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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Racism and Robots

I found this post on "The Angry Black Woman". It discusses stereotypes, racism, turning back the clock in Hollywood, and "Transformers". An interesting mix-I would love to know your thoughts, readers:

ABW’s Guest Blogger Nora here, with a brief rant.

Belated happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans (and more belated Canada Day to our northerly neighbors). I don’t tend to do much for the 4th of July; I just kind of feel ambivalent about celebrating an “independence” that didn’t really apply to my ancestors for another hundred years. Still, I’m not above using a holiday for all it’s worth when one comes along, and I figured it was a good idea to view explosions of some kind on the Fourth, so I went to see “Transformers.”

‘Ware spoilers.

I’ll preface this rant by saying that I went into the film expecting little in the way of logical plot or well-rounded characterization. As one of my viewing companions reminded me, it’s a Michael Bay film, after all. I went expecting to see giant robots blowing stuff up, and mostly that’s what I got. I was even pleasantly surprised by the first half of the film, which was an intriguing and heartwarming “boy and his car” tale. It brought back fond memories of my own first car, which I affectionately named “the Heap”, and which also seemed to have a mind of its own about certain things. (Not about getting me laid, though. Must be a guy-car thing.) I enjoyed the nods to the old 80s TV series, though clearly I wasn’t nearly as much of an old-series fan as most of the audience, who roared every time they caught some bit of fanservice that I missed. That was OK. It was all good, silly, lighthearted fun.

But. (You knew this was coming.)

As the 2.5-hour movie wore on, I found myself smiling less and less. That’s because as the special effects grew more extravagant and the action became more spectacular, I kept noticing something that left a bitter taste in my mouth, and eventually ruined my enjoyment of the film entirely. Namely, stereotypes.

There were basically four black characters in the film who had speaking roles. Bernie Mac played a shady used car salesman who sells the main character a car that turns out to be an Autobot. Tyrese Gibson plays one of the soldiers who first encounters the Decepticons. Anthony Anderson was supposedly a l33t signal analysis/tech expert. And I’ll include one “coded black” character — Jazz, one of the Autobots.

Mac’s character was the first to annoy me. Not because he was smarmy — he was a used-car salesman — but because of the way he made fun of other characters of color nearby. Bad enough that he called his Hispanic assistant “Ricky Ricardo”; on top of that he called the character who was supposed to be his mother “Mammy”. Which is about as blatant an invocation of a stereotype as you can get, despite the fact that it was played for laughs in this case. Maybe this was meant to soften the fact that Mac also calls her a bitch shortly afterward? Maybe the filmmakers figured it would be harder for the audience to take issue with the misogynist slur if they’ve already laughed at the racial one.

This didn’t bother me so much, I have to admit, because insulting mothers is a classic staple of comedy. Nor was I particularly bothered by Tyrese Gibson’s character, who — although prominently featured in the commercials — never got to grow beyond the role of ubermacho soldier, grunting out a handful of lines like, “Bring the (targeted missile) rain!” and “Come on!” I get really tired of seeing black men depicted as violent thugs, but at least this one got to be an intelligent, disciplined, moderately effective violent thug. And I’ll be honest; I’m willing to forgive Tyrese for a lot of sins. Eye candy has that effect sometimes. ::pauses to fan self briefly::

What bothered me far more was Anthony Anderson’s character. OK, I’m also tired of seeing fat black people played for laughs, but at least I know that fat white people get similar treatment in our fat-phobic society. Fat is the great equalizer. However, geeky fat white people get to be competent, even clever. Geeky fat black people, apparently, are idiots. Anderson’s character lives with his overbearing, overweight mother (another “mammy”), and apparently does nothing with his time beyond playing videogames and talking modern-day jive. Although another character refers to him mysteriously as “The only man smart enough to hack this (alien robot computer) signal,” Anderson never gets to display this intelligence or any sort of agency at all, instead spending the entire film blubbering in terror or eating himself sick. The scene in which the feds descend upon his house to bust him and his companions is, I think, deliberately reminiscent of COPS. So Anderson gets to play two! two! two! stereotypes in one — the cowardly ineffectual sidekick, and the criminal.

But the stereotypes that bothered me most of all were inflicted on a character who wasn’t even human.

