God help me, I saw Michael Bay’s “Transformers” on opening weekend. I don’t know that I have a good excuse. Except to mention that my own glorious (and ongoing) adolescence dawned during the golden era of the big, dumb action movie and, because of this now near Pavlovian conditioning, I am maybe weaker than I should be when it comes to summer blockbusters. I’ve been this unreasonably compelled since “Jaws” (which I didn’t see at the movies) and “Star Wars” (the memory of which often seems like my first) created the link between warm weather and big explosions. School would end, the sun would shine, action would erupt from the big screen and every year it would get bigger and bigger, if not better. Still, like all good thrills, I chased them, and continue (in my shame) to this very day.
In 1984, I was a year away from graduating high school, and more than a little too old for the original “Transformers” toys, or the subsequent cartoon series. Of course, I still read comics (still do) so I was well aware of the “robots in disguise,” but they sure didn’t resonate with me. I thought they were silly. Robots that turn into cars? What a demotion! Sure, they’re hiding out here on earth, but come on, who takes something cool like robots and morphs them into Hondas?
Okay so, let’s get this out of the way quick, the special effects are incredibly detailed and vividly realized, even if the design work is too busy by half. It isn’t easy to believe that all that elaborate robot gear could squeeze down into those vehicles, and the physics seem wonky as a result. Of course, this is a Michael Bay movie so more is always more and never enough. Honestly, “Transformers,” is hardly worth analyzing. It is a dumb movie, with dumb dialogue, redeemed only by Shia Laboeuf’s game performance and (to a lesser extent) Megan Fox’s shallow beauty and Josh Duhamel’s charisma.
What struck me with the most force was the neo-minstrel act forced on Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson. Sadly, these are two actors who I’ve grown to respect over the years. Anderson most recently distingushed himself on FX’s “The Shield,” as Antwon Mitchell, the entrepreneurial gang leader who went toe to toe with Michael Chiklis’ ferocious Vic Mackey. Anderson followed that up with a small role in “The Departed,” arguably the very definition of arriving as a serious actor. Bernie Mac’s self-titled Fox sitcom picked up on the anger and darkness evidenced in his stand up act and developed it into a bona fide work of art. A few years earlier, Mac bitterly complained in the concert film, “The Original Kings of Comedy,” that, in contrast to the milktoast Steve Harvey, the powers that be would never let a black man like him (angry? truthful?) have a sitcom, so the show’s critical and popular success carried a ring of true artistic vindication. When he pops up early in “Transformers,” as a shady used car salesman, it is a truly heartbreaking moment. After chasing off a co-worker, while flying through his obviously dishonest sales pitch, Mac points out his beloved “Mammy” sitting in the yard nearby, claiming he would never lie in front of her. She flips him off in response and he goes on to sell the main character a car (really a Transformer) which he doesn’t even own.
Anthony Anderson comes along later, playing a computer whiz, a move I’m sure the producers thought of as casting against type, but he hardly comes across as intelligent. As comic-relief, Anderson yuks it up as an opertunistic coward. When he and a female government agent are being held awaiting interrogation, he gravely instructs her to say nothing, extolling the virtues of their unbreakable solidarity. Then the authorities walk in and he instantly cracks, braying that it was all her fault and begging, shamelessly for mercy.
There is one other black character in the movie, a soldier played by Tyrese Gibson, but he is little more than a prop. The hardass who barks a few times, but doesn’t rate the character detail of a wife and child like Josh Duhamel’s character.
Because “Transformers” is a product pitched at a world audience and black faces are even less common on screens in the far and middle east than they are here, stereotypes tend to rule the day in these huge movies. They tend to translate (like the braindead dialogue) easier into cultures from India to China, where black people are still considered far less than equal. It could be argued that women face similar issues, but, aside from rote oversexualizing, American filmmakers do not bow to the majority view when it comes to portrayals of female characters. Let’s face it, there is a lot more money to be had in catching a glimpse of Megan Fox’s thong than in watching her take a turn in a snazzy new burka. In fact, America’s reputation as a depraved culture probably grants us quite a bit of leeway around the world when it comes to sexuality. I guess it all depends on your definition of “depraved.”