“If God made us in His image, who do you think made them?"
In the new Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the single black (human) male of the cast, USAF Master Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson) utters that line by way of introducing the movie's towering title characters. It's a question that's perhaps more interesting than intended, given how unapologetically racist some of these new transformer personalities are. As for who made them, I blame the surrealistic but unwittingly white-minded director, Michael Bay, who presents throughout the movie a sort of minstrel laser light show.
Back in the summer of 2007 I decided that I would not be lured back for a second helping after my disappointment, as a fan and as a sentient human life form, over the first Transformers film.
Early reviews of the second installment promised more blacked-up robots, and after reading them I suddenly felt a responsibility to participate in the conversation. After all, discussion is a healthy step toward accountability. The reviews referenced the unnecessary racializing of superior alien beings traveling time and space to knuckle up on Earth. People talking about race is a good thing, but then, this is just a story about a space robot smackdown, right?
On opening day, a friend and I stood in a line stretching out of the theatre to the sidewalk in downtown New York City. Inside, an enthusiastic crowd of couples, families, and fanboys filled cinema four.
Throughout the show, the audience in the theatre was clearly satisfied, and I too was not above appreciating the entertainment objective of the filmmakers. My friend and I cheered along as Optimus Prime, the benevolent leader of the human-embracing Autobots, fought the good fight to save mankind from the Evil (capital E!) Decepticons.
But then, darkness (as it were) descended -- we became outnumbered in our section by laughs when the ridiculous twin Autobots, Mudflap and Skids, periodically rolled into the spotlight.
Think Jar Jar Bots. Remember the crows from Dumbo. Think Amos 'n’ Andy Meet R2D2 'n' C3PO. Picture an 11 foot, 1.2 metric ton, anthropomorphized Chevrolet with googly eyes, a protruding gold tooth, and an ape-like strut, spitting out "ghetto" slang. Now picture two of them, talkin’ that jive. By which I mean they 'gun on' one another, insulting their mutual inadequacy, their shared ignorance; it’s the incessant chattering of the monkey mind. The inflection is insulting to anyone with even a basic understanding of what a racist stereotype is. The attempt at humor is uncomfortable and not in any way suggestive of an enlightened wit on the part of its creators. These absurdly ghettoized characters add nothing to the story, except to provide some light moments between the 'splosions.
Director Michael Bay has defended Mudflap and Skids, claiming they "make the story more accessible to kids."
Yes, that’s right, he's coming for your kids. Did I mention that Tom Kenny provides the voice for Skids, the robot with a single gold tooth? He's Sponge Bob Squarepants.
A black couple in their early thirties to my left chuckled when the twins protest a human's suggestion that they even know how to read. Super-advanced alien robots with impossible amounts of moving parts and processing power. . . but they don't know how to read. Not that they can't, not that they're incapable, but they simply have not yet taken the opportunity to download that application. Because, you see, they're black-ish, which I guess means that when it comes to some important things, like say, reading, they’re too lazy to get that going for themselves. They talk black, they walk black, and they're even on CP Time -- they show up late for apocalyptic battles.
Mudflap and Skids mostly lope around behind the more important characters, mumbling constantly with unsubtle, "ass-bitch-shi-mutha" interjections.
Reno Wilson, the voice of Mudflap, suggests in his own interpretation of the characters, "It's an alien who uploaded information from the Internet and put together the conglomeration and formed this cadence, [this] way of speaking and body language that was accumulated... and that's what came out. If he had uploaded country music, he would have come out like that."
Wilson added, rather improbably, that he never imagined viewers might consider the twins to be objectionable racial caricatures. Nevertheless, Michael Bay unpacked his action figures and built some straight up hood rats. The result is a steady stream of ignorant, bickering, hateful epithets, puked out onto the audience in the name of comedy.
And black minstrelsy isn't the only sort on display; there's a heavy load of brownface too. The twins take particular issue with the human protagonist's roommate and unhappy sidekick, Leo Spitz (Ramon Rodriguez), the film's representative Latino and Conspiracy Theorist. The Latino family in our section, two generations deep, roared as Skids suggests, in a moment of frustration, "Hey! Let's bust a cap in [Leo's] butt!" And the collective audience of the entire theatre released a wall of audible approval later in the story when Leo admits, ashamed, "I think I'm having a nervous breakdown. . ." In response Mudflap suggests, "That's cause you're a pussy!" and then, to Skids, reaches out for the unspoken bond of a knuckle five.
Following in an American cinematic tradition that just won't die, these two black characters are left for dead. Mudflap and Skids are simply tossed off after their usefulness has been consumed, much like the Mandingo Autobot Jazz of the first Transformers installment, a breakdancing black gangster robot, and subsequently the first to be ripped apart. It's suggested that they're merely unconscious with battle fatigue, but the storytellers give no definitive explanation. "Who cares?" the message seems to be, "they're just the black comic relief.”
Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice that the packed, multicultural, multiracial opening-day audience seemed to enjoy the entire spectacle very much, spilling out of the theatre with an energetic buzz. Aside from the surprise my friend and I shared, there didn't seem to be any murmuring or confusion, no sort of indignant "did you catch that?!" that another friend of mine reported experiencing throughout the film when he saw it two weeks later at the same crowded theatre.
I was left to wonder, had I experienced a sort of opening-day audience solidarity? Had we seen it all before, too often, to expect better, and instead thoughtlessly appreciated what’s really a terribly pandering movie? Or worse, is it what we knowingly came and paid and gave our time to absorb, digest, and take home with us, in our brains, in our kids?
For me the answer is, "Certainly." It was what I had read about and what I was expecting. I still can’t really believe just how far they pushed these ideas without the studio, Paramount, putting a stop to it.
Most of the frame is dedicated to the relentless spectacle unfolding, really beating down on the audience with sensory over-stimulation. As viewers go along for the roller-coaster ride, they should keep in mind then that the storytellers garnish this beast with homophobic, racist, misogynistic, militaristic content, portrayed as comedic entertainment to benefit you, the audience.
They expect you to appreciate it, to laugh at it, in those moments when you come up for air. Especially if you're white.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Trailer)