Sunday, June 28, 2009

Racism, Robots and Gungans

While I never wrote about my concerns at the time, I have to say that I saw the whole flap about supposed racism in the new Transformers movie coming. You haven't heard about this? Check it out here.

I remember seeing the quick clip of the two characters in question, Mudflap and Skids, in one of the later preview trailers for the film. It was a quick bit where they confessed that they don't know how to read. And I don't know a better way to put this, but they sounded...well, "black." I hate using that term for it because I know that there are plenty of black people who don't talk like that. How about "stereotypical black"? That's a little more like it. I also remember thinking that there was something about their faces that seemed a little caricature-like, reminding me a bit of some of the Jim Crow era caricatures of African Americans. Now, I'm willing to admit that my memory might have been adjusted a bit to fit their faces with their voices, but I've read more than once that one of them has a gold tooth, so perhaps it's not me. I've tried doing an image search on the characters, but they're all full-body shots, and just like all of Bay's Transformers, I can't even make heads or tails of what I'm looking at there.

As anybody who reads my blog knows, I have no intention of seeing this movie. Therefore, I'm not going to say that it's racist, as I don't really know the whole story. However, from what I've read, these two characters exist only for some moments of comic relief, and then they don't really have anything else to do with the "story". Maybe there's more to it though.

Of course, the comparison in the media that's being drawn is the whole flak over Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace. I always thought that was pretty overblown myself. There are plenty of problems with the character - the chief of them being that he's supposed to be comic relief but pretty much all of the jokes involving him fall totally flat, which simply makes him more annoying than anything else. (Although he's nowhere near as offensive as the "romantic" dialogue in Attack of the Clones.)

I remember people saying that he sounded Jamaican. I suppose that he does, if you never actually paid attention to how Jamaican people speak. The actor, Ahmed Best, is of heritage, and a few words and mannerisms were probably influenced by that. Still, when I look at Jar Jar, who's an orange amphibian, the first thing that comes to my mind is definitely not a black person. But let's just go along with the argument that he's a Caribbean stereotype, and it's offensive that he was portrayed as being dumb and clumsy. Okay, fine, but ALL of the Gungans spoke that way, and they built an underwater city! Not only that, but the rest of them were portrayed as capable and brave warriors. So, if Gungans are a comment on the Jamaican people, then the message is that they're technologically advanced warriors. Ummm...okay.

Of course, there were other things about The Phantom Menace that people liked to point out as being supposedly racist. Apparently the character Watto was either Jewish, Arabic, or Italian depending on who was making the criticism, and considering that people couldn't make up their minds as to which one it was, I think we can dismiss that one. I also remember a coworker at the time of the movie's release saying that the Nemoidians were "stereotypes of Asian businessmen." I'm sorry, but if you see Asian businessmen with those green characters (who have very WIDE eyes, I might add) then that says more about you than it does about them.

This is why I don't want to call "racism!" on the new movie. As with The Phantom Menace, the proper context might shed a new light on all of that. Perhaps they do some brave admirable thing in the movie. Maybe they actually CAN read. Maybe they're like that character in East of Eden who pretends to only know broken English but is actually pretty articulate. (I haven't read the book since high school - give me a break if I'm totally off-base with that one.)

I'd also like to point out that I don't even have a problem with the notion Transformers having the voices of what's pretty obviously a black actor. After all, the original cartoon series had Jazz and Blaster, from what I recall. Of course, neither of them were used as a comic foil, and they were just as smart and capable as all of the other Autobots. The explanation for their particular way of talking was that they had fallen in love with certain aspects of Earth's culture, and their manner of speech reflected that. I suppose if anything, that idea celebrates black culture more than anything.

I don't know about Michael Bay's version, but I do know that he has a way of dumbing things down. Let's hope that these accusations of racism are misguided. After all, there are plenty of other reasons not to support that movie.

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