Tuesday 23rd May 2017,
Televisual

On the “Black” Robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

The stereotypical robots in question.

UPDATE 4: Apparently the controversial twins, Skids and Mudflap, will not be back for Transformers 3.

UPDATE 3: Julie White, a.k.a. Shia LaBoeuf’s mom in the movie, adds in her two cents over at New York Mag, saying she doesn’t think it was intentional and that it tested well with “the kids.” Also, she noticed what I did about the last one!: “But at least he didn’t kill them off. In the last movie, the one black transformer seemed to be killed really early on…”

UPDATE 2: Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have responded. Sounds like they were not too happy about how the characters turned out.

UPDATE: So the movie is fine as entertainment. It’s fun. It always will be because the formula is good. The “black” robots are indeed black, and minstrelsy, and Stepin Fetchit/ Jar Jar Binks-y. I was all prepared to not care, but they get a lot of screen time — but (!) don’t die! Still, the gold teeth, illiteracy, and general stupidity is way over the top, annoying and points to a huge elision by the scriptwriters. Even some people in the mostly black theatre I went to were shaking their heads in disapproval.

The apparently "black" Transformer robots

The apparently "black" Transformer robots

ORIGINAL POST: Critics are claiming that two of the robots in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are black stereotypes. One writer lays it out: “[they] are voiced in a way that clearly designates them to be the ‘black’ robots. Also, Skids has a gold front tooth (no, I’m serious) and both cannot read.” Manohla Dargis says they are “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.” (Thanks for the quotes NYmag!)

Transformers is not a very progressive movie. I noted this after watching the first one, which, yes, had a robot that is obviously black — his radio was tuned to hip-hop. That would be fine, except, of course, which robot was the first to die? It’s not even racially offensive, just horribly cliche at this point.

But it doesn’t stop at race. The first Transformers is, essentially, made for the Shia LaBeoufs, nerdy white guys who can’t get girls. Pretty girls in the movie who reject our hero are killed immediately. Any girl with intelligence is also, and foremost, smoking hot.

Is any of this offensive? Eh. Stereotypes are the means through which people understand that which they cannot understand. We often write stereotypical races into technology (and, by the way, animals, as we will see in G-Force and just about every other cartoon the planet), especially when we can’t see human faces (think of ways of writing: if you’ve ever been on a black social networking site, it isn’t rare to see “dat” instead of “that,” etc.) In order to anthropomorphize robots, it makes sense the director, Michael Bay, would give them stereotypical voices. What gets him and studios into trouble is the other stuff they attach to it. In the first Transformers, they just killed him off. In this one, they’ve given them gold teeth and illiteracy. That starts to push it!

Transformers is hardly the most offensive movie in Hollywood. I have yet to see if Transformers 2 is. What puzzles me is why critics are up in arms now, having blessed the first ones with good reviews and missing the clear racial and gender stereotypes there.

OTHER THOUGHTS ON THE MOVIE:

-Like 24, it has an anti-Democrat, anti-Obama bias, at least in one scene. The big bad Decepticons are going to attack earth, and President Obama has the army send away the friendly Autobots! He wants to use “diplomacy” and “negotiate” with the evildoers and give them Shia LaBeouf! Wimpy liberals always cave in the face of war! Really Kruger, Orci and Kurtzman (the writers)?

-That wouldn’t be so bad except Transformers doubles down on what it keeps muted in the first: every woman in the movie except a dean and Sam’s mom is hot. And they exist only to be hot or castrating. Transformers is filmed on Penn’s (University of Pennsylvania, UPenn to those of you who aren’t from Philly) campus, and I can tell you, from someone who goes here, not all the girls here are hot. What’s more, the women are uniformly stupid. Why are the girls in the front row of Rainn Wilson’s astronomy class giggling sycophant’s? Yes, not all Ivy Leaguers are smart, but geez.

-Poor Megan Fox. Reduced to a pinup. Oh wait, she’s not a real actress, so I guess that’s okay.

-Why are there two “black” characters with overbites? The robot, and the butcher in John Tuturro’s store. I mean, really, overbites? That’s where we are with a black man in the White House?

-The latino (uber hot Ramon Rodriguez, a.k.a. Omar’s third boyfriend on The Wire) was also stereotypical: as in, hyper-sexualized, or at least horny. However! He also was a web nerd, so I don’t mind as much.

-The women robots are smaller than the men, only have wheel, barely any screen time, and are in general lame.

All in all, I don’t really care, because it’s a stupid movie that will do anything for a cheap thrill, laugh or sexual rise. Yes, I will see the next one. And yes, since it will make loads of money, there will be another.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

3 Comments

  1. Dave Taylor June 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    In my review of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” I talk about Michael Bay resurrecting the hated Jar-Jar Binks character in the person of the stunted twin “ghetto” autobots. I was disappointed, but not surprised. As you so eloquently put it, this is just par for the course with modern Hollywood action films, alas.

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