Racist Robots

I’ve been hearing things here or there about the racism in the new Transformers movie.  And while I wouldn’t make as big a deal about it as some, there is a really good case to be made there.

And I’m not talking about Mudflap and Skids, the Autobot twins.  I didn’t find them as remotely as offensive as others seem to have.  I’m not saying I cared a lot for their characters.  Too broad.  Too goofy.  And even their design was (I believe) unintentionally racist.  Although, really, is this because having big teeth and big ears a “black” thing or a “funny” thing?  And that kind of opens the whole door to stereotypes and perception that make up our world.  Ideas so ingrained that they are practically invisible to most people.  It’s a deep subject, and one I can’t really tackle.  Plenty of smarter people than me have commented on this subject in general, so I suggest you go find one of them and listen to what they have to say.

No, this is about Transformers 2.  This is about a movie that is so broad in its humor and writing that, by virtue of the complete absence of forethought from its creators, it ends up having accidental racist undertones.  And I do believe they’re accidental, although this isn’t an excuse.  Maybe once I could forgive.  Twice, I could overlook.  But there’s a point where it’s hard to make excuses.

I have very little problem with Skids and Mudflap.  Probably because they, like nearly every other Transformer in the film, are relegated to bit players.  They really don’t get enough screen time to be offensive.  Although they do get more than nearly any other Transformer in the film, which just goes to show how this film kind of went off track somewhere.  NOTE TO FILM PRODUCERS: People go to giant robot movies to watch giant robots.

In the end, the twin Autobots are redeemable.  Their broad personalities aside (and pretty much everyone in this film has a broad personality anyway) they actually are good guys.  And not the Meesa-Be-A-Friggin-Moron JarJar Binks kind of good guy.  They actually fight Devastator and manage to do a halfway decent job of it until the movie decides that thirty seconds of robot-on-robot action is apparently too much for a movie that is all about robot-on-robot action.  NOTE TO FILM PRODUCERS: a fight, robocentric or not, is not over until someone has either been defeated or escaped.

So let’s leave the Twins out of this.  You can throw the Twins at me all you want, and I’ll just say, “So what?”  If the worst thing you can say about Transformers 2 is that two robots from outer space, who probably learned their behavior from a culture already filled with cliches and stereotypes, are somewhat racist if you want to look at it that way, then I’d agree, but not really think much of it.

No, the racism in Transformers 2 is much more subtle than that.  And when I say subtle, I really mean, not subtle at all.

Nearly every non-white, non-American character is there for comic relief.  And always, the insertion is completely unnecessary.  In other words, the writers had to think these were good ideas and that these ideas were so good that they were worth inserting into an already overlong film.

Chief among these is, of course, the Latino sidekick.  Imagine Anthony Anderson’s character from the first film, but without any appreciable skills or even the ability to behave like a semi-rational human being.  At no point do we understand why this sidekick is tagging along other than to gape and moan and otherwise act like a moron because Unicron forbid we remove an unnecessary human character in a robot movie that already has way too many human characters.  NOTE TO FILM PRODUCERS:  Robots can be bankable stars.  And since they’re just special effects, you can really milk them for all their worth and not worry about them saying bad things about your movie.  Optimus Prime is not a diva.

Or how about a border guard who doesn’t seem to serve any purpose at all.  He’s not an obstacle.  Our heroes drive right past his checkpoint.  They don’t outwit him.  They don’t bully past him.  They just exchange a few words and go on their merry way.  Now, this might not be so bad except that A) it adds another unneeded scene to a movie that is already too long and B) he’s short!  Yes, that’s right.  Because if there’s another group of people who don’t get mocked enough, it’s the vertically challenged!  Take that, short people!  You’ve had it too easy too long!  NOTE TO FILM PRODUCERS: Short people buy movie tickets.

And there’s the funny looking foreign guy in the butcher shop.  Look!  He’s funny!  He’s generically foreign!  Why is he funny?  I’m not sure other than foreign people are funny.

And, really, that’s the problem.  Transformers 2 isn’t racist.  It isn’t short-ist.  It isn’t even insensitive.  It’s just plain blind.  And that’s worse.  Because if you’re deliberately racist, then at least you’re committed.  At least, you’re sort of being honest.  And at least you’re deliberately offending people, mocking them because you genuinely don’t like them or what they stand for.

This is not the case with Transformers 2.  I doubt it ever once entered anyone’s mind to tone it down a bit.  Well, it probably did enter someone’s mind.  Films are a collaborative effort.  But these folks were probably quickly shouted down.  I can see the exchange now.

“Hey, guys, I know you think this is funny, but do we really need to have the border guard be short?  I mean, he should be dark-skinned and Middle Eastern, but does he have to be, like, tiny short?”

“What?  There really are very short people, aren’t there?”

“Well, yeah, but you kind of make him look like an idiot.”

“Well some short people are idiots, right?”

“I suppose.”

