Ahmed Best knows what it’s like to make history and still be hated by thou- sands of people around the world. Nobody like him has been so concerned with understanding what leads us human beings to feel hatred. In this inter- view, Best opens up about his particular hate story and constant process of healing, the wonderful experience of collaborating with George Lucas, the paradoxes of the film industry, and how to embrace the complexity of the problem, reprogram ourselves and our societies, and thrive together.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 44. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Best known for portraying the first CGI lead character in a motion picture starring as Jar Jar Binks in all three films of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy and Jedi Master Kelleran Beq in the game show Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge, Ahmed has co-designed a game called Afro-Rithms from the Future, that uses multiverse storytelling and future forecasting to imagine a world with complete equality, environmental priority and a democratized future. He is also a writer, director, producer, musician, host, futurist, devoted father and human being.

In July 2018, Best tweeted about the media backlash he faced after filming Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and it caused a big stir. But it was in January 2019 when he opened up even more about his experience through an emotional video where he recounted the hopes he had placed in that role and the impact that the ruthless criticism from toxic fans and the media – “from a racially motivated point of view”, as Best explains – had on him. What seemed like a unique opportunity turned into a hell that many of us only acknowledged quite recently.
What are you currently doing? What projects are you involved in?
I’m doing a lot of things. Right now, I am writing a show with the National Academy of Sciences that we hope to bring to screens everywhere. Also, I have a company called Afro-Rithms Futures Group and we do future forecasting; as well as having designed a card game to abolish white supremacy through gamifying diversity, equity and inclusion. We just played with Google, with the Stanford Design school and we’re going to be playing with Harvard later on this month. It’s great because I’m trained as a narrator and storyteller for theater, as a writer, as a director, and this puts all of that together. I never thought I’d be designing the game but here I am. I have a podcast called The Afrofuturist Podcast with my partner Dr. Lonny Brooks, I’m a teacher at the School of Dramatic Arts at the University of California and every once in a while, people ask me to act and I still do that, which is fantastic. But that’s just some of it. I was thinking about this the other day: I should have way more money. But I’m rich in soul and in spirit
How do you feel now that two years have passed since you recorded the video that went viral and made us aware of the hell you had lived through?
I had no idea it was going to get that type of reaction. That story took me 20 years to tell. I just kept it to myself. There’s this myth around men – and specifically Black men in America – of us being these human beings that can take all the pressure and just let it flow off. And that’s really not true. It hurts. So, it was really hard for me to actually tell that story. I didn’t want to look soft. I didn’t want to look vulnerable. But then I realized I have to tell this story because I’m not the only one going through this. It was very liberating, telling that story. I have to admit it’s still in me to want to hide from it. It’s like an open wound and there are a lot of things from that time that I’m still finding out to this day: how it affected me and how it affected the industry as a whole. I was the first man to do a thing. I was the first Black man to do a thing. And the hardest part about being a main character in a big Hollywood movie that was CGI and Black is there hasn’t been a Black man since who’s done what I’ve done. Everybody talks about how the backlash affected me – it did, and it was profound –, but it was really about how the industry as a whole shut down an entire group of people from a transformative new way of making movies.
What relationship do you have now with Lucasfilm and Star Wars?
 I never had a problem with Lucasfilm, personally or professionally. It really wasn’t a Lucasfilm thing. It was an America thing. It was an industry-as-a-whole thing. Lucasfilm is a company just like every other company and they’re going to be looking to make the things that they can make with the least amount of friction. If it’s difficult to make things they go out of business, so I understand their position.
Would you say that approaching Star Wars again was part of your healing process, so to speak? Or the end of a painful phase?
I think I’m constantly healing – from everything in my life. The pain wasn’t Star Wars, it was everything else. During the making of it, it was incredibly joyful. The hardest part came after, when my performance was being judged by people who had different ideas of what the movies were supposed to be. It happens now with the sequels and I think this is the thing about Star Wars that we have to learn: it’s very personal. Everyone has an idea of how Star Wars should go. It’s a lot like religion that way. It was the first time something like that – which we now have a name for, toxic fandom – hit big. No one knew how to deal with it because it had never existed before. These things are finally being taken extremely seriously now that most of our lives are online, especially now during a global pandemic. Back then they weren’t. So, what I’m really happy about is, now that there is a name for this, they could point to my history of dealing with it and people going through it now can get help. People who are suffering through creative burnouts or cyber bullying or toxic fandom. It happened to Kelly Marie Tran, to John Boyega, all of this toxicity that happens en masse online. We also have to take into account that this type of attention is big business. There are people who benefit financially from ‘toxic fandom’ as well as from misinformation. It’s something that’s incredibly pervasive in the United States right now we’re going through a democratic upheaval because of misinformation. We also have to recognize that, as a society, there’s a cost-benefit to that; and we have to realize what do we want as a society.