Even back in the 80s, Jazz was “the black Transformer”. He was voiced by Scatman Crothers, which gave him an unmistakably African-American inflection and dialect; he loved to breakdance; his most humanoid parts (face, arms) were even painted black just to drive the allusion home. The current film version displays similar cultural referents: his transformation sequence resembles a breakdancing move; he’s also voiced by a noticeably black actor; and this time he tosses out modern urban slang like, “Whassup, bitches?” Because, y’know, if you’re only going to give a character two lines and you want people to think he’s black, you’re naturally going to make him talk like a suburban white male teenager rapper.

And I was even OK with that. Another 80s homage, right? We had a stereotypically black Transformer then, and we get another now. I hear they tried to bring back “the chick Transformer” Arcee too, but apparently the early focus groups hated her. (I don’t know if that means the audience is less tolerant of white female stereotypes than it is of black male stereotypes, or if the character was just bad.) So it could’ve been worse; he could’ve been a Decepticon. Or we could have had an entire race of alien robots who for some strange reason all chose to sound like white men. At least the 4/5ths of this planet that are people of color got some vocal/dialect representation. (See ABW’s post on Wiscon’s Why is the Universe So Damn White? panel.)

Anyway, in the climactic final battle scene, only one of the good-guy Autobots dies. Guess which one. C’mon, guess. Oh, you’re not even trying.

And he dies like a punk, too.

So the nostalgia in this version of Transformers seems to have also resurrected some old-school not-so-hidden messages: black women are nagging mammies who deserve the label bitch; black men are thugs, rappers, cowards, or crooks, and are stupid even when they’re supposed to be smart; Latino men are effete idiots; and even alien robots aren’t safe from token black guy syndrome. Oh, and I almost forgot the moronic Indian customer support guy who symbolizes the real dangers of outsourcing — it’s not only bad for our economy, it’s bad for our troops in wartime — and the Arab villagers whose sole purpose in the film is to be rescued by the tough-talking American soldiers. (Also see discussion on the Wiscon panel “What These People Need is a Honky”.)

Lately I’ve begun to wonder whether Hollywood has declared war on people of color. Things are getting worse, not better. I mean, cheesy as he was, back in the day Jazz was played with relative dignity and allowed to display actual intelligence. These days the attacks — because that’s what these ugly depictions feel like, attacks — are just so damned blatant. It feels as though American society is trying its damnedest to turn back the clock on diversity these days, and Hollywood is leading the charge with a multimedia assault on the senses. I don’t envision a cabal of white filmmakers sitting around and cackling as they purposefully turn all their CoCs into caricatures; instead I envision them simply deciding that they don’t care. It doesn’t matter. They’re not going to be “sensitive”; they’re tired of that PC crap; they’re just going to make the kind of film they really want to make, and damn the “special interests”. Or maybe it is deliberate; maybe they’ve decided that playing with racial stereotyping is “edgy” or “hip”. It brings the box office dollars, doesn’t it? It makes Middle America and the 18-35 year-old white male demographic happy. So who cares if a black female in the audience is shaking her head in disgust by the end of the film? We’re too sensitive, and we don’t matter anyway. Besides, everyone knows racism is only when you use the n-word and treat people differently based on their color.

So alas, poor Jazz — whose treatment, more than anything else, codes him as “the black Transformer”. Because unfortunately, there’s more to racism than meets the eye.

From Invisible Woman: I was turned off on this movie when the preview commercials came out and all I could see was Anthony Anderson yelling. But something must be up with a film that makes Tyrese look small and inconsequential, even in just a movie still.


CapCity said...

yea, i tried to turn off my hidden-racism meter & just enjoy some "mindless" entertainment...but I was also irritated - even if I didn't tell my date;-). In addition to what u adeptly pointed out, Sis - I was pissed that the one Hispanic Brother was put out of commission AND where was Tyrese's "happily ever after"? Why can't a Brother get a sistah & ride off into the sunset? Don't answer ...these r rhetorical;-).

Tayo said...

Reading through this brought back all of that. Like capcity, I just tried to shrug it off, but I hated Bernie Mac (wanted to slap him) and Anthony Anderson (wanted to slap him more). As for Jazz, the only time I was able to recognize who the crap he was when he did his break dance transformation. After that the only robots I was able to recognize were Optimus Prime, the camaro, and (sometimes) Megatron (the big bad one).

BTW, Tyrese's character was never developed enough for it merit him having happily ever after.

Invisible Woman said...

Thanks for that tayo...subtle racism can sometimes be be more infuriating and irritating than obvious racism. In this film I'm sure the creative crew would deny it and say they have no idea what you're talking about.

Shane said...