“Well, there you go.  It’s not stereotypical.  It’s just real life.  Anyway, the scene is funny.  We need a funny scene here.”

“Yeah, but why is it funny?”

“Because he’s short.  Get it!  He’s short and a border guard!”

“Being short isn’t really that funny.”

“What are you talking about?  Short people are funny.  Everyone knows that.  And short, foreign people are even funnier.”

“Couldn’t that be construed as a little insensitive?”

“Well, I don’t honestly know how it could be.  But just to be safe, why don’t we add a Latino character to the good guys’ side?  He’ll be like this wheeler-dealer.  And he’ll mug for the camera.  That should even things out!”

At this point, the objector just admits defeat and walks away, sobbing.

The entire thing reminds me of my beloved comic books, where most of the writers and editors are so self-assured that nothing they write could be considered offensive or racist that they’re completely unwilling to listen to any suggestions otherwise.  They’re so certain of this that they even ignore complaints or don’t take steps to avoid them.  In comics, it’s largely sexism that’s the problem.  Though racism gets plenty of play as well.

Strangely, in Transformers 2, sexism really isn’t a big thing.  Sure, Megan Fox is in it.  And she’s pretty.  And the film reminds us of that on a constant basis, but this is no different than Arnold Schwartzenneger running around with his beefy oiled up chest in Conan the Barbarian or Mathew McConneghy’s (didn’t spellcheck that) contractual obligation to display his killer abs for at least 20 percent of any movie he is in.  And Megan Fox’s character is never once the damsel in distress.  Most the time, she carries the more traditional action hero role while Shia LeBuff (ditto spellcheck) mugs.  While Arcee doesn’t get much screen time this goes back to the unwritten rule of Transformers 2 which states “Don’t do too much robot stuff.”  NOTE TO FILM PRODUCERS: When you create a cool motorcycle triplet bot butt-kicking robot from outer space, it’s probably worth it to give her more than two lines of dialogue and perhaps a smidgeon of character development.

What’s the verdict then?  Is Transformers 2 racist?  Again, I say no.  It’s just oblivious.  And, to be honest, this is a step forward.  There was a time when only white guys with prosthetic teeth who squinted were allowed to play “Chinamen” on television.  There was a time when the notion of a Latin man and a caucasain woman was almost too ludicrious to base a TV show on.  And there was a time when it was controversial to suggest that non-white males could actually save the day.

But that time has passed, and a film like Transformers 2, which wouldn’t have been remotely offensive to most people in the long, long, long ago decades of . . . oh, say the 70’s is now turning heads.  And it’s making some folks uncomfortable.  While I’m not often to pull out the racism card, I had to wince when one more “funny, foreign” guy was trotted out.

We’re not expecting any miracles, but we are expecting some forethought, a little bit of awareness.  I’m not suggesting anyone write via focus group or political correctness.  But I am suggesting that if you are going to offend someone, at least know you’re doing it.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Gabe
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    You know, I had the same thought about the Shia’s side-kick–mainly that his only purpose was to fulfill a quota and act like an idiot. I wanted to brush it off as me being too sensitive, too much of a watch dog or whatever. But when Shia, who has shown no more heroic qualities than anyother of his co-stars, goes to Autobot heaven and is dubbed a hero from across the galaxy, I felt a little bankrupt.

    It goes back to even the first movie where Jazz is the only autobot killed, and his death was perhaps the easiest kill Megatron had. Rip-rap dead. I was offended at that, and I’m not even black. Nor was there anything heroic about his death.

    Anyways, without going on a rant, it’s tiresome to see minority characters exalted in Stand-And-Deliver type movies where they must overcome racial prejudice to fit into the world, the exception apparently being Denzel Washington. Why not just treat them normally? O.O

  2. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Yeah, there were definitely some bad choices here. I do agree that transforming Sam Witwicky into some sort of “Destined hero” was just another one. What I liked about the first film was that Sam was just an ordinary kid in extraordinary circumstances. But by having him magically restore the matrix, you’ve taken that regular Joe quality away from him. Add to this that most of the minority characters are just there to add comic relief…well, it can be damn annoying.

    I was annoyed by Jazz’s death in the first film, too, although seeing this new film, one realizes how much worse it could’ve been. Sadly, Jazz was sacrificed in the name of Megatron’s bad guy credibility. It’s a bit lazy to have Megatron just kill someone easily to show how formidable he is. Also, even the manner of his death was poorly concieved. Why exactly would being ripped in half “kill” a Transformer? Especially since Frenzy is beheaded in one scene and doesn’t even really slow down.

    Even more frustrating though is that Jazz is officially the “Black” Autobot. As if being “black” is an especially distinguishing characteristic. Whereas all the other Autobots get personalities (Prime is wise, Ratchet is a doctor, Ironhide is a gung ho warrior), Jazz is “black”.