Yes. Now, let’s look back in time to 1997, when you were 24 years old. You were doing a show called Stomp in New York and the casting director for The Phantom Menace was in the audience. She asked you to audition and you got your first major film role, cast as Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999–2005). Before going into everything that happened, I can’t help but wonder what the experience of shooting with him was like. What advice and guidelines did Lucas give you to approach the character?
George was extremely open. This is what I learned from him as a collaborator and as a filmmaker: when everyone has the freedom to be great at what they do, you get great work. So, he’s a person that gives you parameters and lets you create. At first, I was extremely apprehensive about that, because I didn’t want to get fired – it was my first movie. But it was actually Liam Neeson who really took the reins of it and told me: you are part of this thing and you have a voice, use it. George is also an incredible film historian. He really loves research in soul. Some of my favourite times were when we’d sit down and watch a Buster Keaton movie and he’d say, “I like this, let’s try this, can you do something like that?” And I’d reply, “Yeah, sure”. He would just throw out suggestions, see what I could do, and I would then try to make it mine. So, it was a wonderful collaboration between George and all of us. Jar Jar was a team effort, it wasn’t just me, and I loved every second I worked on it.
But unfortunately, once the movie was released, what I imagine was a wonderful experience was completely turned upside down and you experienced the consequences of bullying on a massive scale, receiving constant criticism, negative comments and even death threats from hundreds of people around the world. You’ve said that you put a lot of yourself into the character, so when Jar Jar drew hostility from audiences, it sometimes extended towards you as the actor or you interpreted it personally. Was that the hardest part, a true sense that people didn’t like you for who you truly were? How did you experience that hatred at the beginning?
That was very tough. I was so young and my career felt like it was stopped before it got started. As pioneering as Jar Jar was, no one asked me to do any other work like that ever again. It’s painful because my naive 26-year-old expectation was: this is the beginning of something really wonderful; I’m helping to create a brand-new acting technique. It was extremely frustrating, and I could not reconcile that, at the time, in my head. We were doing what we loved. But, as it always does, race and racism really stopped it. I wasn’t really interested in making political statements. I didn’t want to deal with racism in Hollywood. I didn’t want to deal with any inequality. I just wanted to work, it was fun and I wanted to do it again. I loved being a part of the team and I just wanted to keep doing that. It put me on this path to where I am now, for which I am grateful. But what I couldn’t reconcile was, ‘why is this happening to me?’ I didn’t ask for all of this, they asked me to audition for a part and I did it. George wrote the script, I acted. He asked me my opinion, I gave it to him. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) asked me to move this way, I made suggestions. We collaborated, we did what we do as actors, as performers, as artists.
So, you’re saying that the hatred against your character was mostly due to race. Where do you think hate usually comes from – out of fear, anger, ignorance...?
I think there are many reasons and that as human beings we have to start embracing the complexity of the many reasons. To whittle it down to one would be to not give enough attention to the others, so it’s an amalgamation of hundreds of years of conditioning. It’s an experience that has been built on a foundation that has not included Black people, people of colour, in its structure. And it’s very difficult to build an equality system on inequality.
What do you think makes people feel hatred and express it by charging against another person?
Here’s another thing that’s complex. I believe it’s due to fear and ignorance. It really is about sustaining a livelihood. What’s very difficult in the world right now is this idea that a very small number of people have a lot of wealth that we’ve probably seen on this planet like maybe once or twice before. What’s happening now is a lot of people have a ‘scarcity mentality’ where we’re all fighting for the table scraps from this very small amount of wealth. When you’re in the ‘scarcity mentality’, this life’s edge between poverty and comfort – most people in the United States are one paycheck away from being out on the street, especially with this pandemic – and you’re being fed a media diet looking at incredible amounts of wealth and you recognise how much you don’t have; you can’t help but get emotional about it. When somebody is telling you that guy over there took your job and you are fighting to put food on the table for your family, it feeds into the fear part of your brain, the amygdala, which controls your emotions and has existed in us since the beginnings of mankind, when we were prey animals. It’s very easy to access that part of the brain and manipulate it.
