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Political Physics: Skids, Mudflap and Race in Transformers ROTF

So last Wednesday, my husband and I went to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Now this may not seem like a big deal to most people, but as relatively new parents (our son is 14 months old) getting out to see a summer blockbuster is definitely not as easy as it used to be. But seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was totally worth it. Although, I have been told that I view movies from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy, so take what I say with a grain of salt. I loved the movie.

But I was not surprised when I read that folks were up in arms about two of the characters in the film – Skids and Mudflap. As a matter of fact, I posted an update on Facebook on the following Thursday that read, “Monique feels she must put a disclaimer on her love of Transformers…. the plot was crazy, the writing wasn’t great and the offensive transformers with gold teeth talking about ‘busting a cap in someone’s ass’ were ridiculous…. but I still loved the film!”

Skids and MudflapAccording to The Huffington Post, “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.” Marc Ecko from Complex.Com was outraged. He put together a list of reasons why Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen might be racist — like how “Skids” and “Mudflap” sound suspiciously like “skid-marks” and “mud people.” And Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, notes that the “Transformers characters were given conspicuously cartoonish, so-called black voices that indicate that minstrelsy remains as much in fashion in Hollywood as when, well, Jar Jar Binks was set loose by George Lucas.”

Todd Boyd, a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, said that “Hollywood has a track record of using negative stereotypes of black characters for comic relief…there’s a history of people getting laughs at the expense of African-Americans and African-American culture.”

And Boyd is right.

Black at Disney“Savage Negro” in Birth of a Nation.

The mammies from movies like Gone with the Wind.

White performers in “black face” playing Jim Crow or Zip Coon.

The minstrel tradition which birthed shows like Amos n’ Andy.

Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, What’s Happening and Diff’rent Strokes.

Anything by the Wayans Brothers and Tyler Perry’s Madea.

The list can (and I am sure will in the comments) be disputed. But they all represent uses of black stereotypes for the amusement of largely white audiences. And I included the Wayans Brothers and Tyler Perry to make the point that if folks are going to lash out at Michael Bay, then they need to lash out at them too. Donald Bogle, acclaimed author of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, noted that “Madea [has] connections to the old mammy type. She’s mammy-like. If a white director put out this product, the black audience would be appalled.” It is not just white directors who have benefited from this game.

I think the real issue is balance.

As CNN’s Nicole Saidi noted, “Will Smith has made epic blockbusters a Fourth of July tradition, and Denzel Washington is one of the most recognized faces in show business.” There are not enough African Americans in Hollywood. Not enough black actors, black writers, black directors, etc. Not enough African Americans in a variety of different rolls showing all of the different “faces” of black. Yes, Skids and Mudflap are offensive, but that becomes even more egregious when they represent one of five character types (or caricatures) that African Americans are allowed to voice or play…more multi-dimensional roles that do not allow audiences to see us in just one way.

In the CNN article “Being black in Hollywood still exception, not the rule,” Robyn McGee acknowledged, “[Will] Smith’s appearances in diverse films such as Independence Day, Men in Black, I Am Legend and Hancock were groundbreaking. Notably, Halle Berry won an Oscar in 2002 and Jennifer Hudson did so as well in 2007. But she said these examples of achievement are unique and must be built upon.”

A friend of mine from college refused to see any film that did not have a black person in it. My philosophy is to go and see films with black people. My BFF tries to watch the one or two primetime television shows with black leads (even if they’re bad). I think we all need to do our part to convince the capitalists in Hollywood that black is bankable even without all of the buffoonery. But we have our work cut out for us.

But Skids and Mudflap aside, I still loved Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

*Note from the editor: I looked online for a movie clip of Skids and Mudflap, to no avail. I was able to find this Burger King commercial featuring the duo.