Last winter, actor Ahmed Best—who first portrayed Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace when he was a 25-year-old - took to his Twitter account to reflect on the movie’s upcoming 20th anniversary. But that remembrance included how fans’ vitriolic backlash to his performance nearly drove him to kill himself.
While dragging Jar Jar and The Phantom Menace has become something of a popular joke within Star Wars fandom, the impact that harassment from the community had on Best’s mental well being is something that cannot and should not be downplayed.
As a young actor living in New York City at the time, becoming part of one of the world’s most beloved film franchises in Hollywood history was the opportunity of a lifetime. While filming, Best was all but certain that the role was going to open up doors for him.
But then The Phantom Menace opened in theatres, audiences met Jar Jar Binks, and Star Wars fans—notoriously resistant to change and new things being introduced into the franchise - targeted Best for being part of what “ruined” the movie and (through the odd logic of an overly-invested fandom) their collective childhoods.
But the response to Best’s performance was more than mere criticisms or distaste for a character who was clearly meant to appeal to children. Almost immediately it took on violent, often racist overtones that Best says in a new video about that point in his life, cut him deeply and pushed him into a dark place:
“I was just alone and the depression hit me. Hard. I was just broken. The only think I could think of to make me feel better was to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. But this time when I walked across the bridge, I didn’t see the lights of Manhattan.
I didn’t see the towers [or] the potential of hard work and ingenuity. I didn’t see anything; I just saw a fog. I felt tired of having to explain myself. I felt tired of having to defend myself and defend my work. I felt tired of having to fight back against racism and the racial stereotypes. I just wanted to play a part.”
In the years since Best’s issues with Star Wars, similar incidents have driven other actors involved with the movies like Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley to take measures to protect themselves against those who feel that their love of the franchise justifies their desire to harass people.
Hopefully Best speaking out and letting others understand that the people who bring these characters to life are, in fact, people themselves whose humanity deserves respect, will make a positive impact.
If you struggle with suicidal thoughts please call Lifeline Australia at 13 11 14.