Let’s face it: There is probably not going to be a summer movie season this year. But all is not lost. Each Friday for the next few months, we’ll be presenting “The Ultimate Summer Movie Guide,” honoring the greatest, goofiest and most memorable aspects of blockbuster seasons gone by. Maybe it will be a celebration of an iconic film or actor. Perhaps it will be a salute to Marty McFly’s DeLorean. Or, like today, it will be a look back at one of the most offensive moments in the Transformers saga.
The Transformers always had a problem with racial insensitivity. Back in the mid-1980s when they were a popular animated television series — basically a way for Hasbro to sell toys — one of my favorite characters was Jazz, an Autobot who transformed into a Porsche, which was obviously the coolest car around. Like his name suggested, Jazz was sophisticated and suave, a lover of Earthlings’ music and able to talk in a funky street style that made him seem so much hipper than his more earnest cohorts.
In other words, he was the Autobots’ designated “Black” character — except I was too young to understand the implications of that.
Scatman Crothers voiced Jazz, and watching those old episodes now, you want to cringe. Maybe Jazz isn’t racist, per se, but he’s definitely a crude cultural stereotype: the super-cool, badass Black best friend. (Initially, he was meant to be Optimus Prime’s right-hand man, but his role diminished over time.) And maybe kids didn’t pick up on the subtle racial coding going on in the animated show, but we sure have as adults:
When Transformers started getting their own live-action movies a couple decades later, the problem wasn’t rectified. In the first film, which came out in 2007, Jazz was voiced by Darius McCrary, and upon landing on Earth, he announces, “What’s cracking, little bitches? This looks like a cool place to kick it.”
That’s pretty cringe-y, too.
But if we’re talking about racist Transformers, two other Autobots spring to mind much more prominently. All these years later, it still seems inconceivable that we were subjected to Skids and Mudflap, the nadir of the 2009 sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
For all its liberal, progressive tendencies, Hollywood has a spotty track record when it comes to racial insensitivity, and I’m not even referring to horrendous casting such as Mickey Rooney as a “funny” Asian guy in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That’s disgraceful, but at least you can (mildly) defend it by saying that the movie was a product of a different time. But even in the last 25 years, we’ve endured the ignominy of The Phantom Menace’s Jar Jar Binks, whom Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern famously called “a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen.” (And that’s not even mentioning the offensive Arab and Asian stereotypes exhibited by other Episode I characters.)
Writer-director George Lucas thought Jar Jar’s tomfoolery would be adorable, but it mostly recalled America’s awful history of minstrelsy — and scarred Jar Jar actor Ahmed Best so badly that the backlash pushed him to ponder suicide:
“The hardest part for me in that entire situation was all of the criticism that came from a racially motivated point of view. Growing up, being Black, and wanting to be an artist — which is a very challenging and brave thing to do, it’s not easy — we’re always faced, as Black artists, with this idea of being a sellout. We have our guard up when it comes to being portrayed as an Uncle Tom, a racist stereotype, or anything that makes you, as a Black person, look less than.
“It hit me. It came right for me. I was called every racial stereotype you can imagine. There was this criticism of being this Jamaican, broken dialect, which was offensive because I’m of West Indian descent — I’m not Jamaican. It was debilitating. I didn’t know how to respond.”
About a decade after Jar Jar came Skids and Mudflap, twin brother Autobots who weren’t in the first Transformers but show up in Revenge of the Fallen to provide some comic relief. These films were directed by Michael Bay, a guy not known for his humor, sensitivity or humanity. If a beer bong with a used condom stuck to it could become sentient and make blockbusters, it would be Bay. His movies have always been full of unfunny gay panic and thug-life stereotypes — and that’s just the Bad Boys films — but he reached a new low with these two robots, who were very clearly meant to be Black. And not just Black but offensive Black tropes.
There are many ways to measure a filmmaker’s power: box-office success, cultural influence, the prestigious A-list talent he can get in his movies. After the failure of 2005’s The Island, Bay rebounded with the 2007 Transformers, which was the third-biggest hit of that year. (Revenge of the Fallen was No. 2 in 2009.) But you could really tell the guy was riding high because, in all the months it took to write, prepare, shoot and edit Revenge of the Fallen — when a thousand creative decisions are made every day — nobody stopped to ask Bay, “Hey, why are Skids and Mudflap African-American stereotypes?” It just happened, and no one batted an eye.
Apparently, the characters (or the Twins, as they’re also known) didn’t start out that way. On screen, they have buck teeth and speak in jive — and at one point Mudflap admits, “We don’t really do much reading.” When they’re not discussing booty calls or yelling, “Let’s pop a cap in his ass,” they’re calling people pussies. But when co-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were asked about Skids and Mudflap after Revenge of the Fallen came out, they seemed just as horrified as everyone else. The writers claimed that certain characteristics of the Twins were invented by Bay, like the addition of a gold tooth for Skids.