A sleezy used-car salesman is just that, a sleezy used-car salesman. I find myself looking at Bernie Mac not as a black man, but as a comedic actor and a very good one. Eye candy is just that and I think Anthony Anderson's character could be black, white or whatever. I don't think I assigned a race to the robots, they are robots! I think for racism to become less of an issue we all must become less sensitive to skin color. However that is easy for me to say. Can you guess why?

Invisible Woman said...

Hmmm....I have a pretty good guess, Shane, but it's OK, I like to hear everyone's thoughts, which is what I asked for in this post.

Our community is pretty sensitive, for pretty good reasons. But not everyone sees the same thing; I'm sure some people thought as you did, the robots were robots, Bernie Mac was supposed to be sleazy in that character, and Anthony Anderson could've been played by anyone. I clearly see your point. I just hope that was the filmmakers intent as well.

TM said...

Jazz's coonery in this movie made me glad that he got killed. I really, really wanted to call Darius McCrary (Family Matters) an "Uncle Tom" for doing this (he voiced Jazz in the movie), but black actors gotta work. I guess.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, you're right! Michael Bay hates the black man. How dare he cast black people in the movie! Much less as used car salesmen and l33t tech people, positions that are usually stereotyped by overweight and pasty white men.

I say we call a complete boycott, and never let a black person act in a Michael Bay film again.

But don't even get me started on the WHITE stereotypes. Overzealous and gun-happy maniacs who kill anything in sight? Incompetent bureaucrats? How about the main female character that only existed to bend over and give the audience a little eye candy? Despicable!

Not to mention to portrayal of CARS in that godforsaken movie. I won't even go there.

MadCowDzz said...

I think I agree with the anonymous coward above. You can knit-pick your way through any film and find stereotypical actions of the characters.

Contrary to the point of your article, I don't think this film, or Michael Bay, had any cruel intentions.

Anonymous said...

The fact that you equate one of our elite special forces with a "violent thug" is proof that you literally have no idea what you are talking about, are completely divorced from reality and may not even know what simple english words mean.

Portraying an special forces guy as black is equivalent to portraying him as the finest human being who could possibly exist, smart, disciplined, accomplished, honorable, strong, dedicated, etc

oh, i guess we aren't allowed to do that either.

Is there a single portrayal of a black person that a white director could commit to the screen that you approve of? seems like the only ones that are never complained about is the annoying "numinous negro" character who exists as the angelic moral compass in a poorly written movie--like say "the oracle" in the matrix

Anonymous said...

All i got out of that incoherant, ignorant, shitty ass waste of cyberspace blog was; "Im insecure about being black"

Where do u get off? Creating an entire website dedicated to enlightening the world about black actors/ actresses and singers, like we dont already know?
Poor tyrese Gibson had a shitty role, thats because he's a shitty actor, not because he is black. But u know what? i guess he can be forgiven for 'attatching more negative connotations to the social view of the black man' as u imply, because he works out? Ah, what the hell? whats racial dignity when u have a six pack!
I dont know if u noticed, but all the army guys had shitty endings, not just Mr. Gibson, ok.

If hollywood was as stereotypically racist and petty as u claim that it is, then there wouldnt be a black man/ woman on film, they would be behind the scenes making coffee, and cleaning the dishes, would'nt they? or more likely, they would be shooting eachother and selling dope in between shooting dice in the alley behind the studio, right? Isnt that all that Afro- Americans do? They couldnt possibly contribute positivly to society.. that would just be un-American!

Im sure all the black actors were quite happy with the roles they played, but just being happy for them wouldnt be enough. THE WORLD MUST KNOW THAT THESE BLACK MEN ARE BEING EXPLOITED AND USED AS MULES JUST TO FILL IN BETWEEN SCENES! oh what a horrible world.. cry me a river Timberlake. Grow up, its people like you that make rascism prominant, the world would be a better place minus this blog. Why dont u spend ur time doing something decent? If u want to make a change then sponser a child, or overthrow george bush as president, something that is going to improve the world.. not spread anger over nothing...

Still, after all this, i cannot explain how angry i am just over this website... i find it racist and offensive, because if i had a website dedicated to white people and their careers, i would be racist, fuck u and the double standards of your racial society, stop playing the fucking victim.

Anthony J.

Enjoy =]

Kimberly said...

Among all news on the movie Transformer2, i'm most interested in the first one i mentioned above. 20 ROBOTS!!!

Mark said...

Transformers was a fabulous movie (as viagra online is) however, the racism was evident, Tyrese who was the only black guy had not enough leadership. Is sad that until in the movies the racism exist, and is evident.