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Why Ahmed Best was never the same after playing Jar Jar Binks

We all know Jar Jar Binks. He's emblematic of Star Wars' prequel era across the early 2000s, and the totem the internet holds up to prove how arguably terrible the three films were. In the years before franchise creator George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney (and even in the time after), fans denounced Jar Jar as a cheap money grab to make and sell toys, the worst parts of Return of the Jedi distilled into one character, and borderline racist due to his accent. At the center of all the discourse was the man who portrayed Jar Jar: Ahmed Best.

When cast for the first return to the Star Wars franchise in almost 20 years, Best was coming off a celebrated turn in the hit musical Stomp in San Francisco and off a gig playing for the acid jazz group Jazzholes. It's every twenty-something's dream to be plucked from obscurity by the chance of Lucasfilm's casting director attending a performance of yours — and Best went into production of The Phantom Menace in 1997 with bright eyes and a luminous attitude. You can see how much fun he was to be around behind the scenes of The Phantom Menace: singing, dancing, chipper as ever even when he's draped in latex during a searing Tunisian summer. 

How quickly that all would change in May 1999. Here's what happened to Ahmed Best in the wake of portraying Jar Jar Binks, and why he was never the same afterward.

The intense backlash to Jar Jar Binks

Anybody of at least middle-school age in 1999 was aware of the vicious backlash against the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars canon. His admittedly overwrought Buster Keaton impression (which was the reference Best was aiming for with Jar Jar) fit poorly into a film about taxes and trade confrontations featuring robed warriors with laser swords. At this point 20 years on, however, you may not remember some of the darker sides of the backlash.

There was the now-defunct website jarjarmustdie.com, as well as an angelfire page part of a "Jar Jar Binks Hate Webring" that claims Jar Jar is satanic Communist propaganda and that "THE ONLY GOOD GUNGAN IS A DEAD GUNGAN." Major news entertainment outlets ran stories about the frothing hate that was almost driven to real violence, with many members of the Star Wars fandom making dark and probably-intended-to-be-humorous-but-actually-horrifying jokes about Gungan genocide — which feels particularly pointed and even more drastically un-funny in this day and age. 

It's not that Jar Jar Binks was just unliked or even hated — it's that so many relished in the idea of exterminating (yes, a word actually and frequently used in relation to Jar Jar) something that exists as a fictional construct. To his credit, Lucas warned Best ahead of time that there might be anger in response to Jar Jar the same way there had been to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and publicly defended him when the backlash turned out to be much, much worse. Still, people can only hold up so long against that much public vilification.

Ahmed Best's deep personal struggle

Ahmed Best was born in 1973, which is relevant because he was amongst the first generation for which it was possible to truly be embedded in internet culture. He was, and still is, as a matter of fact. Thus, not only was Best party to the mainstream media hate parade leveled against him for this job he had done, but he was also subject to the inescapable and magnitudes crueler online hatred present on the internet in the early 2000s.

To make matters worse, Best also "won" a Razzie for worst supporting actor in 2000 for his work in The Phantom Menace. Add to that the early 2000s brand of hysterical and discriminatory suggestion that Jar Jar's character was "actually" gay because of assumed stereotypes, and Best's life understandably fell apart from stress. 

This resulted in Best becoming suicidal. In July 2018, Best revealed in a Twitter post that he nearly decided to jump off a bridge due to "media backlash that still affects [his] career today." Several months later, he opened up in greater detail about how the harassment he faced for playing Jar Jar Binks pushed him to consider suicide.

20 years has given a lot of us the time to reflect on the relative failures and successes of the Star Wars prequel trilogy — and for the people who were younger when The Phantom Menace was released, it's given them a chance to realize that Jar Jar isn't the treasonous crime against Star Wars as previously believed. With that reassessment comes empathy — and in the outpouring of that empathy in responses to Best's confession, many apologized for getting wrapped up in the hay fever of Jar Jar hate

The lesson to be learned

What happened to Best in the wake of the Star Wars prequels was certainly the worst of the outcomes, but it wasn't the only bad one. 

Jake Lloyd, the actor who played young Anakin Skywalker, quit acting for good after he was ruthlessly bullied by his peers for not meeting expectations. Hayden Christensen, who portrayed adult Anakin in the prequels, disappeared back to Canada to start a farm and a small business – rarely returning for most Star Wars-related events, lest the howling about his performance as Anakin begin again. Natalie Portman was written off as a wooden actress incapable of depth following her performance as Padmé Amidala. Luckily, Portman didn't give up her dream; she went on to star in V for Vendetta, The Other Boleyn Girl, and the film that won her an Oscar, Black Swan. 

These outcomes can be at least partially attributed to the worst impulses of a rabid fanbase and the impossible standards society places on Star Wars needing to be a highly subjective qualification of "outstanding." That hasn't changed now, either, as the sequel trilogy's Kelly Marie Tran, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Rian Johnson can vividly attest. The three actors faced serious criticism, while the writer-director of The Last Jedi was slammed as ruining the entire Star Wars franchise.

Within the Star Wars movies are people with real lives and feelings, as well as earnest craft performed in good faith. It's clear we'd all be better off if franchise fans took that to heart.