“It’s really hard for us to sit here and try to justify it,” said Kurtzman. “I think that would be very foolish, and if someone wants to be offended by it, it’s their right. We were very surprised when we saw it, too, and it’s a choice that was made. If anything, it just shows you that we don’t control every aspect of the movie.” Orci added, “I’m not easily offended, but when I saw it, I thought, ‘Someone’s gonna write about that.’”
So why did Bay turn Skids and Mudflap into gross stereotypes? “I think a lot of what we did was following Michael’s lead,” Kurtzman said in a different interview around the same time. “Those characters, more than any other, he had the strongest instinct for. Our job was to keep up with him.”
Except Bay wouldn’t take the blame, insisting that the voice actors made the Twins racially insensitive:
“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.”
In that same interview, Bay mentioned that he wanted Skids and Mudflap to appeal to kids, which is somehow even more upsetting. (It’s worth pointing out that Jar Jar Binks was also intended to entertain younger viewers. Apparently, older white filmmakers have terrible ideas regarding what kids like — as well as what’s good for them.)
Skids and Mudflap were voiced by, respectively, Tom Kenny (who’s white) and Reno Wilson (who’s black). For his part, Wilson tried to explain what happened, and how he didn’t see the Twins as racially insensitive. “It’s an alien who uploaded information from the internet and put together the conglomeration and formed this cadence, way of speaking and body language that was accumulated over X amount of years of information and that’s what came out,” offered Wilson, who said he was told that the characters were supposed to be “wannabe gangster types.” As far as Wilson was concerned, Mudflap wasn’t for sure Black. “It could easily be a Transformer that uploaded Kevin Federline data,” he said. “They were just like posers to me.”
Meanwhile, Kenny (as best as I can tell) has never talked about voicing Skids, which is understandable when you’re now a celebrated voice artist responsible for beloved children’s characters like SpongeBob SquarePants. It’s probably best for him that nobody remembers his association with a hurtful jive-talking caricature.
Although Skids and Mudflap aren’t in Revenge of the Fallen very much, critics took special note of them. The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr hated the Twins, writing, “The insultingly unfunny comic relief of Transformers, they’re Jar Jar Binks times two and the first known example of robot blackface.” He wasn’t the only one who made Jar Jar comparisons, as Manohla Dargis in The New York Times noted, “The characters have been given conspicuously cartoonish, so-called Black voices that indicate that minstrelsy remains as much in fashion in Hollywood as when, well, Jar Jar Binks was set loose by George Lucas.” And although Roger Ebert didn’t mention the Twins specifically, he summarized the torture of watching this movie succinctly: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length. … If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together.”
And in case you wondered whether Skids and Mudflap were just in the Revenge of the Fallen film, they also appeared in the novelization, written by veteran sci-fi adapter Alan Dean Foster. The robots are Black stereotypes there as well:
And they were prominently featured in the comic books, even gracing the cover. Clearly, somebody involved with Transformers figured the Twins were going to be a big deal.
Did Bay care about the controversy?
At the time, he claimed he didn’t, saying, “Listen, you’re going to have your naysayers on anything. It’s like is everything going to be Melba toast? It takes all forms and shapes and sizes.” Leave it to Michael Bay to equate Melba toast with cultural sensitivity. (I thought that was just the name of Matthew McConaughey’s car in Dazed and Confused.)
But when it came time to make the third film, 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Bay seemed to have gotten the message. A year earlier, he vowed that we wouldn’t see Skids and Mudflap in the sequel, but after an internet rumor started spreading that you could glimpse the Twins in the new film, Bay went nuclear, offering a reward of $25,000 to anyone who could actually find the offending robots in Dark of the Moon. That seemed to settle the matter … until fans spotted Skids and Mudflap in the trailer. Bay took to his personal site to clear up the matter:
“The Twins are not in the movie. You will not find them anywhere. Trailer houses sometimes use shots that are not in the movie! End [of] story[.] I’m done wasting my time [on] this!”
Conspiracy theorists weren’t having it, though, poring over leaked Dark of the Moon set footage that seemed to feature the Twins in their car mode:
And, as it turns out, eagle-eyed viewers would have won that bet with Bay — you can see the characters very briefly in the actual Dark of the Moon film:
The Transformers carried on for two more installments — 2014’s Age of Extinction and 2017’s The Last Knight — but the Twins were not heard from again. (They’re also not in the 1980s-set Bumblebee, which is the best of the Transformers films because Bay didn’t make it.) In Peter David’s Dark of the Moon novelization, however, Skids and Mudflap are part of the story, getting killed by Sentinel Prime, bravely sacrificing themselves so that others might live. That plot point is duplicated in the comic book adaptation, and it’s very satisfying to watch them get blasted:
But even though the Twins were cancelled, that wasn’t the last we’d hear of Kenny and Wilson. In Dark of the Moon, the voice actors teamed up again to portray a new comedic-robot duo, Wheelie and Brains.
Blessedly, those Transformers weren’t racist stereotypes. They were just loud, annoying and unfunny — for a Michael Bay film, that’s considered a step up.