Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Transforming Michael Bay

I swear to God not all of my blogs are going to be about race and movies but that seems to be the subject du jour this summer. Batter up: Transformers 2.

Somehow, the feral internet has come to the conclusion that Michael Bay is a flaming racist because of the jive talking, Autobot hood rats in disguise. First, let’s knock out one specious accusation– the hood rats never claimed to be illiterate, instead they stated they could not understand an ancient dead Cybertron language only Optimus could read. You see, I speak fanboy.

As to the very nature of the comic relief’s buffoonery, every comic character in TF2 is a cultural caricature. From Shia’s repressed white-geek sheik, to Turturro’s ethnically ambiguous mommy-whipness, to the Joe Pescian Little Ceasar with attitude, right down to the horny humping dogs. It’s telling that only the heroes have identifiable stereotypes. All the Decepticons, bureaucrats, and robot sex bitches are shaded this side of straightforward evil. While Optimus and Bumblebee brim with personality, Megatron or Starscream are almost indistinguishible from each other because they are just different pieces of the Armageddon asteroid. Michael Bay is the opposite of Quentin Tarantino: he loves his heroes far more than his villains.

And Michael Bay saves all his broadest strokes for the things that he loves. This is in fact a mantra of what we advertising/commercial directors do for a living. We are trained to identify the iconography that most moves us in the shortest blast of time, and express that with the most impact. In commercials, we train ourselves to connect with shorthand positive imagery to move ideas. Iconography is a sister to the broad stroke. As the great philosopher Stephen T. Colbert says…”truthiness.”

Thus. Michael Bay loves Megan Foxe’s wet lips. Michael Bay loves John Turturro. Michael Bay loves John Turturro’s ass. Michael Bay loves fart jokes. Michael Bay loves tracking into women’s legs. Michael Bay loves his jive talking Autobots because Michael Bay loves Sprite commercials starring wooden Penny Hardaway puppets.

And Michael bay loves those Sprite commercials because Michael Bay admires the truthiness of black ghetto humor. The question isn’t whether those robot characters were racist depictions, but whether the critics of them are aware that the attitudes of their personaes are not out of line with what makes African Americans laugh too. Because here is the questions fanboys should ask themselves: are you laughing at the robots, or are you laughing with them?

Look it’s often foolish for one race to speak for another. I guess I’ll come across as the lovestruck Asian American nerd espousing the beauty of African American culture that I have grown to cherish, but you know what, that’s what I am. So: there is a shared collective sense of inclusion in many black artforms. I truly believe the key to black culture is the open solidarity of shared active emotions. If you don’t actively participate in the emotional journey, you will miss much of the magic that these uniquely American artforms thrive in. Jazz is an inclusive interplay between the inventive performer and the actively responding reciever. Rap’s underlying power is it’s active demand that the listener keep in constant communication with the lyrics. And often the greatest black comedy is one in which the performer’s ebulliant personality isn’t the goal – like a space cadet Jim Carrey or Mike Meyers - but a journey to the inner truth of that personality’s origin. Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mack. Laugh with me, not at me.

I am not claiming the Autobots are Pryor or Mack, however I do claim that they follow a tradition of black comedy that contains a difference. It’s clear the very act of their ghettoness is the inside joke in a big budget movie about a suburban nerdy white boy. They are not simple court jesters. Their ghettoness is funny because they shouldn’t be there in the fanboy party who get erect every time Optimus Prime speaks. They lob an ebonics grenade into Shia’s two story white picket fence world and it’s ultimately his exasperation we laugh at. You can feel the glee that the actual black comics who voiced these animations perform their magic with. We are laughing with them.

With. Not at.

But really this shouldn’t be news to most young kids today. They live in across cultural world where rap, rock, soul, pop, and sometimes country pop blend together. Black, White, Latin, Asian, whatever culture blend together with each Gnarls Barkley mash up and their receptors just get it. The delineation between how black kids and white kids dress on a mass pop level is shrinking rapidly into one American Apparel melting pot. I’m not worried about them. It’s these Gap dressing older fanboy motherfuckers who need to be set straight.

I don't think it's out of line to say that many of these TF2-is-racist critics have no interest in black culture in the first place - from music to comedy to films. There is an intolerant aversion to ebonics or street slang/culture that in the case of TF2, takes on an ugly opportunism from Michael Bay bashers. I don't see a lot of fanboys analyzing Tyler Perry movies. Yet somehow they take morbid glee in the idea that they can absolutely label Bay racist along with the sexism already attributed to him.

Bay may like booty, but he is definitely no racist.

The truly ironic thing is, unlike their de facto hero Peter Jackson, Bay's filmography is filled with heroic and cool black characters.

