No One Wants To Own Up To Racism In Transformers

Given how many people worked on the creative angle of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I'm amazed and not a little bit shocked that the movie hit screens with two of the most offensive, stereotypically black characters I've seen in a studio film since Mickey Rooney donned buck teeth to play a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany's. (Granted I'm also a bit amazed that I didn't even talk about these characters in my review, which is a major oversight; I'd already talked about them so much offline and in various emails that I completely passed over the subject.)

The characters in question are Skids and Mudflap, who after an initial appearance as a ratty old ice cream truck are upgraded to be green and orange Chevys. More to the point, both characters speak with voices that sound like urban black stereotypes, have big ears and buck teeth and proclaim that they 'don't do much readin''. Skids even has a gold tooth. How did these characters make it through months of development, meetings and rendering to appear on screens this week?

At the press day for the film, screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci initially passed the responsibility for the characters to Michael Bay, who passed it on to the voice actors, Tom Kenney (Spongebob Squarepants) and Reno Wilson, who is black. A couple of days ago Devin from CHUD quoted Kurtzman on the subject:

I think a lot of what we did was following Michael's lead. Those characters, more than any other, he had the strongest instinct for. Our job was to keep up with him.

Bay explained that he designed the characters to appeal to kids; they're certainly more overtly cartoonish and broad than anything else in the already broad movie. But his follow-up put all the blame on his voice actors:

When you work with voice actors, especially with the twins, they did a lot of improv for their parts. We liked their improv and, from there, we would animate to their stuff. When you're doing character animation and you're building the character, it's not like an actor where you shoot the scene and you've got it and you move on.

Now Film School Rejects has Kurtzman and Orci talking more candidly about the two robots and their feelings about how they ended up in the final cut. The gold tooth was Bay's idea, they confirm, and they're embarrassed by the stereotypical caricature:

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.

What no one has yet addressed, however, is the buck-toothed black human character that appears in an equally stereotypical Jewish deli halfway through the film. He doesn't seem to serve any purpose aside from completing a suite of racial and cultural stereotypes that in addition to the wildly racist Jewish deli includes French mimes, a Parisian restaurant that serves snails and a noodle-eating old Chinese man. The buck-toothed human character appears in only a couple of shots, and really seems to have only one purpose: to provide a reference point for Skids and Mudflap as racist caricatures.

The characters have quickly caused a stir outside the blog world. THR has their take, and AP has run a piece in outlets like USA Today. That one mounts a thin defense for the characters by quoting voice actor Wilson, who performed as Mudflap. Wilson defends the characters as wannabe gangsters who learned about human culture by downloading data from the internet.

It's an alien who uploaded information from the Internet and put together the conglomeration and formed this cadence, way of speaking and body language that was accumulated over X amount of years of information and that's what came out. If he had uploaded country music, he would have come out like that... It could easily be a Transformer that uploaded Kevin Federline data. They were just like posers to me.

And, from Wilson's perspective, it's easy to see that the characters could have played like that in the recording booth. But when presented in final context, they're far more aggressively stereotypical and difficult to fathom than Jazz from the first film, who was also a robot styled as a black character. He liked to breakdance and was the one Autobot killed in that movie. Here, Skids and Mudflap mostly disappear once the action gets thick, only heightening the impression that they're just minstrel characters meant to get a cheap, uneasy laugh.