The Merchant of Menace

The conventional wisdom debunked.
May 27 1999 3:30 AM

The Merchant of Menace

Racial stereotypes in a galaxy far, far away?

29000_29430_990526_starwars1

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 a 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! (To hear an example, click "Great.") Psychological manipulations that work on almost everyone fail with Watto--"Mind ticks don'ta work on me ... only money! No," 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.

29000_29433_30024117_phantom_menace

A nd 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 (Queen 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 Vader).

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. Or click "No"; listen again; and you tell me: Is Corliss crazy or am I?

Bruce Gottlieb is a former Slate staff writer and chief counsel at the Federal Communications Commission; he is currently general counsel at the Atlantic Media Company.