He staked the beginning of his film career on probably the riskiest crapshoot a white video director could do:  a mid budget movie with two unknown black action leads - Bad Boys. Imagine the movie jail he would have been sent to if it didn't sell tickets. I love Fincher to death, but Bad Boys is culturally more ballsy move than Fight Club.  It looks like the obvious Bruckheimer play only because it panned out. But it was an action movie with two non-action black stars. Even today you’d need to put a John Travolta or Russell Crowe into the mix to get the studio money for those extra three explosions.

Instead, Michael Bay made it with his two black stars. And when he wanted that extra explosion, he just wrote a personal check to the studio.

That alone gives him the right to tell everyone who calls him racist to fuck off.


  1. right on, he also plays with stereotypes of chinese industrial wasteland, though i'm not sure what it meant. but the gem of the series was in part one, when bumblebee had to be ashamed to appear as an old model, he mocks consumerism (yes, imagine that, in a product-placement extravaganza).

  2. Joefilmfan,

    This is dazzling, man! As a filmmaker and film-watcher, you don't miss much, do you? Citizen Kahn, indeed. Thanks for this piece; I'm gonna forward it to others.

  3. You saying the twin bots were not comic relief is buffoonery itself when they were one of the other types of comic relief.
    Another thing is ignorence isn't being able to read or not. It's actions, speech, and behavior as well.
    Hints the saying anyone of any race can be ignorant.
    But I'm not saying your blog wasn't good.
    And on a quick not. Tyler perry's work isn't stereotypical. It is issues that just so happen to be occuring with black families. So if your talking bout his films not haveing white people then your on your accusastion. His movies were plays befor he got famous. And he perform in front of church going people. And he problly got the cast from the people at his church which so happen to be black. But he also had a white actor in there as well. You see his plays were musicals as well, and the music was gospel. Not that blacks are the only ones who can sing gospel because the white actor Sang it as well.
    It's like with a sports team you stick wig what works for you and what you can depend on. That why in some of his movies he has the same actors which so happen to be black. And Sam wasn't the only geek in the movie there was also that man that lived at home with his grandma.

  4. Space, I personally don't think Bumblebee's shame mocked consumerism. It was a pretty straightforward plot point that motivated him to become a shiny new camero, to which Shia then gladly drove. Even I admit that it's a sequence negotiated by an ad agency. Regardless, the interpretation of it's cultural message is up to the viewer.

  5. Ben thanks once again for reading.

  6. Well, er...anonymous, I didn't claim that the bots weren't comic relief. In fact quite the opposite. I made it a point that they WERE comic relief. And I don't claim Tyler Perry's films are not for white people - I think they are universal in their humanism. However for the point for this argument, they are perceived and marketed as specifically African American movies, and that many fanboys who accuse Michael Bay of being racist do not watch them.

  7. Joe, yes, "critics" saying that Bay is racist is clearly a stupid knee-jerk reaction but for you to imply that these critics are the ones who champion Peter Jackson undermines your very own review because the way I see it here is a classic example where you understand the social, commercial and artistic framework that Bay works from but yet know nothing about Bloomkempt and Jackson other than what is available online. Can you see irony at work here?

  8. Steve, there is a general consensus that there were two science fiction movies that played with race movies this summer: District 9 and TF2, so that is mainly where the point of comparison of Bay/Jackson comes in. And I've made my point clear where I think the real irony exists.

  9. I think you hit the nail on the head. It doesn't occur to many white audiences, critics included, when elements of a mainstream film aren't specifically catered to their demographic. It's an imperialist view to which a lot of viewers are conditioned. Sure, cultural stereotypes are in-effect in Perry and TF2. But from a standpoint of comedy-influence, they aren't making fun of African-Americans any more than Michael Cera and Steve Carrell are intending to make fun of white people.

    And why were none of these sudden watchdogs offended by the racism of The Hangover? Oh right, because they're the target audience for that film.

  10. Palermo, the art of seeing things from someone else's view is the hardest thing to do as a human being. Movies are interesting because they would appear to be acts of consensus but of course it's a very subjective experience. I think the modern film "review" has led to a Consumer Reports attitude to judging a movie, and the thought that different people can get equally valid different views is just thrown out the window. Sometimes I also think its just poor debating where the internet puts everyone in a defensive posture and it just turns into one long screamfest.

  11. Everyone is going to start looking for racism now. But im being honest when i say good opinions and reviews from you and mark.


  12. Just a note, it's Bernie MAC not MACK. Just a heads up. Also, Tom Kenny is a white dude.

    Otherwise, a very interesting and thought provoking blog. I donno that I agree or disagree with you yet, but it's definitely got me thinking.

    I look forward to reading more from you Kahn. Keep up the good work.

  13. I know. I am a bad speller, like an octopus slapping keys.