I never watched the Transformers television animated series nor read the Marvel comic books. I saw the first film with my cousin who was a fan, but I didn’t think much of it. I had no intention of seeing the latest Transformers release, but the vitriolic comments in support of the movie after Tafari posted this article on the racism within the film, plus reading other likewise comments elsewhere, spurred me to go see it. I can’t offer an honest and educated critique on something if I haven’t seen it for myself, so yesterday I made the time to go and see what the controversy was all about.
Tafari’s review of the film was right on point. Although it was action packed, exciting and overall I must admit that I did enjoy it (certainly much more than the 1st film), the characterizations of the twin Autobots, Skids and Mudflaps, were undoubtedly racist stereotypical depictions associated to Black males… hence the term “Little Black Sambo[ts]”. Tafari and others in his original post, described the specific racist stereotypes within the movie so I don’t need to repeat them here. I do however want to address a few of the comments and arguments made on his post and elsewhere.
There were a few references made that there is more going on in the world to worry about than any “perceived” racist or stereotypical depictions in movies. That’s easy to say if you’re White. Stereotypes associated to Black people, especially those depicted in this film, such as we look like monkeys, we fancy wearing gold teeth, we’re uneducated, ebonic speaking, cowardly but will quickly engage in senseless violence among ourselves, reinforces the negative opinions held about us… not only by the dominant culture, but also by those of our own community.
It is true that some stereotypes are based on some element of truth, and we can all point to some individuals who engage in these types of behaviours. (I refer to these Black individuals as the present day, real life “sambos”). But I would argue that they do not represent the majority of those in the Black community! I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met in my over 40 years of living, who had gold teeth… and not all of them were Black! Most Black people I’ve met value education and I’ve never met one who couldn’t read. The overwhelming majority of people I have dealt with as a law enforcement officer, in regards to criminal activities, have been White males, even when you take into account percentages based on demographics. Black males are very much in the minority of those I have charged, especially for violent crimes.
So I would contend that most Black people don’t wear gold teeth, can read and have some level of education, don’t speak what is termed “ebonics” as their regular means of communication, aren’t self-destructive, violent criminals but are hard working law-abiding citizens who make positive contributions to whatever society they live in. So why does the media and entertainment industry keep depicting Black males by these racist stereotypes!? Why would the director of the movie state that his vision of the Autobot Twins was to create characters “the younger audience could really identify with”!?
Then there were the arguments that the Black entertainment community does the same thing by also promoting these negative stereotypes, so why should there be a problem with the characterization of the Autobot Twins? BET, rappers such as T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Souljah Boy, etc., were repeatedly used as examples of those promoting the same negative stereotypes. I have argued that Black artists like these and the programming by BET does hold some responsibility for the negative portrayals of Black people, but let’s be clear, there is no “Black entertainment community”, nor individual, that controls it’s own product and more importantly how it’s marketed. BET is owned by Viacom. Black record companies need distribution deals with major labels to finance their marketing, videos and to get radio play, if they want to reach a wide (aka ‘White”) audience. Even critically and commercially acclaimed filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton, need the backing of major film studios to finance and distribute their movies. (Is there any surprise that VIBE magazine is shutting down after 20 years without even a whimper from the Black entertainment community? Where is their bailout!?)
Therefore those who control the means of production and what it’s willing to promote, ultimately decides what it will and will not sell for public consumption… which in turn determines what kind of product will be created. If they wanted to market positive images of Black people, then they would sign, finance, develop, promote, market and distribute such products. Black rappers and other artists in the “Black entertainment community”, who want to “get paid”, would then mold their music, videos, films and professional images, depicting positive and uplifting messages, so as to be marketable.
Finally there were the arguments that now that the POTUS is a Black man, racism and/or racial stereotypes no longer have any negative consequences for the Black community and we need to just see the Autobot Twins as characters in a movie, providing harmless comic relief. As a commenter on Tafari’s post stated: “Pissed off over 2 autobots? Get a grip, and enjoy the movie.”
I would however suggest that it’s movies like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, with characterizations such as the Autobot Twins… the “Little Black Sambots”… which perpetuates and entrenches racist attitudes, like those directed at President Obama, such as this one, and this one, and this one, and this one. It contributes directly to a worldview of African-Americans, where the interim foreign minister of Honduras can feel empowered enough to refer to the POTUS, a 6ft-2in Black man, the most powerful leader in the world, as “this little black man who has no idea where Tegucigalpa is” (source). In other words, President Obama is irrelevant and ignorant due to the color of his skin! It also leads directly to real life situations such as this one!
It is not my intention to change the opinions of those who defend the movie or feel that the stereotypes are a real depiction of the majority of Black males. Racism in a post-racial techno world now masks itself in robotic characterizations. Subtle yet blatant… for those who care to see it.