, chipped rocks for teeth, the raspy
voice of Brando's Godfather speaking Turkish." Turkish? Even
without the visual clue of the hooked nose, Watto's accent is
clearly Yiddish, not Turkish. "No money, no parts, no deal!";
listen again; and you tell me: Is Corliss crazy or am I?

(The version of this article at www.slate.com contains audio
samples from the movie.)