Jive-Talking Twin Transformers Raise Race Issues

Sandy Cohen, AP, June 25, 2009

Harmless comic characters or racist robots? The buzz over the summer blockbuster “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” only grew Wednesday as some said two jive-talking Chevy characters were racial caricatures. 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.

As good guys, they fight alongside the Autobots and are intended to provide comic relief. But their traits raise the specter of stereotypes most notably seen when Jar Jar Binks, the clumsy, broken-English speaking alien from “Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace,” was criticized as a caricature.

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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.”

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“It’s done in fun,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s stereotypes–they are robots, by the way. These are the voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were taking the characters and we went with it.”

Bay said the twins’ parts “were kind of written but not really written, so the voice actors is when we started to really kind of come up with their characters.”

Actor Reno Wilson, who is black, voices Mudflap. Tom Kenny, the white actor behind SpongeBob SquarePants, voices Skids.

Wilson said Wednesday that he never imagined viewers might consider the twins to be racial caricatures. When he took the role, he was told that the alien robots learned about human culture through the Web and that the twins were “wannabe gangster types.”

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“I purely did it for kids,” the director said. “Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them.”

Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman said they followed Bay’s lead in creating the twins. Still, the characters aren’t integral to the story, and when the action gets serious, they disappear entirely, notes Tasha Robinson, associate entertainment editor at The Onion.

“They don’t really have any positive effect on the film,” she said. “They only exist to talk in bad ebonics, beat each other up and talk about how stupid each other is.”

Hollywood has a track record of using negative stereotypes of black characters for comic relief, said Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, who has not seen the “Transformers” sequel.

“There’s a history of people getting laughs at the expense of African-Americans and African-American culture,” Boyd said. “These images are not completely divorced from history even though it’s a new movie and even though they’re robots and not humans.”

American cinema also has a tendency to deal with race indirectly, said Allyson Nadia Field, an assistant professor of cinema and media studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“There’s a persistent dehumanization of African-Americans throughout Hollywood that displaces issues of race onto non-human entities,” said Field, who also hasn’t seen the film. “It’s not about skin color or robot color. It’s about how their actions and language are coded racially.”

If these characters weren’t animated and instead played by real black actors, “then you might have to admit that it’s racist,” Robinson said. “But stick it into a robot’s mouth, and it’s just a robot, it’s OK.”

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