Guess what, haters? Jar Jar Binks can kick your ass. Right now at the John Machado Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Culver City, Calif., Ahmed Best, the man who played one of the most divisive and controversial film characters of all time, lies on the floor, an opponent smothering him against the mat. His belt has been torn off, and beads of sweat trickle down his face as he looks around frantically for a way out. Then he slowly moves one hand onto his adversary’s belt and the other onto the guy’s foot, and before you can say ”How wude!” Best flips over his competitor, flashing a huge grin while his opponent taps the mat twice in a sign of submission.
It’s not quite the Battle of Naboo, but for Best, every triumph here is a sweet one. The man who brought one of the first computer-generated lead characters to life in arguably the most anticipated movie of all time — 1999’s Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace — instead found himself in the eye of a storm of ridicule. The floppy-eared amphibian he played (also known as a Gungan) was denounced by critics and fanboys alike as the most annoying — and, some claimed, offensive — addition ever to the Star Wars universe.
That image followed Best, who’d supplied Jar Jar’s voice as well as his body movements, as he tried to find new acting work — and led him to this jujitsu studio nine years ago. ”I was having trouble with the audition process when I first moved out here,” says the 38-year-old black belt while taking a break between bouts. ”So I just stopped and started coming here twice a day, six days a week. It put me in a much better place.”
Still in that better place, Best harbors no animosity toward those who have spent the past 13 years dissing and dismissing the character he portrayed. ”Jar Jar was a lightning rod for everything that folks didn’t like [about the movie],” he says, but ”it’s all good.” Now, with The Phantom Menace getting a 3-D release on Feb. 10, Best is ready to relive his experience from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Right after he destroys another challenger on the mat.