I am not a PC person. Those who know me in real life will attest that if an off-color, offensive or wildly juvenile joke needs to be made it’ll likely be me making it. I think people are too sensitive in the modern world, and I don’t think any topic is off-limits when it comes to laughs.
That said, even I was stupefied by what I saw in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen‘s Twins. These new robots, who begin the film conjoined as a shitty old ice cream truck but who soon get upgraded into Chevy concept cars, seem to be the most extreme racial caricatures seen in a movie in decades. The Twins have a simian appearance, with wide faces and huge ears. One of them (full disclosure: I am not sure which is which, namewise. This isn’t a problem limited to just these robots in Transformers 2 as I couldn’t tell most robots apart, except for Optimus Prime and Bumblebee) has a gold bucktooth. They have a ‘playful’ back and forth relationship, which includes them talking in some sort of modern day rap-age jive, calling each other ‘bitch-ass’ or ‘punk,’ talking with an exaggerated, crunked-up ‘street’ accent. They appear to be stoned all the time. And they can’t read; when asked to translate some ancient Cybertronian language they sheepishly admit they ‘don’t do much readin’.’ To be fair, only Primes can read this language, but even the completely idiotic mini-bot (and Italian stereotype) Wheelie can at least recognize what the writing is. The Twins are completely illiterate, it seems. I was actually surprised that the film didn’t find a way to make them wear a Transformers version of baggy pants.
To be completely shocked by this is admittedly kind of foolish. Quite a bit was made of Jazz, the black Autobot in the first film, who did a breakdance move and got killed. But The Twins make Jazz look like a paragon of taste, and they make Jar Jar Binks look like he belongs in a production of A Raisin in the Sun. Simply put they are offensive beyond measure, and if their names were Stepin and Fetchit I could maybe argue that they were a joke or a bit of meta-commentary or anything except horrible, horrible racial stereotypes.
At the press conference for the film I asked writer Alex Kurtzman about the characters. ‘I think a lot of what we did was following Michael’s lead,’ he said. ‘Those characters, more than any other, he had the strongest instinct for. Our job was to keep up with him.’
Buck passed! So then it was all Michael Bay’s idea to have these shucking and jiving bots, right?
Not so fast. Bay was eager to give all the credit for the Twins to Tom Kenny, the (white) voice actor. ‘When you work with voice actors, especially with the twins, they did a lot of improv for their parts. We liked their improv and, from there, we would animate to their stuff. When you’re doing character animation and you’re building the character, it’s not like an actor where you shoot the scene and you’ve got it and you move on. With animation, you get the dialogue and then some animation and then a bit more of the dialogue and you keep going back and forth and it just builds until you have the shot you want.’
(For the record, Bay mentions a second voice actor while IMDB lists Kenny as the voice of both bots)
Bay went on to say that his vision of the Twins is that he wanted bots with whom the younger audience could really identify, and the funny thing is that I actually believe him. I don’t think he set out to make two grotesque caricatures; I think he honestly believes these characters reflect some aspect of youth culture and not just a cartoony, broad vision of black youth. Bay’s films have never been all that racially sensitive (and blacks aren’t the only group to take a hit in this film; as mentioned above, Wheelie is a flat-out dago, even going so far as to refer to ancient Transformer Jetfire as ‘da Chairman of da Board,’ and there’s some choice Arabic humor in the film as well), but the Twins surely represent an all-time low.
Would they have been as offensive if Bay had gotten a black actor for the voices? There certainly would be less of a feeling of weirdness if Katt Williams had come in for some shucking and jiving, although it would still have been… off. Bay’s defense seems to be that Tom Kenny came in and just Sambo’d it up, as if he had no way of knowing what sort of racially insensitive schtick the actor would bring. That’s hugely unlikely; Bay isn’t prisoner to the whims of his actors, especially not a voice actor.
What the whole Twins debacle really reveals, though, is the sheer lack of adult supervision on this film. Transformers 2 is hugely bloated, incoherent, stupid and boring, seemingly all because Bay was free to indulge in his most Bayish impulses. The first film is rescued by the restraining hand of Spielberg; that hand is noticeably gone here. It’s stunning to think that anyone in the 21st century looked at the character designs of the Twins or listened to the voice tracks and thought that this was ‘okay.’