MAPLEWOODIAN AHMED BEST RETURNS TO A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY by Donny Levit
Ostracized as Jar Jar Binks, the actor plays a hero in "The Mandalorian"
Ahmed Best can’t recall the exact movie theater in midtown Manhattan where he saw the original Star Wars movie soon after its release in 1977. He does, however, remember that his family arrived late and he had to sit near the front row. “I was small and had to look up to watch the movie. But as soon as the crawl came on, it didn’t matter what seat I was in,” says Best. “I was just hooked.”
Little did the young Star Wars fan know that a few decades later, he’d act in a Star Wars feature film while simultaneously contributing to the development of cutting-edge CGI (computer-generated imagery) film technology. That same padawan (that’s Star Wars lingo for a “young, apprentice Jedi”) would also grow up to play quite a powerful Jedi in Season 3 of “The Mandalorian.”
In his early twenties, the Columbia High School graduate joined the New York cast of “Stomp,” the music, dance, and theatrical extravaganza. Best – an accomplished actor, musician, and dancer – went on the road to San Francisco to perform the leading role in the production. He had no idea that Star Wars casting director Robin Gurland would catch one of those Bay Area shows. Gurland was so enamored by Best’s performance that she alerted Star Wars creator George Lucas. And before long, Best was onsite at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch where he donned the motion capture suit for the character of Jar Jar Binks, the comedic, children-focused, eye-popping Gungun creature who played a significant role in the 1999 prequel Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.
You don’t have to be a Star Wars aficionado to be familiar with the well-documented and painful odyssey Best withstood because of the backlash in response to Jar Jar Binks. Audiences and critics largely panned the role – accusing Lucas of creating an African American racial stereotype. Others argued the character was written to attract children instead of focusing on the faithful Star Wars fans (Lucas received similar criticism for the creation of the Ewoks for Return of the Jedi).
Best is proud to have served a pivotal role in the way Lucas’ company – Industrial Light & Magic – innovated and utilized visual effects. “I was really kind of the prototype for CGI acting in general because no one knew what was possible until they saw what was possible,” says Best. “They had the ideas and they had the software and they had the theory of it. But until I got in the [Jar Jar Binks] suit, it wasn’t tangible.”
While Best was initially hired to perform just the motion capture, he would also take on the voice of Jar Jar – which was of his creation. “We were really the impetus for George thinking that it’s time for a main [CGI] character … The team helped craft the art form that is now CGI, and we knew we were going out on a limb and making mistakes,” he says.
The outpouring of negativity took its toll on Best’s mental health. Not long after the reviews came out, Lucas called Best to discuss the situation. “I was walking through Washington Square Park and [Lucas] called me on my Motorola StarTAC,” Best recalls. “George said that 20 years from now, this is going to be a completely different story. He was so matter-of-fact about it. At the time, all I could see was my career going down the drain. At 26 years old when the movie came out, I was very much prepared for this to be a ladder to the next step. And it turned into a pine overcoat. I couldn’t escape it.”
“I was called every racial stereotype you can imagine,” Best says in a video recorded about the moment he contemplated suicide. “There was this criticism of being this Jamaican, broken dialect, which was offensive because I’m of West Indian descent – I’m not Jamaican. It was debilitating. […] The only thing 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 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.”
“We were all very disturbed by that interpretation, and very concerned about Ahmed,” says Carol Petrallia, a long-time Maplewood resident who was Best’s English teacher at both Maplewood Middle School and Columbia High School. After retiring from teaching in 2006, she has served as an archivist, working with the Columbia High School archiving committee as well as the Don Hamingson Literary Showcase, part of the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School.
“I’ve known him since he was in my seventh-grade English class at Maplewood Middle School,” says Petrallia. “His family was moving him from New York City and making an adjustment to the community.” The Best family relocated to Maplewood from the Soundview Section of the Bronx in the mid-80s. Best’s siblings include his twin brother, Khalid, and his sister, Dunia Best Sinnreich. Their parents – Ahmondylla and Bahati Best – have been living in Maplewood ever since.
Petrallia recalls the time Best had to make a presentation to his middle school class. “I heard him pushing a timpani drum down the hallway. I knew he had measured the door so he could fit it in the classroom. He got it through on an angle and proceeded to teach the students how timpani work,” she says. “Most people really don’t know the intricacies of how to play them. And the class just got such a charge out of it. He was focused on teaching. And he was good at it.”
