Sunday, June 28, 2009

Follow Up on Transformers Controversy

Two articles that should be read on the controversy surrounding two characters from the new Transformers movies who embody racist caricatures:

What makes this so sad is that it sounds to me like a lot of individuals connected with this project, but who had no involvement with the creation of those offensive characters, are being unfairly dragged by their existence. Orci and Kurtzman, for example, appear to have crafted a screenplay that was then altered by a third writer (Ehren Kruger) and the director (Michael Bay) to include numerous elements that they never put in there, including the characters of Skids and Mudflap. While of course their claim at having been shocked could just be so much smoke screening, Hollywood's history of mutilating the work of other screenwriters is well-known, and Michael Bay films are not renowned for their storytelling prowess; to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, their claim has "truthiness". Likewise, although Steven Spielberg is being lambasted by at least one critic (Harry Knowles) for his involvement here, Spielberg is the same man responsible for such racially progressive motion pictures as The Color Purple and Amistad, to say nothing of an upcoming biopic about Martin Luther King, Jr. While I do not doubt that Spielberg played a large part in bankrolling this film (as producer), it seems a little unfair to assume that he played any significant role in the film's creative composition, especially since he held the Executive Producer title over a large team of co-producers (who quite likely did most of the work for him).

So who ought to be blamed? In my eyes, the responsibility lies with four people: Michael Bay, the director; Ehren Kruger, the screenwriter who inserted these two racially offensive characters (as well as a third less-discussed individual who actually is a buck-toothed African-American and talks about needing to earn money so that he can replace his disgusting teeth with fancier alternatives); and the two actors voicing these robots, Tom Kenny and Reno Wilson. I have never been impressed with Michael Bay, and I am completely unfamiliar with the previous work of Ehren Kruger and Reno Wilson, but I must say I am more than a little upset at Tom Kenny's involvement here. As a long-time fan of SpongeBob Squarepants, a show whose titular character is voiced by Mr. Kenny, I have been a fan of Kenny's work for almost a decade.

So how important is this? In the grand scheme of things, it is more unfortunate than it is downright problematic. I strongly doubt that it will lead to any direct harm being inflicted on African-Americans, and although it certainly promotes and reinforces racist stereotypes, it is unlikely that it will cause those views to be any more widely disseminated or believed than they would have been had this movie not existed. Even so, the film is unfortunate because it puts a permanent aspersion on the careers of four individuals and, in a year that ought to be a highlight in the history of the black community, permanently etches into American cultural history some of the most repugnant racial prejudices out there. If this movie becomes the highest grossing film of 2009, then the first year in which an African-American ever served as President of the United States will forever be remembered as a year when the most popular entertainment medium of this country had as its champion work a film that promoted the very legacy that the election of the first black president hoped to put to rest, or at least weaken.

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