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More Than Meets the Eye


There comes a time when good men can no longer remain silent. Where sides must be chosen and ground defended. And I have chosen mine: I am with the people, not the critics. "Transformers 2" is a fun summer blockbuster.

But wow, is it racist. Much of the movie's comic relief comes from a pair of Autobot twins named Mudflap and Skids. They look like monkeys. One has a gold tooth and satellite ears. The dialect is a parody of ebonics with words lifted from gangster rap, complete with frequent threats to "bust a cap" in this or that character. At one point, they're asked to read a symbol. "We don't much like reading," they say. They're not Autobots. They're Minstrelbots. As Ty Burr smartly said, "it's the first known example of robot blackface."

But what I want is a transcript of the pitch meeting that produced them. At some point, someone, somewhere, had to tell the writers that they wanted funny robots. "Funny how?" The writes would have asked. "Funny like dumb black people," the bosses would have answered (the excuse that 'it was all improv' would be a bit more convincing if the robots weren't physically designed to look like chimps, and if neither one had a gold tooth). And Mudflap and Skids, despite being the most obvious racial stereotypes in the movie, aren't anywhere near the only ones.

The racism has been notable enough to capture the attention of the media. One enterprising reporter, in fact, asked Bay about the inclusion of Mudflap and Skids. "I purely did it for kids," he replied. Because the real danger of political correctness is that it will deprive kids of racist comic relief in movies about robots?

Paramount Pictures Photo

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2009; 8:05 AM ET
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And you still thought it was a "fun summer blockbuster?" Kind of like Birth of a Nation being technically accomplished?

Posted by: SimonCox | July 6, 2009 9:07 AM | Report abuse

My first thought seeing the movie was that they were an automotive equivalent to Jar Jar Binks, but Minstrel-bot is good too. I guess if you are going to make a movie that is so overtly sexist and anti-intellectual, you might as well go for the trifecta and mock some black people.

Posted by: cminmd | July 6, 2009 9:33 AM | Report abuse

I simply don't think Mudflap and Skids were "racist stereotypes." For one, they gleaned their lingo from pop culture and they clearly were taken with "gangsta rap" as many suburban teens are -- they are parodies of the idea of the gangsta as much as Jamie Kennedy, the characters in "CB4", the mainstream rappers in "Brown Sugar," and Kevin Federline. I didn't see them as necessarily racialized. Moreover -- the glyphs they were asked to interpret were thousands of years old and it was ONLY the ancient character in the movie who was able to read them. None of the young Autobots could.

Posted by: precisioncontrol | July 6, 2009 9:40 AM | Report abuse

most of the animated blockbusters are filled with formulaic and stereotyped personalizations.
the little sidekick animals, are mostly like plucky "smart-aleck" servants, and it is offensive to watch. even though they are portrayed as animals, the stereotypes often come shining through in the voiceovers, and the originality disappears.
the writers put in woody allenesque humor which is no longer relevant or applicable to the young audiences of this century.
for all of the millions of dollars they spend on films, relying mostly on innovative technology, you only wish they could produce something worthy of the chldren who go to see them...and worthy of the hard earned dollars of the parents, who are now struggling to take one or more children for an afternoon at the movies.

Posted by: jkaren | July 6, 2009 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, Ezra, this was the most painful movie I have sat through in a long time. And I will watch nearly anything.

Posted by: scott1959 | July 6, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I can see the pull quote on the back of the DVD box now:

"Racist ... but ... Fun!" --Ezra Klein,

Posted by: JEinATL | July 6, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Bigotry is fun?

Posted by: pj_camp | July 6, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I agree with everything you wrote Ezra. The movie was VERY entertaining but the minstrel show was pretty off putting. I am a black man and the first few times they had appearances I was pissed. But I guess as the movie went on i just didn't focus on anything other than how funny they were. Besides that I also watch the Boondocks which I find hilarious which also has a lot of stereotyping in it. The gold tooth was a bit much, like they felt like audience just wouldn't get that they were supposed to be black without it. But the truth is in just about all cartoons you will find the same thing. Roadblock was a walking talking sterotype in the old GI Joe cartoons. One of the Thundercats talked almost exclusively in rhymes with an ethnic sounding voice. I am not excusing it but it kind of permeates the genre I would say. And besides, other than that the movie was teh Awesome.

Posted by: sgwhiteinfla | July 6, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I'd also take issue with the idea that you're with "the people" not "the critics." 20 million may have seen it, but you're the first person I've come across who claims to have liked it. (Which would help account for the 60% drop in attendance this week.)

Posted by: JEinATL | July 6, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

This was the worst movie I have ever seen, and I've seen some stinkers that my son has dragged me to. As others have said, it's racist and sexist (how DOES Megan Fox keep her lip gloss so pink and moist in the middle of the Egyptian desert? Why doesn't sand ever stick to it? Not to mention all the overtly sexual scenes.). Overall, it's just plain stupid (Transformers in HEAVEN? RFLMAO!). What a waste, to spend $200+ million blowing stuff up every 10 seconds in a completely pointless movie. But I suppose we ought not to have expected more from a movie based on toys.

Posted by: Policywonk14 | July 6, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Can you discern a person's race over the phone?

Do you honestly think that what you're detecting is their "race"?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 7, 2009 7:08 AM | Report abuse

I'm still not going to see it. I only made it through about 30 minutes of the first one. And I used to like the cartoon.

Posted by: staticvars | July 7, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

"Funny like dumb black people,"

Yeah, there's never any of those.

Posted by: ElViajero1 | July 7, 2009 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if you were similarly troubled by the negative portrayal of white by the hillbilly towtruck in 'Cars'? Or how about the stoner-surfer turtle in 'Finding Nemo'? Both seemed like potentially negative (depending on how sensative you are) portrayals of traditionally white subcultures.

If 'gangsters' were a racially-diversified group we would find this portrayal funny, because quite frankly, they deserve to have fun poked at them. But because they are not diverse, we find it racist. What is more troubling, that a mediocre movie poked fun at a troublesome subgroup of American culture, or that the group in question, with obvious negative characteristics, is so closely associated with a specific race?

Posted by: MikeatTheBigStick | July 9, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

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