    And yet, I find myself reluctant to blame the film for this. Too often in our culture, white is the default, and anything else is “character”. There was a great example recently where someone pointed out a comic book cover with Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Luke Cage. Every character except Cage had on a colorful and distinct costume. In other words, being a non-white in popular media is as distinct and defining as, say, being bitten by a radioactive spider and being able to cling to walls.

    PET PEEVE: Even Luke Cage’s name is bland. It says, “Hey, I’m a black guy!” Even if Power Man wasn’t particularly evocative, it was still a superhero name for a superhero universe. And his original costume might have been very 70’s, but at least it was a costume. Not just jeans and a shirt. Spider-Man or Captain America would never fight crime in street clothes. The costume is part of the genre.

    This is a deeper issue than one mildly insensitive film. Not excusing Transformers 2 for its mistakes, but I do think it is merely a mirror of a culture that is still struggling to actually live up to it’s Melting Pot philosophy.

  3. Posted July 18, 2009 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Finally saw Transformers 2 and feel let down. I honestly thought I was going to see a movie about ass-kicking robots kicking ass frequently. Not a bunch of humans running around the world making idiots of themselves, intermittently running into robots.

    I would’ve done things a little different:

    1. Cut the whole college campus/parents bullshit right out. Terrible writing, terrible acting. Of course, this would’ve required a complete story change and I won’t go into that, only the basic parts. The parents are awful, they got way too much screen time and their use as a weakness with Sam was needless, just use friggin’ Megan Fox, I thought that was why she was there damn it! The human-disguise robot, just a feeble attempt to get more scantily glad thin ladies on screen.

    2. Cut the twins. Not needed, really. The trio-bike robot was awesome and should’ve been in it more than them. I cringed at their every line, horrible.

    3. I loved the nod to the cartoons with one part of devastator being green & purple, but why not the whole thing? Minor problem.

    4. John Turturro. I love the guy, he has made some fantastic movies over the years (The Big Lebowski, Quiz Show, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Do The Right Thing & many more) but in this he is bad. It’s not his fault, it’s the writers. I don’t go into Transformers for bad comedy. I go into it for BIG BADASS ROBOTS.

    5. Latino sidekick whom I hope to never see in a movie ever again. I know Michael Bay wanted Jonah Hill to be the side kick and it would’ve probably been just as bad, but, come on? Really? This guy? Why did Sam even need another tagalong?

    6. Soundwave. I loved Soundwave in the cartoons. His cassette were all out brilliant and wanted his toy so bad and still kinda do. New Soundwave however sucked. Sure his “cassettes” kinda did cool things when they formed, but, it just wasn’t the same.

    Things I did like:

    1. Spongebob Square-pants was in it. Well, kinda. Spongebob meets Steve Buscemi. lol

    2. It took me ages to get to number two. I’d have to say the effects were very impressive but ultimately not enough to pull the movie out of the shit-sequel syndrome.

    Like Hellboy 2, this movie took next to nothing from its first successful movie and went off on a tangent that not many people really wanted and evidently not many loved either. A very average movie about humans seeing some robots occasionally – a movie that could’ve been so much more.

    Lets hope the writers, who wrote the reboot of Star Trek, don’t do to Star Trek what they did with Transformers. But with the way things are, they probably will. Shame.

  4. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted July 19, 2009 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    Well, I don’t agree on some minor points. For instance, I liked Sam’s parents. It’s nice to see an older couple portrayed as people. And most of their comedy is pretty subtle compared to the rest of the film, which isn’t saying much.

    I ended up liking the Twins, but I also agree that with a movie already brimming with too many characters, there was no need for more “comic relief”.

    Agree on the Turturro character. But that could be said for our unnecessary Latino sidekick as well. (Just how much comic relief did the moviemakers think this film needed?)

    But I will definitely agree that anything that could’ve been cut for more robot on robot action would’ve been greatly appreciated.

  5. Posted July 19, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    The parents were awful!

    Leilani liked them too. I just found them way too over the top. The pot cookie scene? Hell no! No need, no need at all! All their dialogue was stilted and fake. Like the writers wanted to create a EVERY_PARENT conglomeration. I don’t see them as people-like, more a vivid caricature – and not a good one at that.

    BUT, I don’t know any high-middle class white American parents of late teens, so maybe they really are like that?

    Maybe I’m more upset from the whole, more than the parts that made it up and thus go off on one easier. lol

  6. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 1:21 am | Permalink

    Don’t get me wrong, Adam. I didn’t love the parents. And I think we’re in complete agreement that they should’ve been trimmed considerably for more robot action. In fact, pretty much everything NOT robot should’ve been trimmed or removed. In the end, the good things I remember from the film all involve robots with only humans as secondary characters.

  7. Posted July 20, 2009 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    You’re right, I can’t think of one good moment that isn’t robot related.

    Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone made a movie about robots? That centered on them for 90% of the movie? Wouldn’t that be super-awesome?

    Wait, they did, it’s Wall-E and it is awesome! 😀

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