Smile Politely

Transformers 2 — Minstrels in disguise?

I saw Transformers 2 opening weekend. I went to a theater called “Cinebarre” on the East Coast, where they serve food, but more importantly, beer to you as you watch the film. Having enjoyed the inane mayhem of the first Transformers when I saw it one the big screen, I was relatively excited to enter Michael Bay’s epileptic world of giant alien robots once again, especially with the prospect of slightly-overpriced pints of Miller Lite to keep me excited through the (somewhat) necessary exposition.

What I found was that where Transformers was a lean, stupid action movie simply about alien robots, pouty lips, and breasts, Transformers 2 was a bloated, boring mess about alien robots, bad jokes, offensive stereotypes, pouty lips, and breasts. And even Even Stevens’ respectable comedic delivery couldn’t save a dull script, half of which is muttered through quickly by its main characters because Bay can’t hold a shot for more than a second. No amount of $4 Miller Lites could have saved this: the ultimate buzz-killing film.

Io9 published an amusing review half-satirically saying that Michael Bay had made “a brilliant art film about the illusory nature of plot,” but if that were true, we wouldn’t have the scene where a giant robot talks about the plot for a full half-hour in the middle of the movie. Even John Tuturro’s character (the film is too fast-paced and loud to pick up any character names among the cacophony of image and sound) begs him to hurry the fuck up with his story.

The real thing that kept bugging me, however, was the blatant racism and sexism. Okay, the sexism is pretty apparent in the first film, too, and in pretty much every Michael Bay film. Women, to him, are sexual objects who need to be protected, saved, and fucked by the male characters and, vicariously, the male viewers. Especially, in this case, the teenage ones who want to believe that when they get to college every girl apparently eats once and goes to the gym five times a day, wanders nearly naked around co-ed dorms with no regard for her privacy, and always looks slightly wet.

And then there’s Skids and Mudflap, the red and green robots you may have heard about already. They speak what is unmistakably “urban slang,” the P.C. term for “like black people.” Of course, nobody is suggesting that black people all talk the same or all sound like this, but beyond slang like “Ah, that old school!” and “I’ma bust a cap in yo’ ass,” the characters do speak with a rough approximation of a common African-American accent.

(Michael Bay has said that these characters were “kind of written but not really written,” a nearly nonsensical explanation which makes me think that they were given lines only in post-production. It also allows me to not blame screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who also co-wrote the vastly more entertaining Star Trek film.)

Yes, these are robots and they are not actually black in color, but they don’t have to be. People who insist this is not racism also try to pretend that there is not a long history of mocking black culture in dominant U.S. society. This is not an isolated incident, and, with Skids’s gold tooth and his revelation (no, seriously) that they can’t read, it perpetuates stereotypes about blacks in the United States, even if it doesn’t occur to some viewers that they’re “black” (or, viewers obstinately deny that they are “black”). If it didn’t occur to you that the robots were supposed to be black, good for you; but the way they act and talk is a historical “coding” of blackness in popular United States discourse, and is clearly taken from real-world speech patterns and common phrases that have risen solely out of our black community.

Of course, it’s really no more ridiculous for an alien robot to have a recognizably African-American accent than it is for Optimus Prime (the boss robot) to have a European-American (“white”) accent. However, these are not genuine accents, but exaggerated ones like Chris Tucker’s in Rush Hour or, say, Amos & Andy’s. Like minstrel characters’ voices, they are high-pitched, over-enunciated, and played for comedy. One of the voices comes from a white voice actor who also plays Spongebob Squarepants.

The characters themselves are there for (rather flat) comedic relief, constantly bickering to the hindrance of their missions and shouting out one-liners and catchphrases meant to amuse based solely on their “blackness.” And hey, they’re not the only wise-cracking “blacks” in the film: every once in a while Transformers 2 cuts to a valiant white military hero, who says something strong and assertive, while Tyrese Gibson stands next to him and says something snappy.

And then there’s the buck-toothed South Asian man we see for half a second inside a deli. He makes some sort of noise pretty much directly at the camera. The (100% white) audience I saw it with thought that was pretty funny. I thought it was part of a long history of representing Asians and Asian-Americans as buck-toothed foreigners whose mannerisms and speech patterns were meant for white people to mock.

But there’s a scene in this film which makes all this racism make a little more sense. You know how in films like this there’s usually a made-up President, who’s either referenced obliquely without using a name, filmed in shadows so we can’t see his face, or hell, just played by an actor who looks nothing like any President? Well, not in this one. First, we meet the slimy Joint Chiefs chairman, specifically sent there by the President, who weasely insists on a “diplomatic” solution to the giant alien robot problem, to the chagrin of the entire military (he is later dropped out of a plane by the valiant white military hero). Then, we later hear President Obama specifically mentioned on a television report.

The film implies quite strongly that Obama just wants to “cut and run” away from all of our giant robot-centered struggles that our brave men (women are not allowed to wear anything as baggy and figure-obscuring as battle fatigues in Michael Bay’s universe) are fighting overseas — a good deal of the fighting takes place in Egypt which, of course, has no cities but only goats, peasants, and pyramids. The President is never mentioned by name in the first film, but he also never gives any resistance to the obvious solution to the robot problem, which is to get good giant robots to fight the bad giant robots. I realized, with this film, that Michael Bay isn’t sexist and racist, he’s just a Republican. And I suppose the appropriate response is to respectfully agree to disagree with him.

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