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'Transformers' movie: Robots in blackface?

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Apart from the fanboys who felt betrayed by George Lucas, the most vociferous complaints about “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” came from socially conscious film fans. The voice work that accompanied the computer-generated aliens populating the film’s landscape were barely-concealed racial stereotypes, these critics argued. We might see some similar complaints once “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” hits a wide audience and implants itself in the public’s consciousness.

As Bruce Gottlieb wrote in Slate a decade ago, the Jedi in “Phantom Menace” “attempt to repair their broken spaceship but are stymied by the hook-nosed owner of the local parts shop — Watto — who also happens to have a thick Yiddish accent! … Psychological manipulations that work on almost everyone fail with Watto — “Mind ticks don’ta work on me … only money!”

In a column titled “Racial Ventriloquism” for The Nation, Columbia law professor Patricia J. Williams wrote, “Whether intentionally or not, Jar Jar’s pratfalls and high jinks borrow heavily from the genre of minstrelsy. Despite the amphibian get-up, his relentless, panicky, manchild-like idiocy is imported directly from the days of Amos ‘N’ Andy. And whether it were a white man, a black woman or Al Jolson himself beneath the mask, what would still make all the clowning so particularly insulting is the fact that Jar Jar’s speech is a weird pidgin mush of West African, Caribbean and African-American linguistic styles.”

This week’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” features another example of racial ventriloquism: Mudflap and Skids, twin Autobots, are barely concealed racial stereotypes. They speak with an urban jive patois, liberally peppering their language with slang and street talk. They have gold caps on their teeth. And when Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) asks them to translate a set of ancient runes that have been implanted into his brain, they hem and haw, eventually replying, “Nah, we don’t really do too much reading.” You can actually hear the line (and see the robots) in this trailer, about 1:00 in.

The reaction in the theater was interesting — there were actually a few isolated boos, presumably from people who had previously been whooping it up during the twins’ one-liners. It’s relatively surprising that the filmmakers would couch the two inner-city-sounding robots as illiterate, considering Hollywood’s sensitivity to such concerns (and the desire to avoid doing anything that would even remotely appear racist).

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