Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers: Racists in Disguise?

I cannot believe that I am actually writing this. Let me explain why:

Back in 2005, movie critic Roger Ebert was labelled by many African-Americans as
being racist for panning Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman.
Having seen the film in question, as well as read both Ebert's review and the
accusing comments from and other cinematically oriented message boards, I came to the conclusion that the bespectacled self-possessed critic was
absolutely right and his detractors decisively in the wrong. I stand by that
conviction to this day: Considering the severe nature of racial, religious, and
sexual prejudice, as well as the intensive degree to which it has been
stigmatized by our society (rightfully so), people should not be charged with
possessing bigoted views unless there is a substantive reason for doing so.
Simply disliking a movie that happens to deal with African-American characters
and/or themes is not racist by a long shot, and it serves as a form of social
intimidation to imply or state otherwise.

Thus when I heard that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was being accused of possessing racist caricatures, I assumed that once again I would wind up writing about the danger of carelessly bandying about the "racist" label. That knee-jerk reaction went out the window the instant I saw a clip of what objectors are referring to. Unfortunately I cannot share that snippet with you, as it was removed from YouTube very shortly after I was lucky enough to watch it. Even so, here is an excellent explanation of the problem as concisely summarized by Manohla Dargis, one of the main film critics for The New York Times:

That disconnect only deepens with the introduction of two new Autobot characters, the illiterate, bickering twins Skids (Tom Kenny) and Mudflap (Reno Wilson), both of which take the shape of Chevrolet concept cars. The characters have been given conspicuously cartoonish, so-called black voices that indicate that minstrelsy remains as much in fashion in Hollywood as when, well, Jar Jar Binks was set loose by George Lucas. For what it’s worth, the script, by Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, also includes a crack about Simmons, who’s coded as Jewish, and his “pubic-fro head.” You’re not meant to take that seriously, of course, just like there’s nothing to the reference to President Obama being whisked out of danger instead of standing tall like Optimus Prime and the rest of the robotic heroes. But that’s the perverse genius of Michael Bay. Despite the tediousness of his stories and inanity of his visual ideas, he always manages to keep you laughing and shaking your head in disbelief at the outlandishness of his cinematic spectacles, with their orange explosions, armament fetishism and even their noxious stereotypes. The man just wears you out and wears you down, so much so that it’s easy to pretend that you’re not ingesting 2 hours and 30 minutes of warmongering along with all that dumb fun.

Here is a more detailed description provided by

Check out 7 reasons why Transformers 2 might be racist…
#1: “Skids” and “Mudflap” sound suspiciously like “skid-marks” and “mud people.” Tell us how you really feel, cracker!
#2: Skids not only has old-school Raekwon bucked teeth,
one of them is actually gold! We’re assuming the rope chains and 40s for the action figures are sold separately.
#3: The twins constantly fight and snap on each other in inappropriate situations, like in the sacred tomb of the Primes. Sigh. Black robots just don’t know how to behave in public, do they?
#4: Skids and Mudflap refer to Leo, the Latino college student played by Ramon Rodriguez, as a “shrimp taco.” All black robots gotta be ign’ant though, right? That’s just like the white devil to put his secret racist thoughts into the mouths of black robots.
#5: In the twins’ vehicular incarnation, they’re flashy compact racing cars. Black robots aren’t concerned about the safety and security of their loved ones? Family sedans aren’t “urban” enough for you?
#6: The hip-hop jive that Skids and Mudflap spew comes from the mouth of WHITE voiceover comedian Tom Kenny, a.k.a. the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants. At least if Mike Epps was the one bamboozling, talking about “bustin’ caps,” we could take solace in a black actor getting work.
#7: The twins make R. Kelly look like an advocate for literacy. When Shia LaBoeuf asks if the twins can read ancient glyphs, they nervously respond, “Read?! Nuh-uh…” “No, we don’t really do much readin’!”.

Although the article makes one factual error (though the caucasian Tom Kenny of SpongeBob Squarepants fame does voice Skids, it is African-American actor Reno Wilson who voices Mudflap), for the most part its analysis is disturbingly incisive. I am amazed that director Michael Bay and screenwriters Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Ehren Kruger actually have the gall to insist that these characters were simply meant to be generically goofy as a means of appealing to children. Do they expect us to believe that the vernacular, aesthetic, physical mannerisms, intellectual abilities, personality traits, and even names that were given to these characters were selected entirely at random and that, by sheer dumb luck, they just-so-happened to be carbon copies of some of America's most well-known racist caricatures? Why did the writers have to select this particular set of attributes, when certainly there are any number of potential personalities that can be used to make the kiddies laugh (who are not known for being especially discriminating in their comedic preferences)? For that matter, are we really supposed to swallow this claim that Skids and Mudflap were necessary to draw kids to the movie - to assume, as that argument suggests, that the Transformers franchise has sophisticated subject matter which needs further dumbing down to attain commercial viability?

What makes this situation especially depressing is its timing. Less than nine months before this movie's release, almost seventy million people cast their ballots for the first African-American to ever run for president on a major party ticket (more popular votes than have ever be received by any one presidential candidate in a single election). While no one could have realistically expected even this monumental event to usher in an end to all racism, it didn't seem too naive to hope that it would have at least stamped out the last vestiges of blatantly crass racist humor within mainstream pop culture. Instead, the year 2009 - the first in American history to be presided over by a black leader - may wind up having as its box office champion a motion picture that harkens back to the very same racial attitudes that have disparaged and degraded that president's background for centuries. This is the kind of irony our society can do without.

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