SANTA MONICA, Calif., Feb. 9, 2000 -- Jar Jar Binks, that Gungan cross between Eeyore and Bob Marley, upset a lot of people last summer.
It wasn't just that he was annoying (he was) or stupid (ditto), but that he was (or so some naysayers charged) an intergalactic Stepin Fetchit -- a thinly veiled black stereotype who played the goof while Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and all the other white guys saved the galaxy.
Well, guess who's coming to dinner?
Word comes today that George Lucas, creator and master of the "Star Wars" universe, has taken the complaints of ethnic exclusion in "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace" to heart, and he's going to add some color to his (mostly) white-bread fantasy universe.
According to a report in today's Daily Variety, Lucas -- currently at work on the script for "Episode 2," the second installment in the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy -- is taking pains to make sure the next film is stocked with more racially diverse (read: politically correct) characters.
Even though Lucas's screenplay isn't finished, Lucasfilm Ltd. casting director Robin Gurland has already met with major talent agencies to mine actors for several roles, including an American Indian with "a forceful, spiritual nature," an Indian and/or Hispanic character and an Asian "possibly trained in martial arts," according to the trade newspaper.
Lucasfilm reps didn't immediately return Hollywood.com's request for a comment. But the report suggests quite a turnabout for Lucasfilm, which initially rejected the charges of racism that spread like wildfire over the Internet and in the media when the film was released in May.
"Nothing in 'Star Wars' was racially motivated," Lucasfilm's Lynne Hale told the Dallas Morning News last year. "'Star Wars' is a fantasy movie. I really do think to dissect this movie as if it had a direct reference to the world today is absurd."
As for the criticism that Jar Jar is a grating presence, Hale said: "It's a children's movie. Kids love him. He's so childish."
While the "yousa"-spewing Jar Jar was the butt of most of the PC criticism directed at "Phantom Menace," other "Phantom Menace" animated characters also were taken to task for perceived nods to Italian, Middle Eastern and Asian stereotypes.
Similar gripes were raised after the release of the original "Star Wars" in 1977. That film was populated with white heroes such as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia. When the sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" came out in 1980, the situation was remedied somewhat with Billy Dee Williams cast as Lando Calrissian.
By the way, Lucas has already said that Jar Jar will be back in "Episode 2."
DARTH MAUL OUTDUELS DINOS: The hubbub over sci-fi stereotypes, meanwhile, certainly didn't dissuade moviegoers from seeing "The Phantom Menace," either here or abroad. In fact, the film has now officially usurped "Jurassic Park" to become the world's second-highest-grossing movie of all time, trailing only "Titanic."
Though it's still oceans away from catching "Titanic," which has grossed $1.8 billion, "The Phantom Menace" seized the No. 2 all-time rank by taking in $922.5 million (and counting). It has now surpassed an impressive list of box-office champs. "Jurassic Park," down to No. 3 on the all-time list, has grossed $920 million; "Independence Day" is the fourth-highest-grossing film with $811.4 million; and the original "Star Wars" remains the fifth-highest-grossing movie (thanks in large part to its 1997 re-release) with $775.8 million.