UPDATE: In Comments, Noah favors the pulp explanation for Lucas’s racial, ah, infelicities:
Lucas has all sorts of weird racial stereotypes in his movies. There’s a bunch of semi-Chinese speaking/looking Asian characters if I remember. And Jar-Jar Binks is egregious …
I don’t think it’s necessarily because Lucas is some sort of closet racist. I think it’s about his debt to/obsession with old pulp sources, which are all pretty racist. And about being dumb. Being dumb is important here, I think.
According to my rough estimate of prevailing racial mores, I can see ’30s-style Chinese stereotypes showing up as movie aliens. I can also believe, just, that Jar-Jar Binks is anti-black, since he’s such a bizarre hodgepodge and the Steppin Fetchit element is just one of many ingredients heaped together; it’s possible that Lucas never thought too hard about every element of what he had wrought. But Watto the Jew Slave Trader is a note-by-note recreation and his source would be anti-Semitic propaganda presented as such, not pulp magazines or old serials. I’ve seen old adventure movies and read Doc Savage and you don’t find hairy, big-nosed Jews wearing yarmulkes. The worst I’ve seen, and this was in more genteel, middle-class light lit, was pushy types who littered and who spoke with odd spellings.
All of which is to say that I don’t know what to make of Watto. The obvious explanation — he’s a Jew! — just doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t believe anyone would knowingly stick a stereotype like that into a film. But Watto doesn’t look like anything else.
Now the original post:
Miriam just commented on watching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There’s a scene where Aslan, the Christ figure, is humiliated and then killed, and Miriam says the tormentors look a lot like their counterparts in medieval representations of the Passion. Which means, one would expect, that they look like medieval Christians’ idea of Jews.
Now, I didn’t spot that, but it’s possible I had fallen asleep. What I did notice was a character in The Phantom Menace, a freaky alien with wings and trunk and so on, all of it somehow configured so that the freak came out looking like a caricature of a bulbous-nosed, conniving Jew trader. In fact the character trafficked in slaves, which reinforced the impression. Just now I googled “phantom menace anti-semitic” and found out his name is Watto. And here he is. The hat! The stubble! You tell me that’s not a Jew, Der Sturmer style.
Googling “watto anti-semitic,” I find this controversy has been kicking around a bit, kind of a second-string Jar-Jar-Binks-is-racist deal. The defenses are terribly unconvincing: Watto’s accent is kind of Italian or kind of Greek, so therefore … Yeah, like that would make a difference. On the other hand, what the hell would an anti-Semitic stereotype be doing in the middle of a big-money Hollywood summer film? And why on earth would George Lucas be gunning for the Jews? He’s friends with Spielberg.
To tell the truth, I wasn’t offended by Watto. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe it was a coincidence and I couldn’t believe it was intentional. I couldn’t believe the damn thing was there. Yet there it was.
So I took my quandary to experts, people who would know about Star Wars production lore and any urban legends concerning the lore. Alex Robinson (Box Office Poison et al) is a Star Wars freak and back then he ran a message board. I went there and lay my confusion before the board’s adherents. What did they know about all this?, I asked.
So of course they all (not Robinson, everyone else) called me an asshole and made fun of me. Jerks. One even pushed my argument over into absurdity by saying, yeah, and maybe CP30 was gay. The thing is, CP30 is prissy, mincing, and high-pitched, so maybe he’s not gay but he’s definitely a ’30s pulp version of an Englishman. He has an English accent, damn it. He’s a butler! So if Lucas’s movies have an homage to old-style stereotypes of the English, why not a pastiche of anti-Semitic caricature? Well, for lots of reasons, actually. The whole thing is kind of fucked up: a contest between my lying eyes and my lying sense of probability.
Googling “george lucas anti-semitic anti-semitism” doesn’t establish much except that the New Internationalist is on the case and they’re quite sure Watto had a “coarse gravelly Yiddish accent.” Which I don’t think it was. I’ve heard Yiddish accents and that was something else.
A couple of years ago I saw Phantom Menace again, this time with my tv buddy, Henri. He’s a drunken anti-Semite, so I raised my concerns and asked what he thought. He lifted a sardonic eyebrow and nodded heavily; the message was that I had stumbled across the obvious. I asked for an explanation. “The Jews love to make fun of themselves,” he intoned. It turned out that he thought the Star Wars movies had been made by Steven Spielberg. So as of now I must consider the case unresolved.