The alleged racism of ‘Transformers’

Posted by · 11:37 am · June 25th, 2009

Skids and Mudflap from Transformers: Revenge of the FallenThis AP story has been popping up at various aggregators for the past two days, though its particulars have been a focus of debate for many who saw the film over the last week: are the twin robots in Paramount’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” elements of racism, insensitive stereotypes, an evil combination of both or — here’s a radical thought — merely of a piece with the built-in lore of the franchise?

The grievance:

Skids and Mudflap, twin robots disguised as compact hatchbacks, constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang. They’re forced to acknowledge that they can’t read. One has a gold tooth…

Todd Herrold, who watched the movie in New York City, called the characters “outrageous.”

“It’s one thing when robot cars are racial stereotypes,” he said, “but the movie also had a bucktoothed black guy who is briefly in one scene who’s also a stereotype.”

“They’re like the fools,” said 18-year-old Nicholas Govede, also of New York City. “The comic relief in a degrading way.”

I’m of the mind that these characters, though certainly not the most classy depictions, could be read as commentary on the state of pop culture in today’s society.  After all (and as African-American actor Reno Wilson, who voices Mudflap, cool-headedly notes in the piece), the Autobots learned about human communication, and likely fashion sense, through the internet, a veritable treasure trove of information indisputably indicative of  “us.”  Maybe, then, the heat lies on our shoulders, not Bay and company’s.

Now screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have chimed in on the debate.  And in a rather intriguingly spineless twist of fate, they’ve offered the “we didn’t know” defense and placed the blame squarely at Bay’s feet.

Film School Rejects contributor Cole Abaius recently sat down with the duo and discussed the particulars of the controversy.

Here is the bulk of that exchange:

Cole: I heard that the gold tooth was Michael Bay’s idea, but do you have any response to those who found The Twins offensive?

Orci: Number one, we sympathize. Yes, the gold tooth was not in the script, that’s true.

Kurtzman: It’s really hard for us to sit here and try to justify it.I think that would be very foolish, and if someone wants to be offended by it, it’s their right. We were very surprised when we saw it, too, and it’s a choice that was made. If anything, it just shows you that we don’t control every aspect of the movie.

Cole: Were you offended by them?

Kurtzman: I wasn’t thrilled. I certainly wasn’t thrilled.

Orci: Yeah, same reaction. I’m not easily offended, but when I saw it, I thought, ‘Someone’s gonna write about that.’”

Honorable.  But regardless, I personally think the entire situation has been blown out of proportion.  And for a film with precious few fans, it’s going to be a difficult ride overcoming something like this that can turn into a rather unthoughtful dog-pile very quickly.  But that’s my opinion.

What do you guys think?  Are Skids and Mudflap racist depictions?  Are they just part and parcel of the narrative’s expositional particulars?  Is this whole thing blown out of proportion?  Have your say in the comments below.

(By the way, the film cleaned up with a record-breaking $60.6 million at the box office Wednesday.  More on that in Chad’s Sunday Cents column, I’m sure.)

→ 20 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

20 responses so far

  • 1 6-25-2009 at 11:40 am

    Alex S. said...

    I’m so sick of this crap.

  • 2 6-25-2009 at 11:41 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 3 6-25-2009 at 12:10 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Did the robot get his gold tooth from the internet too? I think you are giving Bay a little too much credit Tapley.

  • 4 6-25-2009 at 12:12 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Sure, why not?:

  • 5 6-25-2009 at 12:12 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    What the hell CAN’T you find on the internet?

  • 6 6-25-2009 at 12:13 pm

    Sridhar said...

    So here’s the thing that disturbs me about these bots. Clearly, there’s a lot of people over the age f 12 who know that these are nothing but stereotypes, that they’re offensive but inaccurate, and that of course most young black teenagers aren’t illiterate, as opposed to young black Transformers. The problem that’s been disturbing me is the audience of the movie. A ton of them will be kids under 10, many of whom may be suburban kids without black kids in their classroom or neighborhood. Absent anything else, this becomes their perception. What are they going to be thinking or perceiving post this film except for the worst of “ghetto” stereotypes?

    Like it or not, it does seem to me that huge blockbusters that seek a large audience have some responsibility to be aware of the messages they send. Having something akin to a minstrel act in the middle of a movie that does 60 million in one day frankly terrifies the hell out of me.

  • 7 6-25-2009 at 12:32 pm

    Jamal said...

    I think the problem is that people who suffer from white guilt and some black people see racism everywhere. Hence this stupid issue regarding the twin transformers. Get over it! It’s just a movie.

    The twins were stereotypes of people who are UNEDUCATED, not black. I can understand the correlation between negative stereotypes of urban youth and the twins. But you have to be honest, how many times have you been out in the public square and listen to some of these inner city kids talk like that. Both black and white kids do it. Its not a racial thing. It has a lot more to do with the way pop culture celebrates the gangster aspect of hip hop. It’s no secret, its just many people out there choose to ignore the facts.

