I was 4 years old in 1984. A year previous, I was first shown the power of myth so forcefully that I changed my favorite color to mirror the lightsaber of the protagonist of Return of the Jedi. Around the same time, a muscle-bound man in a fur bikini bottom taught me about the sanctity of life, the futility of violence, and that I had the power to affect my life and the lives of others. The pilots of robotic lions showed me the value of cooperation and teamwork in a way Big Bird had never quite managed. Later, cat people would teach me loyalty, animated versions of baby puppets would foster my imagination, a man who traveled in a police box demonstrated that the greatest power was intellect, and groups of brave men and women who trekked through the stars would show me a future worth having.
But in 1984, a talking truck gave me the gift of fatherly guidance, and taught me the infinite value – and the price – of freedom.
That was my Optimus Prime.
That ridiculous list of disparate characters is the media I was exposed to as a child. It affected me as surely as my hippie-minded parents, themselves raised respectively by a Lutheran minister and a nurse, and two doctors who had forsaken their foreign medical licenses to raise their kids in the states and had found themselves in civil rights marches, meetings, protests, and charity organizations that helped underprivileged families by giving and organizing the distribution of clothing and canned goods, the stacks and piles of which I would some times get lost in as a child.
Maybe it was the glamour of TV, or the persistence of advertising, but amongst all those influences… it was the truck to whom I looked for guidance.
Twenty-five years later and the influence of media over our children has grown exponentially. TV is more pervasive and less restricted, video games open the scope of virtual experience, and the internet can bring any information your children desire to them at the speed of light. This is an age in which parents must pay more attention than ever to the media our children assimilate.
Even as our economy and society deteriorate, the trusted staples of our childhood betray us.
In the latest iteration of the prolific (and to many, once paternal) Transformers franchise, owned and operated by Hasbro, it has under the guise of Paramount and the direction of Michael Bay left any moral compass it once offered by the wayside, and shamefully not relinquished its stake in the hearts and minds (and wallets) of our children.
Bobbing up through the online reports of record ticket sales to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are the multiple and heartfelt stories about its negative racist stereotypes and other offensive content. These reports are not unjustified, nor should they be ignored – especially by parents.
Viewing the IMAX version with my wife on Tuesday night, we were shocked by the portrayal of the characters Skids and Mudflap, who are purportedly a pair of Cybertronian twins, a state whose contradictorily apparently biological nature is not explained within the scope of the film. Introduced as an outdated ice cream truck which contains both characters, their incompetence at disguise is instantly implied and seconds later their ineptitude in battle is showcased.
Skids is portrayed by Tom Kenny, the voice of the ubiquitous “Sponge Bob.”
Mudflap’s voice is provided by Reno Wilson, who provided the voice of Frenzy in the last Transformers movie.
The actors are Caucasian and African American, respectively.
The audience doesn’t get a good look at them until they return from the opening scene, which was set in a version of Shanghai found to be offensive by some residents. They arrive, ingloriously, to base, to be upgraded after their comical failure. Their dialog, accent, and attitude are instantly evocative, and not just of squabbling brothers.
These are robots in blackface, and I call bullshit.
They speak in bad ebonics and their misshapen faces both share bug eyes and jug ears. One sports buckteeth and a prominent gold front tooth. They are dumb, seem incapable of comprehending the moment, and have to be pressured to admit they can read… a little.
They refer to “popping a cap” into a sympathetic human’s ass just before fist bumping and calling him a “pussy.” I.e., a girl, which is the only thing it’s worse to be in this movie than black.
The voice actors say they didn’t mean for this to be the case. Honestly I’m inclined to believe them.
However, in any case, CGI is not a process that lends itself well to quickies. Someone slaved over these faces, for a considerable amount of time. It’s hard to fathom that no one saw the faces that were being built and didn’t at least alert someone to the nature of the look.
Confronted with the reality that Skids and Mudflap, some of the movie’s most prominent characters, are a simple repurposing of racist humor, Michael Bay had this to say:
"It's done in fun," he said. "I don't know if it's stereotypes -- they are robots, by the way. “
This too was done in fun, and Bugs Bunny is just a cartoon rabbit…
So I assume, following that logic, that we should show the above to our kids. It’s a cartoon. Don’t be so sensitive. He’s a rabbit, by the way.
“These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it," says Bay.
Yeah, those are the voice actors, and Bay is the director. Either he didn’t know what he should have known, or he knew and did not care. Either way he violated the trust of Hasbro, Paramount, and any parents with the misfortune to expose their children to this thinly guised racism.