How did that hatred affect you in your everyday life? I can imagine it had consequences in the way you relate to others.
I have never been a vindictive angry person. I’m very introspective. I love learning something new every day. So, the emotional side of me really went through a severe change, but the intellectual side of me was interested in understanding. I wanted to know what was behind all of this, why everyone was so emotionally charged. The day to day was a challenge; and the hardest part about it was I couldn’t work. Every room I walked in to, even to this day, I carry that controversy with me. It’s incredibly frustrating because as an artist you want to move on – this is the only profession where you don’t want to stay in one job for 20 years. I grew up around film, my father is a filmmaker and I love the art form so much. So, my biggest emotional hurdle was the fact that filming was cut off from me through no fault of my own.
How long did this hateful situation last, if we could say that it has stopped? Do you still get hate to this day?
Sometimes. Here’s what I say has changed: my focus on it. In the beginning it was debilitating, now it’s just interesting and I don’t have a big emotional reaction to it. The hardest part is when I still hear industry professionals use it as a reason to not hire me, which I’ve heard recently. To that I’ll say: I don’t understand, especially with all the information now. But, it doesn’t affect me in a way in which I don’t get up every day and make something, create something and I have enough confidence to be able to perform the way I want to perform. I now know that it’s not me. I can walk in a room and be me now, and I couldn’t do that maybe even 10 years ago.
Because it seems that everything changed when you explained what you had experienced, right? And not only that, but over the years, the vision that we now have of Jar Jar Binks is very different. Why do you think there is a different view of Jar Jar Binks now? Do you think it is because of the time that has passed, because there is a generational change to which everything that happened in his day is now alien? I also say this because 20 years have passed since the prequels. It’s normal that the children who enjoyed and grew up with the character feel affection.
I think the generational shift is going to be there. George actually predicted that back then in the nineties, because he went through the same thing with Yoda and Chewbacca and the Ewoks, which first got a lot of negative press. But I was a kid at the time. I was open to any new creature in the world. You’re more forgiving as a child and totally, I think the children that grew up with the prequels look at it differently.
It’s also important to note that people have finally realized how important Jar Jar Binks has been in the history of cinema, hence its late but necessary recognition.
Now people are recognizing the technological advancements that we achieved back then. The collaboration between me, George, Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to create Jar Jar was a herculean task. The technology, the software, the computing power that it took didn’t exist back then. We didn’t have what we have now to actually make a Jar Jar. The technology that is in the iPhone 12 used to fill rooms. I remember talking about, “One day we’ll have a gigabyte, can you imagine?”, and now I have 128 gigabytes in my phone. Things like that didn’t exist and I think in hindsight people are recognizing that now.
Does this current recognition somehow compensate for all the wrongs of the past, the bad times?
It’s bittersweet. Because I do appreciate what’s happening now, but the industry hasn’t changed. The opportunities for Black actors to play these roles haven’t changed. As rapid as the advancements in technology are, when it comes to the race question, we’ve been in a 20-year hole and racism still plays a huge part in what can get done. The fact that I have never done anything like Jar Jar since is a shame. The industry has completely turned its back on Black people doing an entire art form and that should not be. That’s where I want to see change. At the end of the day, Hollywood looks to replicate and recreate something that will make them money. It’s an industry and that’s just how it is. I’m not interested in debating whether or not the industry should exist. It exists, that’s what it is. But I think that not including Black people in this art form is cutting off a revenue stream for the industry. En masse, Black films usually outperform investment revenues because Black audiences are extremely loyal. I don’t think Hollywood pays attention to that as much as they should. Jordan Peele’s Get Out was made for 4 million dollars. It has grossed 110 million dollars and counting, and everyone thinks that that’s an anomaly. It’s not. Afrofuturism is a genre that’s growing – Black Panther made that incredibly apparent. You also have movements like the Afro Punk or The Critics Company, a group of young Nigerian kids who are creating sci-fi movies on their phones shot-for- shot and building their own props. You think because of the backlash that happened to me 20 years ago that there is no money to be made in it? I don’t think that’s the case. You have to embrace the complexity of what happened 20 years ago and then add that to what’s going on in the situation now and make other choices.
