Star Wars Celebration And The Emotional, Tear-Jerking Redemption Of Jar Jar Binks

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Honestly, the jokes are the hardest part to get used to.

There’s something unique about attending a convention based entirely around one specific intellectual property. When attending, say, San Diego Comic-Con, it’s still a mish-mash of, really, almost anything a human being might like to watch or read in their free time. (Except porn, I guess.) It’s still more like a heightened, much more whimsical version of real life. Most people still like different things.

This is all thrown out the window when you attend something like Star Wars Celebration. Everyone is on the same dork page. And since everyone is on that same page, it’s like the whole English language becomes different. Songs you think you recognize turn out to be Star Wars parodies and everyone seems to know them. (And I’m not talking about the two Weird Al songs; I’m talking about weird versions of “My Sharona” remixed as “Maz Kanata.”) And normal turns of phrases are casually replaced with parallel versions from the Star Wars universe. For instance, if you ask someone, “Oh, is that my bag?,” instead of the reply being, “No, yours is over there,” the response is, instead, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” as someone waves his or her hand in your face. And the strangest part is, everyone just accepts all this as perfectly normal – to the point I just got used to it. After five days of this, it just became “my life.”

And, yes, it’s the ‘Star Wars humor” that’s the most jarring. Before every major panel there are a series of affable pre-show hosts who are there to warm up the crowd. And, yes, this is completely normal, but the only difference is every punchline lands like, “And you call that a Kessel run?,” or whatever, and everyone laughs. Again, it’s like a whole other language that I can certainly understand, but don’t really feel comfortable speaking.

Skepticism is something I just can’t shake. “What is this person’s angle and what’s in it for them?,” is pretty much how I live my life every day. And, yes, it’s kind of miserable! But it’s also a big reason why I feel uncomfortable at these sort of conventions. Look, I love Star Wars. My favorite movie of all time is The Empire Strikes Back. But I get pretty jaded at the nonstop, relentless marketing at these things. I just want to scream, “You’re all being duped!” Duped into what? Well, maybe duped into going to the official store and buying a set of the replica medals that were given to Han and Luke at the end of the first Star Wars, only in coaster form? Who would buy such a thing?

But, look, these panels are extensively choreographed even though the audience is made to believe what’s happening is spontaneous. There’s nothing wrong with this. That’s how most everything works these days. But when the audience goes nuts for a seemingly spontaneous moment that’s obviously scripted, that’s what makes me, personally, let’s say, a little uncomfortable. And, for most of the weekend, that’s how it mostly went. Until…

In 1997, Ahmed Best was a 24-year-old New York City actor performing in Stomp when he was offered a job in the first Star Wars movie in 16 years, which would eventually be titled The Phantom Menace. Best was assured by George Lucas that the role of Jar Jar Binks would be a fan favorite, the funniest character in the history of the franchise to that point, and Lucas’ own personal favorite character (still is, apparently). Think about all that for a second. This was Best’s first major film role and he’s being told by George Lucas that he’d be a part of Star Wars history forever in what, arguably, is still the most anticipated film of all time. Jar Jar Binks would be iconic. (What kind of pressure does a person put on oneself after hearing something like that?) And, Jar Jar Binks did become part of history, but not in the way Best hoped or imagined.

Once billed as a star of the new trilogy, Jar Jar Binks’ role in both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were nominal, at best. Soon, Jar Jar Binks became the poster child of everything that was wrong with the Star Wars prequels. But the truth is, the problems with the prequels had little to do with Jar Jar and more to do with the execution of that whole trilogy. (Jar Jar Binks is barely in Revenge of the Sith, yet that movie is a failure on almost every level.)

Over the years, Jar Jar Binks became a punchline. And it’s impossible not to take that personally, even though Best did exactly what George Lucas wanted. Best showed up, did his job as instructed, then was made fun of for 20 years. The fan backlash was so bad that Best has said that it led him to contemplate suicide. What a rotten deal.

That all said, a mid-April snowstorm hit Chicago on Sunday (what a world) extending my stay at Star Wars Celebration for 24 hours. Which meant I’d be in town for The Phantom Menace 20th anniversary panel. It was at this panel, of all things, where my own personal wall finally came crumbling down. It was here I saw something emotional and real. It was here that, 20 years later, Star Wars fans got on their feet and gave Ahmed Best (who hadn’t been to a Star Wars Celebration since 1999) a standing ovation. Best, for his part, looked a little surprised and for sure overwhelmed.

The jaded side of me wants to point out that one standing ovation doesn’t make up for the 20 years of shit this guy had to take. But the funny thing is, at that moment, the jaded side of me went away. None of it mattered. After all this time, Best was finally getting his due. I’m sure the people standing that day meant it as both a way of saying they actually do appreciate the job Best did and, also, an apology. There’s no way almost every single one of them didn’t make a Jar Jar joke over the last 20 years (I, of course, include myself.) It was less a standing ovation as much as it was a standing apology. We’ve seen the darker side of what this kind of discourse can do just recently, even forcing The Last Jedi star Kelly Marie Tran to leave social media.

During The Rise of Skywalker panel on Friday, Tran also received a standing ovation and seemed genuinely overwhelmed. Considering the current vitriol of the internet, Tran went through a concentrated version of what Best went through, only condensed into a year and a half. Though, the reception for Tran felt a little different — it felt more like, “We, here, are with you” – more of a resistance to online hatred. With Best, it was more, “We may have overreacted and we apologize.”

But, it was real. Shortly after the panel Best tweeted…

It felt legitimately emotional. And there’s no way to script something like that. I found myself tearing up a little bit. And I do hope Best found some solace in all of this. Due to a technicality of snowstorm and a canceled flight – I found the best moment of Star Wars Celebration when I was supposed to already be gone. It wasn’t footage. It wasn’t a trailer. It was Ahmed Best, standing alone, triumphant, in front of thousands of fans who were on their feet applauding. Celebration, finally, won me over.

After The Phantom Menace panel I was feeling so good about it I went to the official Celebration store and bought a The Phantom Menace t-shirt … and a set of the replica medals that were given to Han and Luke at the end of the first Star Wars, only in coaster form.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.