Whenever Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen needs a shot of senseless stupidity, Mudflaps and Skids show up and start acting like a bad post-modern minstrel show.
In one of the great songs in all of Broadway, lyricist supreme Oscar Hammerstein III argued that racial insensitivity was not an inherent human trait. In his mind - and he was 100% correct - such horrific concepts as bigotry and prejudice "had to be carefully taught". While no one is accusing South Pacific (from whence the tune originates) is the perfect example of understanding and diversity ("Bali Hai", indeed…) it's clear that Hammerstein wanted audiences to recognize the power of persuasive - and even more importantly, the greater influence of suggestion. Show a child a man belittling another with slurs and epithets, and they probably won't comprehend the confrontation. But give them cutesy, cloying characters that clearly fit into hoary old ideas of class and culture, and you are guaranteed to influence them in frighteningly unnatural ways.
Ten years ago, George Lucas was raked over the coals for introducing that "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit", Jar-Jar Binks to the newly infantilized Star Wars universe. Added for "comic relief" and executed via a cartoonish CG process, the Gungan gave critics conniptions, mostly for his basic broken English bumbling. In response, Lucas argued that Binks was a conceit to "kids", a chance for them to have a character that they could relate to and root for while an entire universe of vague political intrigue was playing out onscreen. Granted, it's a weak excuse, but it goes to a much bigger issue. A decade later, Michael Bay used his mandatory sequel to Transformers to up the robot factor significantly. Among the new Autobots are a duo known as Mudflap and Skids, two smaller sized machines that begin their time together as a broken down ice cream truck but eventually wind up as two smaller, slicker vehicles.
But that's not all. Both characters speak in urban slang, something sociologists in the '70s would have referred to as "jive". Laced with ebonics and contemporary rap/hip-hop jargon, their place within the ethnic divide is fairly obvious. But then the designers decide to really drive the idea home. When they are 'inert' the characters are cars of fairly innocuous Fast and Furious reference - all flames, chrome, and hot candy colors. But when they "transform", they take on so many unpleasant ethnic traits - including an obvious gold tooth - and offer concerning statements of outright insensitivity. They toss around horrific bon mots about their own illiteracy and their desire to "pop caps" in the metal asses of the enemy. Whenever Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen needs a shot of senseless stupidity, Mudflaps and Skids show up and start acting like a bad post-modern minstrel show.
Now Bay, who has never been known for his sensitivity or subtlety, has an easy explanation for the Leroy and Skillet nature of his approach. "I purely did it for kids," the director stated in an interview reprinted by the Associated Press. "Young kids love these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them." When asked if he thought Mudflap and Skids were racist, he countered with a cop out.
"We're just putting more personality in. 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 then went on to point out that a percentage of the dialogue between the two was improvised, but that the performers Reno Wilson, an African American and Tom Kenney, a Caucasian, were mostly responsible for how the characters evolved.
Whether it's meant as an actual reason or the posturing for a potential pair of scapegoats, what's clear is that someone actually thought that Mudflap and Skids were acceptable types. After all the editing and post-production meetings, while the motherboards were rendering more and more machine mayhem, as focus groups and test screenings provided insight and instruction as to where the film should go, a consensus about such a scandalous realization developed. Mudflap and Skids, their Mantan Moreland like hi-jinx intact, are clearly meant to teach children that all small cars are actually wannabe ganstas with an incomplete comprehension of the English language and lots of ethnic-ccentric posturing. Of course, some will argue that children are smarter than to attribute the mocking tendencies of a pair of fictional characters onto an entire race. But it seems shocking that in these days of plentiful PC pronouncements, no one took a second look at these symbols of insensitivity.
And that raises a much larger issue - has Hollywood really changed its view of minorities in movies? The Hangover has been harangued for gay bashing and anti-Asian sentiments, while Sasha Baron Cohen is probably prepping for the backlash that will attend his latest ambush comedy, Bruno. But when it comes to kids, this is even more disconcerting. Adults should be able to tell the difference between Tyler Perry in a dress and a real portrait of a strong, outspoken black woman. But for those whose brains are still developing, who have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality (and thus, the perceived success of something like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), creating such outrageous examples of old school slander seems reckless. Even if Bay offers no apology for his actions (and so far, he's offered a mere "it takes all kinds" rationale), Dreamworks and Paramount need to be prepared.
Of course, no studio has ever gone broke underestimating the taste or intelligence of the movie going public. Sure, Lucas relegated Jar-Jar to bit player during the rest of his prequel mythology, but here's betting that more viewers will embrace Mudflaps and Skids than will question their validity as comic sidekicks. The kids will buy their action figures and mimic the voices that stand as part of Transformers most telling creative blunder. Sure, we survived The Phantom Menace and an Attack of the Clones, and the Madagascars and Shreks of the world have not crafted a generation of bold faced bigots. True, the old maxim does say that if we don't learn from the past we are destined to repeat those mistakes, but the proverb meant accidentally, not intentionally. Racism has to be carefully taught. Sadly, this lesson is dressed in the kind of eye candy that will probably make the lesson stick.