We all know Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Thanos in Avengers, Caesar in Planet of the Apes, but before that it was Jar Jar Binks. Star Wars and Lucasfilm raised the film industry to another level thanks to technology, and Jar Jar Binks is the personification of that advancement. Without him, cinema would not be what it is. To what extent were you aware of that then?
It wasn’t easy. It was fun, but it was challenging, especially for the guys who have been doing film a lot longer than me, because they were used to a process. Then, here came George Lucas going: “Ok, we’re going to blow all that up and you’re doing something completely new.” Everybody was afraid to fail and that it wasn’t going to work. Then someone would come up with a creative solution and at the end of the day we would do it and there would be high fives all round. Every day was a we-did-it moment. We built an entire industry with this comedic silly character. It was a fantastic time of ideation, the late nineties. Lucasfilm was doing the things that the tech start-ups were doing, but they were doing it in film. The software that’s used to create the CGI characters is software based on me, on my movement. At the time it wasn’t received very well, but now it’s different. People look at The Phantom Menace and recognize that every film technique from the beginning of movies up to today is in The Phantom Menace – and that was 20 years ago.
In 2018, you took a photo with your son at the same place on the Brooklyn Bridge where you had been about to end your life. You then shared it on your social networks. What led you to publish that famous photo that became so viral, and to publish the video some time later?
It was my son. I hadn’t walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in 20 years and I was in New York with my son and he wanted to walk across the bridge. So, when I was with him walking across the bridge, I thought, I am here, I did it, I survived. It was an emotional moment for me because, at that time 20 years ago, I didn’t think I would be able to survive. Having him there with me, I had won the game. He was my victory. I just really felt I had changed. I can look at him and have perspective. That’s what made me say something: him, my son.
What tools did you use to cope with the situation once you recovered the desire to continue living fully after that decisive moment?
That was hard. Every day was a different challenge. At the time there was no treatment really for it. It was very hard to articulate, especially as an artist, since we’re supposed to take rejection and be fine with it. I grew up doing martial arts – it’s probably the closest thing I have to a religion –, so that was a lot of my therapy. My martial arts teacher, John Machado, was a huge help, and learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu was great for me. There was a time when I was doing jiu-jitsu three times a day and I got really good at it. It gave me something to believe in. Then, learning my craft, starting to write, learning how to direct and produce and getting my film degree. All of these things helped me realize that it’s not me. For many years I thought it was all my fault, I felt like I let everybody down: George Lucas, the Star Wars people. Then I realized it’s not me.
Did you resort to psychological or emotional support to manage the situation?
I really didn’t know how to approach it. It seems silly because I was actually quite embarrassed, to be honest, and I didn’t think that my issues were worthy enough of professional help. That’s how spinning I was. I probably would have come out of it a lot sooner had I sought professional help. I’ve always been a physical person – as a drummer, as a stomper, as a martial artist –, so it has always been a therapy of mine. Martial arts are a philosophy where you can physicalize your emotional state and that was invaluable. Had I not had that, maybe I would have been a marathon runner.
With the perspective and wisdom that only time and experience give, would you have done something differently to better manage the situation?
I wish I had really sought out good business partners who could have helped me deal with the massiveness of Star Wars. I thought I could handle it all by myself. I didn’t have an agent or manager or anything like that. No one was prepared. Racism is a huge thing in this business when you’re Black and you’re difficult to sell. There isn’t enough work out there for Black people, and there especially wasn't at that time. It’s always the same people fighting over one thing. I would have tried to find better representation: someone willing to really work with me and put me in a position to succeed.
I’m a true believer that everything happens to us for a reason, and that everything has some good in it – even the most traumatic and painful experiences. Not everyone goes through an experience as intense as yours. Those who have lived something so strong and have survived, or have moved on, can somehow extract a series of vital learnings that others simply couldn’t. I know it may sound counterintuitive, but have you come to feel grateful for what you went through?
Absolutely, I have. I wouldn’t be where I am now had it not happened. I have been on this path of exploration, worked with the people that I have worked with. As a teacher, I can bring my experience to my students and that I don’t think I can place a value on. As a creator, as a filmmaker, as a human being, as a father, as a husband, it’s really showed me what I can be.