  • 8 6-25-2009 at 12:39 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    Is it racist to call a red and green car representations of black stereotypes by the way they act? My black Step Dad doesnt act like Skids or Mudflap at all but my white Cousin might as well be their triplet brother. I think if anything they’re poking fun at a type of person, not a race of people.

  • 9 6-25-2009 at 12:48 pm

    James D. said...

    Can anyone be surprised by Michael Bay anymore?

  • 10 6-25-2009 at 12:48 pm

    The Other Ryan said...

    It’s just preying on stereotypes. I don’t think it was meant in a malicious way, but it is offensive. Though to be fair, I’m more offended by the fact that every single line uttered by these two is remarkably unfunny, and the fact that any screenwriter would find it funny in the first place.

  • 11 6-25-2009 at 1:25 pm

    Nathaniel R said...

    “Maybe, then, the heat lies on our shoulders, not Bay and company’s.”

    hey speak for yourself…

    i don’t like to be lumped in with negative racial stereotypes i don’t support. I haven’t seen the movie so can’t comment on it but i can comment on the notion that filmmakers aren’t responsible for what they choose to portray in their movies.

    that justifies just about anything – WELL SOCIETY FEELS THAT WAY…

  • 12 6-25-2009 at 1:45 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    I wonder how Will Smith and Martin Lawrence feel about this?

  • 13 6-25-2009 at 2:05 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Nathaniel: “Our” is less specific than that. Come on. And it isn’t about justification, either.

    It’s shocking, the narrow-minded white guilt that is cropping up in certain quarters on this thing.

  • 14 6-25-2009 at 2:17 pm

    R.J. said...

    Everyone I know that’s seen the film loved it, and a lot of them are black, as am I. I’m seeing the movie tonight so I’ll reserve my judgement until then.

  • 15 6-25-2009 at 3:07 pm

    JC said...

    Hmmm…60 million dollar opening…so though it’s doubtful it’ll break the opening weekend record (having opened on a Wednesday), it’ll be interesting to see how much this drops off on Week 2.

  • 16 6-25-2009 at 3:43 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Anything to drag this abomination through the dirt where it belongs. Keep it coming guys!

  • 17 6-25-2009 at 9:57 pm

    Kyle said...

    Hmm, so the writers are putting all of this on Michael Bay?

  • 18 6-27-2009 at 7:22 am

    gdigiart said...

    Im a student at MIT studying to become an engineer . Im also african american. I was attracted to the movie because of the mechanics and just puzzled on how any of this could happen realistically . Some of the greatest engineering ideas came from movies. Its funny how people are angered by these characters. I wasn’t raised in the best of neighborhoods, growing up I think I’ve seen more of my own people racist against there own kind. I can remember quite vividly me being referred to as an “Oreo” and i don’t have to explain myself because i know that half the black people who will read this have heard of the term and it’s use and probably used it themselves. Think about it… the robots download their characters and they all choose the characters off of preference. Is it not likely that this one stereotype would stick as a download from a species who haven’t encountered racial issues but are merely amused by the culture presented. That fact that people are directly categorizing a robot with a personality like this as “black” says something. Let me correct you….. These characters are not black… They are ghetto.. Its a culture not a race. I was raised by a mom that wouldn’t let me speak that way, she would slap the taste out of my mouth If i didn’t speak correct english. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap in my house. In china some parts there are no black people at all. So the only thing they can reference to, because they’ve never seen a black person before, is the media. We let our children listen to this garbage, we give the money to buy this crap and promote this nonsense. I hate when people assume that to be black is to be ghetto or to be ghetto is to be black. Listen to what you are saying before you say it. Other than that the movie was great. I admit i felt uncomfortable listening to the dialect between the two robots but i’ve experienced worse just because i was the outsider and didn’t fit the stereotype, like just because i didn’t talk like a moron I have to be denied my cultural heritage that my mother raised me to be very proud of. Who is stereotypically a single parent so there is truth to stereotypes and maybe if we confront the truths instead of hiding we would stop pointing fingers and look at the three point back at us and do something about it change.

  • 19 6-28-2009 at 2:10 am

    jack said...

    what about jazz in the first movie was he a sterotype to? this is the dumbist crap ever the movie is great what look at the friday movies anyone wanna wine about those oh thats right mr bay didnt do those did he STOP CRYING AND ENJOY THE FN MOVIE

  • 20 7-01-2009 at 12:46 pm

    michael said...

    I think people need to stop crying.
    You know, they couldn’t read. so what. they said they couldn’t read that language. that’s why sam said “you mean we have to ask a decepticon?”
    Which means, no AUTOBOT could read it. not just the twins. This is foolish argument.