Hey, Who Wants to Talk About Racism in Transformers? Wheee! (Come On, It’ll Be Fun! There’s a Poll!)

by | Jun 29th, 2009 | 4:05PM | Filed under: In My Humble Opinion

Transformersmudskid Most critics–and more than a few filmgoers–who saw Transformers: Revenge of Jimmy Fallon came away from the super-mega-huge flick with a bad taste in their mouths, a ringing in their ears, loose fillings, and the feeling they'd been repeatedly mugged by a giant metal lizard brain.

I get why everyone rushed to make Transformers 2 one of the biggest-opening films ever. (After all, I was there midnight Tuesday, and I didn't really even like T-Formers1 that much.) And I do get why some fans are saying it was awesome, they loved it, it's just a fun summer movie, escapism, don't think too much about it.

But the point most of us are trying to make is that we like big, loud, fun summer escapism, but not poorly made summer escapism–great effects, but sloppy, lazy storytelling and characters. And just because it looks cool and gives you a momentary rush, doesn't mean it's good for you or your mind or your artistic taste buds.

Many critics who hated TF:ROTF(L) have also zeroed in on the film's perceived racism in the portrayal of the twin comic-relief Autobots, Skids and Mudflap. It raises a chicken/egg question: does the presence of what many of us consider to be minstrel-show-style racial stereotypes make TF:ROTF worse, or are they merely one of many bits of ickiness in the film, but make for an convenient broad target for our ire?

Here are the arguments for and against Skids and Mudflaps being racist:

Why we see them as racist:

–They speak in robo-gangsta "jive" or Ebonics, including rapper-style insults and threats of violence. (Calling others "pussy" and saying they'll "put a cap in your ass.")

–They are more simian-shaped than the other Autobots, with bulging eyes, and one of them has a gold tooth.

–When pressed, they admit they don't know how to read.

Skids-mudflap All this, many of us say, makes the characters little more than minstrel clowns, playing off cheap, negative African-American thug stereotypes. The movie site CHUD has labeled them "Little Black Sambots."

Now, the defense of the characters from some quarters:

–They're just comic relief, for fun, and not meant to be taken so seriously. Stop being so overly-PC and sensitive and laugh at them!

–They're robots, not human, so how can robot toys be racist?

–These kinds of stereotypes are often used to humorous effect by black film makers.

–The characters grew out of the voice acting done by Reno Wilson (who is black) and Tom Kenny (a white voice actor-comedian who is also the voice of Spongebob) and the actors were playing off the idea that these two Autobots learned about human culture from gangsta rap on the Internet and are just silly wannabees.

What say you all? Pick as many of the following poll options as you like and by all means elaborate on your opinions in the comments section directly below this post!


More about the controversy, the response of the film makers, and my take on it all over the jump!

Meanwhile, the film's primary screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex
Kurtzman have distanced themselves from Mudflap and Skids, saying that
most of what people find offensive was not in their script, but was
added to the characters by director Michael Bay. (Bay says the
direction of the characters' personalities and speech was inspired by
Wilson and Kenny.) Kurtzman went so far as to tell Film School Rejects,
"It’s really hard for
us to sit here and try to justify it….We were very surprised when we
saw it, too… I wasn’t thrilled. I certainly wasn’t thrilled."

(All of this buck-passing makes you wonder if there was any adult supervision during the making of TF:ROTF
Mr. Spielberg, your name is at the top of the producing credits: did
you ever bother to pop your head in and see what the kids were up to in
the basement?)

What seems to be fueling the simmering controversy
is the fact that the characters/caricatures are being passed off as
good fun in what is supposed to be a kids' film. When the Wayan
Brothers or Tim Story (Barbershop) or F. Gary Gray (Friday)
put such stereotypes on the screen, they're doing so in a satiric
context, making fun of the stereotypes even as they acknowledge they
exist.

But isn't there a difference between doing that for an
adult audience who understand what's being said, and doing it for an
audience of 8 to 15-year-olds who may not? I personally love obnoxious,
offensive, un-PC humor when it's used to draw attention to
stereotypes–I subscribe to the old rule that anything is okay if it's
funny. But I don't feel comfortable having it served to young kids in
the form of what will be one of if not the year's biggest, most popular
film.

The fact that they are presented as toy robots makes the
racism all the more insidious. Wilson may feel they were performing
satire with the characters' speech and mannerisms, but somewhere in
the roar of the film, any such context was lost. Rather than commenting
on real human behaviors, using the stereotypes in toy robots for comic
effect in a kids' movie makes them all the more offensive and
dangerous. Like putting nicotine in Frosted Flakes.


29 Responses to “Hey, Who Wants to Talk About Racism in Transformers? Wheee!
(Come On, It’ll Be Fun! There’s a Poll!)”

  1. Smith
    Posted on July 6, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    Why is everyone even complaining about the brothers being racist? The whole movie makes fun of all colors, sex and cultures, for fun. There’s even an italian type robot who gets his eye torched by Megan Fox! Does that bring back any ideas of the italian mob torture stereotypes? I even heard the brothers are white actors, and to me they don’t even sound black, they sound more like a hillbilly. Also if they are white actors, acting “black” that would mean it’s making fun of whites, showing that we want to be black.

  2. Fiirvoen
    Posted on July 6, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    In light of Smith’s post, which confirms by proxy what I had suspected, I have to say that I didn’t think the twins sounded black in the previews. Having not seen the movie, I couldn’t make that judgment without reservation, but where I’m from, 90% of the hillbillies/rednecks use “black” slang and listen to two kinds of music: rap and country. (The two often have more in common than you’d think.)

  3. Porpoisepower
    Posted on July 15, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    It never crossed my mind that the twins were “black.” To me they sounded like hicks. There was a couple “Ebonic” phrases but it sounded like red necks emulating rappers on MTV.
    To me the first movie, had more significant racial profiling, (The scene where the cops break into the hacker’s place), where the film broke down into another “scared black man running from the law” routine. Granted this is something the Wayans Brothers are guilty of just as much as Bay.

  4. okkydok
    Posted on August 16, 2010 at 12:49 am

    Why is everyone looking so hard for racism lately? Shut up and get over yourself!