What would you say are the most valuable lessons you have learned from your experience?
Be yourself, wholly and completely, and be proud of who you are. When you try to be like someone else, or even try to emulate someone, you are not completely living up to your goal. As a human being, you are valuable and you contribute to this world. We need you; we need your specific molecules that make your voice, not a Black voice, not a female voice, your voice. It is who you are, and it is probably the most important thing that you can bring to anything.
In January 2019 you opened up about the whole experience and three months later during the Star Wars Celebration in Chicago fans in the audience gave a massive standing ovation and chanted your name as you took the stage. How did you experience that moment?
 It was surprising. I had no idea that that would be the reaction from the audience. It was my first celebration since 1999, so I was a bit terrified to go. I’m used to getting mixed reactions from people. But that was a great moment and it really helped me turn a corner with my relationship with Star Wars. If not for that moment, I probably wouldn’t have done Jedi Temple Challenge.
After Star Wars, you have continued to work as an actor, writer, director, co-producer and even composer. Has the imposter syndrome haunted you in your new projects?
Subsequently to Star Wars, when I did have opportunities, I had some of the worst auditions I’ve ever had in my life. I was so self-conscious because I had all this baggage. It was almost as if I sabotaged myself. It wasn’t until I started doing stuff behind the camera that all changed for me emotionally.
During the pandemic we are constantly listening, or telling each other about these difficult moments which will make us better as a society and unite us more. But, in recent years, we’ve also seen the rise of violence, fascist movements, discriminatory extremist positions, and hate speech. What do you believe are the reasons behind these phenomena? Are we really doomed to anti-coexistence? Do you think a world without hatred is possible or is it a utopia?
The pandemic has definitely been challenging. Most of the recent hate has been a resurrection of the racism and nationalism that destroyed the world during the last World War. I believe that we’ve figured out the next World War will not be televised but downloaded and streamed. The war is no longer in the streets. It’s online. The amount of misinformation and ambiguity will be just enough to organize people to volunteer their minds, bodies and spirits to those who have no concern for their best interests. A world without hate is possible. We must first abolish the most destructive force on the planet: white supremacy. Fortunately, I’m developing a tool to do that. I’ve codesigned a game called Afro-Rithms from The Future that uses multiverse storytelling and future forecasting to imagine a world with complete equality, environmental priority and a democratized future.
Social media is also a powerful positive awareness tool, being a speaker for many injustices locally and globally. Last year, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok became channels of protest and amplification for the Black Lives Matter movement. Through social networks, it has acquired a worldwide relevance and has opened the minds of many people who were unaware of the racist situation that exists in the US – and many other communities and at so many levels. How have you noticed the impact this movement has had in the last year? Where do you think it’s going?
It’s a very good start. However, we must recognize the layers of the problem. We can’t put a band aid on a bullet wound. We must look at the systems that benefit from the oppression of the Other. The systems must change for the world to change. We must begin to create Gentle Emergent Self Organizing Systems that embrace the complexity of what we as humans are looking to achieve. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The aftermath of non-violence is the beloved community”. I want to live there. I want to heal past traumas and move in harmony with the environment. I want to be a part of the beloved community.
How do we protect ourselves against hate?
First we must realize that we are not alone. There are people who care for us, love us and support us. In my darkest days, I felt alone. I felt the world hated me. I was a young skinny kid from the Bronx that had to answer to an entire universe of hatred. I didn’t have the tools to do that. Through that, I realized that we need each other. There are people who believe in you. Hate is based on our base instincts for survival, when we are told that we live in an environment of scarcity. We fear not being able to feed our families. When in actuality this is the best time in history to be alive. We have to feel that. We need to care for each other physically and mentally. We need to embrace the culture of the Earth and celebrate our similarities and not the tribalism of our differences. We must use the vast information networks to learn about one another and thrive from the knowledge and experience of our differences. Tools like Afro-Rithms do this. Our artists do this. Now we must find a way in our everyday lives to move closer together. We can’t do it alone. I’ll be there working alongside to make this happen.
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Blazer YVES SAINT LAURENT vintage, trousers NORMA KAMALI vintage, both stylist's own, hat Ahmed's own.