The Bigger Picture: Racist or Plain Stupid?

Written by Film, The Bigger Picture

A controversy erupted recently when critics claimed that two of the robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen were racist caricatures. What then occurred was the standard Internet back-and-forth over an issue most people really don’t understand.

The characters in question are two transforming Chevys named Skids and Mudflap. These robots speak with stereotypical “urban” voices, have oversized ears, and are apparently illiterate. I must preface this article by saying that I haven’t seen the movie. I have debated whether to see a movie I already know I’ll hate simply to be able to explain to people why, but I don’t really want to be a part of its guaranteed box office intake (it made over $200 million in its first five days).

There are people who have defended Skids and Mudflap by claiming they could be mocking white kids. After all, suburban white kids have long been among hip-hop’s largest audience. Others claim that it’s just the media looking for a controversy where one doesn’t really exist and pushing their politically correct agenda on audiences.

Perhaps the problem isn’t whether the characters are racist or not, but rather that they’re pointless and stupid. Director Michael Bay has claimed that he made those characters for the kids. Michael Bay has worked in caricature his entire career. That it’s just now receiving such mass negative attention is what really surprises me.

One merely needs to watch the trailer for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen to see what I’m talking about. Megan Fox’s character is introduced in the most absurdly sexual position, hovering over a motorcycle. It’s attractive, for sure, but it probably sets back the feminist movement by at least 20 years. Sitting through that trailer made my head want to explode.

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People might say, “You can’t really judge a movie by its trailer.” That may be technically true, but the point of the trailer is so you can make an early judgment. The trailer should have chosen some of the best shots and the best dialogue to make you want to see the movie. If they did, then I might have to nominate the script for worst of all time.

The problem isn’t just that Skids and Mudflap are offensive stereotypes; it’s that everything about Bay’s work is offensive. Whether he’s committing crimes against cinema, against language, gender, or ethnicity, Michael Bay constantly pushes the stupidity envelope.

The fact that people flock to his movies says more about marketing than anything else. Prior to the first Transformers movie (2007), Michael Bay was a filmmaker in danger of losing his backing. His previous movie, The Island (2005) was a flop. Transformers was considered a make-or-break movie for him, and it’s a real marketing dream: the toys and cartoons, which debuted in the mid-’80s, have a following over several generations, so the audience was there from the beginning. Any filmmaker could succeed with an already established base like that.

Of course, Bay’s solution is always to ram as much stupidity down the audience’s throat as possible. Above all, the fault should be placed on the studio executives who spoon-feed it to the public. The fact is that most moviegoers do want a great story and good dialogue, even if they don’t know it. If an action movie is truly memorable, it’s always because of the storyline. We remember the snow battle in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) because it has a dramatic impact on the story. Likewise, the truck flip in The Dark Knight (2008) is all the more impressive because it’s not happening every two minutes. The impact is more pronounced.

That people are angry over Skids and Mudflap might be a good sign, since it shows that people are waking up to realize the idiocy of these movies. Sure, Revenge of the Fallen made incredible money in its first week, but the lasting impact of these movies probably isn’t so strong. It will probably win an MTV Movie Award when all is said and done, maybe even a visual-effects Oscar (ten Best Picture nominees still isn’t enough room to fit this movie). There will surely be better action movies to come out this  year, ones with actual intelligence and story, that will cause viewers to leave Revenge of the Fallen in the cinematic dustbin.

At least until the next Transformers movie comes out.