Because Petrallia transferred to Columbia High School, she continued to teach Best. “He was a good writer, a strong speaker, and his musical ability extended in so many different directions,” she recalls. “And he was terrific at debate.” In 2022, Best was selected as the Don Hamingson Literary Showcase speaker and honoree, an award given annually to a CHS graduate involved in the arts.
“Maplewood/South Orange was a really good place because I could do things simultaneously,” says Best. “I was in the jazz band and then I would do the school musical. I was in the marching band and president of the Martin Luther King Association.” He was also state champion in track and field and active in the Parnassian Society, Columbia High School’s drama club. “Columbia really lent itself to being pretty much what I am now, which is what people are now calling a multi-hyphenate.”
Best went on to voice the role of Jar Jar Binks in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, then moved on from the franchise after thinking his time with Star Wars was done.
But another project came up decades later which would allow the actor to return to the franchise with the goal of focusing on the kids. Best was tapped to host Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge – a children’s game show that aired in 2020 which had young fans competing to become Jedi Knights. The actor had a strong hand in the development of Jedi Master Kelleran Beq, the character who led the contestants through those challenges. “I was given a lot of room to create his backstory and to give him the nickname ‘The Sabered Hand,’” he says. If you really want to get deep into the weeds of Star Wars lore, Kelleran Beq’s name is a riff on the character Achk Med-Beq, a cameo character that Best played in Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones.
Jedi Master Kelleran Beq would get some significant exposure – casting Best in a favorable and heroic light. In 2023, Lucasfilm launched Season 3 of the highly popular show The Mandalorian. Ahmed Best’s Kelleran Beq appeared in Episode 4 (“Chapter 20: The Foundling”) for a critical flashback involving Grogu (Baby Yoda), who was once a young padawan training to be a Jedi. The sequence solved a major plot mystery: How did Grogu avoid being murdered along with the other young padawans and Jedi Knights? In the surprising flashback, Kelleran Beq defeats the attacking Clones and rescues Grogu to prevent him from becoming a victim of Emperor Sheev Palpatine’s mass murder – which fans know as “Order 66.”
Many articles written about the episode have used the term “redemption” when referring to Best. The meta-cinematic experience of witnessing him fly through the crowded lanes of the planet Coruscant air traffic with the franchise “baby” in tow is redemption, indeed. And he handles a pretty mean lightsaber to boot.
Initially, Best wasn’t so sure he wanted the job. “It did take a lot of convincing, honestly. I’m firmly middle-aged and I didn’t need to be a part of this anymore. But Dave [Filoni] and John [Favreau] and Rick Famuyiwa [the Mandalorian creative team] are so honest. I felt like I was in a room with people like me who care so deeply.”
Best loved the idea that Kelleran Beq was passionate about being a teacher. “He really cares about the future generation of the Jedi. There’s a very large shift – not just in the world of the Empire growing – but also in the role of Jedi in that empire.”
Best credits the collaboration he had with George Lucas for the way in which he sees himself as a teacher in real life. His exploration of Afrofuturism has led him to teaching at both Stanford University and the University of Southern California. He also hosts The Afrofuturism Podcast. “I’ll never forget how forward thinking [Lucas] is. And that really sparked this energy in me. And that’s when I really started thinking about a future that you can have agency.” Best takes the world of science fiction and fuses it with the exploration of Black history and culture.
Will we continue to see Best as Kelleran Beq? “I certainly hope so. There aren’t any plans as far as I know, but he’s definitely somebody that has a lot of story to tell,” he says. “There are 30 years between [Kelleran Beq] saving Grogu and him finding his second dad, the Mandalorian. I really want to do something within those 30 years.”
Decades later, Best lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Raquel Horsford Best, and their 14-year-old son, Marley. He still looks back warmly at what he learned from living here. “Maplewood and South Orange is a special place for me,” he says. “It’s where a lot of my artistry first started coming out. And, you know, a lot of it was the teachers. I had really good teachers.”
Donny Levit is a writer, Maplewood resident and one of those crazy Star Wars fans. He is the author of “Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories.” You can hear him DJ his indie rock shows Under the Influence and Newish Radio and his jazz show Kind of Pool on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio and @newishradio.