The advent of CGI and the increasingly human-ish characters it can create is not a reason to slip back in our cultural consciousness, and repurpose jokes deemed derogatory and harmful decades ago.
The fact that so many can view these degrading portrayals and not understand the problem is a sign of how far our culture still has to go to embrace the very ideals it has been built upon. That we are all created equal, that we are one people, and we should all be free. That includes the freedom to not have multimillionaires use the suffering and disadvantage of your minority to profit.
Here is the best part…
“I purely did it for kids.” Bay says. Fantastic, not only have you made a $200,000,000.00 nationally advertised engine of violence, sexism and hate, but you’ve aimed it at children! Genius!
Why should we be surprised? This is a PG-13 movie with misogyny, drug use, violence, alcohol, torture, swearing, tons of onscreen graphic death and a massive toy line that says nice and clear on every package “ages 5+.” Cute. I bet the last time parents could get their kids a bug eyed, jug eared, gold bucktoothed action figure was 1933. What splendid times we live in…
“Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”
Makes what more accessible?
Here I quote an article by Sandy Cohen, of the Associated Press.
Hollywood has a track record of using negative stereotypes of black characters for comic relief, said Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, who has not seen the "Transformers" sequel.
"There's a history of people getting laughs at the expense of African-Americans and African-American culture," Boyd said. "These images are not completely divorced from history even though it's a new movie and even though they're robots and not humans."
American cinema also has a tendency to deal with race indirectly, said Allyson Nadia Field, an assistant professor of cinema and media studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"There's a persistent dehumanization of African-Americans throughout Hollywood that displaces issues of race onto non-human entities," said Field, who also hasn't seen the film. "It's not about skin color or robot color. It's about how their actions and language are coded racially."
If these characters weren't animated and instead played by real black actors, "then you might have to admit that it's racist," Robinson said. "But stick it into a robot's mouth, and it's just a robot, it's OK."
This is not a new phenomenon. Since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation people’s basest, foulest, and most dividing instincts have been used to fill seats and through them line wallets. What’s really impressive here is the brazen manner in which this destructive humor has resurfaced.
I cannot describe how deeply saddened to see that this, the most public face of my favorite children’s franchise, is a face of intolerance.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is inappropriate for almost anyone under 13 to view, and parents who do allow their minor children to see it should engage in a discussion regarding the inappropriate content.
Racism’s influence is pervasive, adaptive, and malignant. That’s how it survives. It is about, division, control, and bondage.
I and many of my contemporaries were fortunate enough to have a red and blue truck instruct us on the right to freedom that we all share. Now it’s up to us whether the same will be said for our children and generations of Tfans to come.
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I seen the movie today and I had no problem with the twins
[quote name='Mike' post='16576888' date='Jul 5 2009, 08:34 AM']yeah man, why point out that their black at all, who cares. a person is a person, and a robot is a robot. it makes me mad people call it racist and stuff.. its not like Megatron pulled out a noose, and said "die black guy!&q... read more
yeah man, why point out that their black at all, who cares. a person is a person, and a robot is a robot. it makes me mad people call it racist and stuff.. its not like Megatron pulled out a noose, and said "die black guy!"
not to mention the death of jazz was probably written, long... read more
[quote name='Lord Amron' post='16576770' date='Jul 4 2009, 10:05 PM'][quote name='Devil Bat' post='16576618' date='Jul 4 2009, 01:16 AM']I liked Jazz. I liked his car and robot modes. I liked how he would kinda breakdance when he transformed. And I loved that scene where he misdirects Brawl&... read more
[quote name='Devil Bat' post='16576618' date='Jul 4 2009, 01:16 AM']I liked Jazz. I liked his car and robot modes. I liked how he would kinda breakdance when he transformed. And I loved that scene where he misdirects Brawl's cannonfire during the battle in the city; it was a nod to the origi... read more
I liked Jazz. I liked his car and robot modes. I liked how he would kinda breakdance when he transformed. And I loved that scene where he misdirects Brawl's cannonfire during the battle in the city; it was a nod to the original animated film where Kup does the same thing to Blitzwing. The only t... read more
[quote name='SUPREMEQUEEN' post='16576308' date='Jul 3 2009, 01:31 AM'][quote name='tnswman' post='16576076' date='Jul 2 2009, 11:33 AM'][quote name='BigBearJahlon' post='16576062' date='Jul 2 2009, 10:32 AM']I finally TF2 the other day, and I was really surprised at what I saw. After r... read more