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Detroit Racist Panel Struggles, Comes up with Ridiculous Allegations that Star Wars Attack of the Clones is Racist:
Photos by Clarence Tabb Jr. / The Detroit News
Critics say 'Clones' has racial stereotypes
George Lucas, sometimes accused of reinforcing racial
stereotypes with his movies, has done it again, according to critics.
Latino critics in particular charge his latest Star Wars epic, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, toys with American paranoia about Mexican immigration with its cloned army of swarthy lookalikes who march in lockstep by the tens of thousands, and ultimately end up serving as Darth Vader's white-suited warriors.
Modeled on bounty hunter Jango Fett, the clones, we're told, are genetically modified for docility and obedience. The breeding project, conducted by long-necked aliens who look like refugees from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, takes place on the planet Kamino -- soundalike for the Spanish word "camino," which means "road" or "I walk."
Temuera Morrison, the actor who plays Jango, is a New Zealander of Maori descent. But that didn't get in the way of some members of an eight-person Detroit News panel assembled to review the film.
"He looked totally Latino," says Martina Guzman, a Detroiter who's managing a State House election campaign.
"And his kid," says Wayne State history professor Jose Cuello, referring to the young Boba Fett, "looked even more Latino."
It reminds Cuello a little bit of "those Reagan ads in the 1980 campaign, that suggested if Nicaragua went communist, you'd have wild-eyed Mexicans with guns running across the California border."
A flabbergasted Lucasfilm spokeswoman, Jeanne Cole, says "This is the first we've heard of this. Star Wars," she says, "is a fantasy movie filled with creatures and aliens from all different planets and universes and galaxies. There is no basis for this."
Lucas was in Cannes and could not be reached for comment.
The celebrated mythmaker has been through what some might call the p.c. mill before.
In 1999, a furor erupted over The Phantom Menace's Jar Jar Binks, a floppy-eared alien whom some read as a sort of Stepin Fetchit by way of the West Indies.
"Everyone I've ever spoken to says there's a Rastafarian element to his speech, his walk, and in his 'dread' ears," says copy editor Robert del Valle, who was on The News panel with Guzman and Cuello.
But such allegations were dismissed as "absurd" by Lucas in a Thursday interview published in the Washington Post. "People say, 'He sounds Caribbean.' Well, he doesn't. He's a complete invention. It's a different language. Just because he speaks with that accent doesn't mean it's a racial stereotype."
The interview did not address the clone issue.
A somewhat muted Jar Jar makes another appearance in Clones, but it is the dark-skinned Jango-copies that seem to have caught some audience members' attention this time around.
Still, not everybody's buying it.
Harry Knowles, on-line film reviewer and author of Ain't It Cool: Hollywood's Red-Headed Step-Child Speaks Out (Time Warner), says the whole Jango ethnic premise is "reading racism into something that's not there -- it's just in the minds of the viewers. It's like calling Jar Jar racist when all he is is Bullwinkle."
The Jango dispute surfaced in internet chat rooms devoted to Star Wars days before the movie's release, says panelist Gary Anderson, the artistic director at Detroit's Plowshares Theatre and longtime Star Wars student and critic.
If the planet name "Kamino" caught some Latinos' attention, three Arab-Americans on The News' panel seized on the fact that Jango's son calls him "Baba."
"I frankly think the bounty hunter is Arab," says college counselor Imad Nouri of Royal Oak.
"He's basically a terrorist," explains Nouri, "and 'baba' is Arabic for 'father.' "
Such allegations have a long history in that galaxy far, far away. A number of observers noted that the 1977 original was, at least at the human level, an all-white party -- looking, in Anderson's words, "like the Ku Klux Klan's fantasy of the future."
The only exception was Darth Vader's basso-profundo voice, supplied by African-American actor James Earl Jones.
Which leads to all sorts of ironies, intentional or not: Darth Vader has a black man's voice when he's bad, but in Clones -- before Anakin Skywalker does the Darth-thing and defects to the Dark Side -- he's a white guy, played by Hayden Christensen.
The big question lurking beneath all this ethnic deconstruction: Could any of this possibly be deliberate?
For their part, The News' panelists were divided.
"The plot is so superficial," says Cuello, "I don't think they could possibly have any deliberate intent about manipulating images."
Like almost everybody who commented on Lucas, Anderson doubts there's anything malicious going on.
"If your entire world perspective is based on 1950s TV and films, what do you expect?" he asks. "Garbage in and garbage out."
For her part, Guzman was astonished that, given the Jar Jar flap, Lucas didn't scrutinize everything a little more critically this time around. "He's been criticized before," she says. "So he had a choice."
It's not that she's opposed to Latin-looking baddies per se. She just wishes the occasional swarthy good guy would get as much on-screen time as the villain.
"Jimmy Smits had all of two lines in the whole movie," Guzman says. "And Samuel Jackson had like five. Then there's the bad guy."
For pop-culture professor Robert Thompson at Syracuse University -- who has yet to see Clones -- the issue boils down to whether Lucas really wanted to tweak Anglo fears.
He's inclined to say no, attributing Lucas' occasionally confusing choices to "a certain degree of cluelessness. Look at Jar Jar Binks. The moment that guy comes on the screen, you wonder what in the world they were thinking. This isn't 1957. Didn't anybody say, 'Have you paid attention to what this guy is doing?' "
The sad thing, he says, is that the Star Wars saga is also "about tolerance and dignity. But then you've got this 'camino' thing, which sounds a little creepy, and swarthy people who march in uncountable masses."
Thompson calls the imagery in Star Wars a "great big Rorschach test, not just for the people who watch the movies, but for Lucas himself." With the latter, that leads him to two possibilities.
"One is that this is coming out of the id of the creator without translation -- a West Coast fear of the Latino population in America." (Lucas grew in the 1950s in Modesto, Calif., the agricultural town immortalized in American Graffiti, and one visited annually by thousands of migrant workers.)
The second hypothesis, he notes, is that it's all deliberate -- a way to prompt deep emotional response in audiences by probing "a phobia that's afoot in America. And that's the scarier interpretation."
Or, as some argue, perhaps it's all stuff and nonsense.
Knowles at aintitcool.com keeps emphasizing on the fact that Temeura Morrison, the actor who plays Jango, is Maori.
When asked how audiences are supposed to know that, he says, "How can you tell? You stay for the end credits. Is his name 'Raul Julia?' No."
But even if Jango was meant to be taken as a Latino, others just don't see a problem.
"At least we're in the picture," says Hollywood producer Michael Gonzalez with a laugh.
"I mean, what did we have before -- Lt. Torres on Star Trek? It's just a movie," he says. "It's just fun. And you're going to hit a stereotype one way or another. At least we get some screen time."
In any event, Guzman doubts most Hispanics will notice, if only "because they're so used to seeing images like that of themselves -- little dialogue, always being the bad guy. It's going to take the intellectual community to call Lucas on what he's doing."
Latinos are now the nation's largest minority. But box-office analyst Adam Farasati -- who argues Hollywood rarely takes minority concerns into consideration -- doesn't see any collateral damage to the film's profits.
"The only real issue is that Attack of the Clones is one of most anticipated movies of all time," he says from RealSource's Los Angeles office.
"And beyond that, any type of media attention -- even negative -- really just creates more hype for a film that has hype coming out its ears."
You can reach Michael H. Hodges at (313) 222-6021 or email@example.com.