LOS ANGELES -- "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"introduces some 40 new mechanized characters of all shapes, sizesand even sexes -- but it's a pair of jive-talking 'bots that criticsare singling out as more than just harmless comic relief.
Skids and Mudflap, twin robots disguised as compact Chevys,constantly brawl and bicker in rap-inspired street slang. They'reforced to acknowledge that they can't read. One has a gold tooth.
As good guys, they fight alongside the Autobots and are intendedto provide comic relief. But the traits they're ascribed raise thespecter of stereotypes most notably seen when Jar Jar Binks, theclumsy, broken-English speaking alien from " Star Wars: Episode I --The Phantom Menace," was criticized as a racial caricature.
Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern described Binksin 1999 as a "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit," a reference to a blackcharacter from the 1920s and '30s that exploited negativestereotypes for comic effect. Extending that metaphor to the"Transformers" sequel was AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire, whocalls Skids and Mudflap "Jar Jar Binks in car form."
And Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times, takes ita step further, writing that the "Transformers" characters weregiven "conspicuously cartoonish, so-called black voices thatindicate that minstrelsy remains as much in fashion in Hollywood aswhen, well, Jar Jar Binks was set loose by George Lucas."
Director Michael Bay insists that the bumbling 'bots are justgood clean fun.
"We're just putting more personality in," Bay said. "I don'tknow if it's stereotypes -- they are robots, by the way. These arethe voice actors. This is kind of the direction they were takingthe characters and we went with it."
TV actor Reno Wilson, who is black, voices Mudflap. Tom Kenny,the white actor behind SpongeBob SquarePants, voices Skids. Neitherimmediately responded to interview requests for this story.
Bay said the twins' parts "were kind of written but not reallywritten, so the voice actors is when we started to really kind ofcome up with their characters."
"I purely did it for kids," the director said. "Young kidslove these robots, because it makes it more accessible to them."
Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman said they followedBay's lead in creating the twins. Still, the characters serve noreal purpose in the story, and when the action gets serious, theydisappear entirely, notes Tasha Robinson, associate entertainmenteditor at The Onion.
"They don't really have any positive effect on the film," shesaid. "They only exist to talk in bad ebonics, beat each other upand talk about how stupid each other is."
Hollywood has a track record of using negative stereotypes ofblack characters for comic relief, said Todd Boyd, a professor ofpopular culture at the University of Southern California's Schoolof Cinematic Arts, who has not seen the "Transformers" sequel.
"There's a history of people getting laughs at the expense ofAfrican-Americans and African-American culture," Boyd said."These images are not completely divorced from history even thoughit's a new movie and even though they're robots and not humans."
American cinema also has a tendency to deal with raceindirectly, said Allyson Nadia Field, an assistant professor ofcinema and media studies at the University of California, LosAngeles.
"There's a persistent dehumanization of African-Americansthroughout Hollywood that displaces issues of race onto non-humanentities," said Field, who also hasn't seen the film. "It's notabout skin color or robot color. It's about how their actions andlanguage are coded racially."
If these characters weren't animated and instead played by realblack actors, "then you might have to admit that it's racist,"Robinson said. "But stick it into a robot's mouth, and it's just arobot, it's OK."
But if they're alien robots, she continued, "why do they talklike bad black stereotypes?"
Bay brushes off any whiff of controversy.
"Listen, you're going to have your naysayers on anything," hesaid. "It's like is everything going to be melba toast? It takesall forms and shapes and sizes."