The Transformers movie has been running around my head since I saw it, but, surprisingly, it's not the aforementioned creepy thing
that stuck with me. It's the other creepy thing.
It's what they did with Jazz.
So, Jazz. He's the Autobot introduced to us as a parody of black culture as seen on MTV and... that's it. That's his characterization. It's so over the top and delivered with such a straight face that I was grimacing during the scene, rationalizing to myself that it had to have been some sort of homage to his initial '80s appearance. Because we're over the blaxploitation phase, right? Right?
And then, I think he gets one speaking line between the initial "yo yo my homies" and the final battle scene at the end. And then he gets ripped in half by the bad guys.
And this is how important his death is to whatever there is of plot: When a couple of the Autobots sadly relate the news of his fate, it took me a few seconds to remember that it had happened. About as long as it took the on screen characters to get over it, in fact, and launch into a monologue on the subject of how easy it is to replace him with their new found human friends.
The question that's been been going around my head is this: If Jazz is The Black Autobot, does that mean that the rest of them are The Not
Black Autobots? IE, are they coded as White?
I've settled on yes. Except for Jazz, the Autobots seem to exist in a sort of cultural void. They don't even act *alien*, really. They're just as one-dimensional as everyone else in the movie, but they're exaggerated along traits. ("I like to shoot things!" "I like to heal things!" "I like to give badly written soliloquies that don't end until long after the audience is embarrassed on my behalf!" "I like my human charges perhaps more than is appropriate for a PG13 rated film!" "...I'm 'Black'."")
It's easy to say race does not apply, then, but. But they've *applied* it. They've set aside Jazz as Other, so, Other than *what*? Other than the cultural default that the rest of the cgi robots belong to? Well, okay.
Our "cultural default" is White. There is no Everyman of Colour in western media. Every time a movie chooses to have a character be not white, it is saying something about that character.
As it should, really, because we none of us exist in a societal vacuum, but it's too easy to use "black" or "asian" or whatever as shorthand *for* character. It's how we end up with stereotypes: he's Black, therefore he listens to rap music. Of course. And he has a rap sheet? Who's surprised. Barely even have to bother mentioning it.
(And it's too easy to forget that if a movie chooses to use a white character, it is saying something just as important.)
In the case of Jazz, this is turned around. Since we don't have any visual cues to go on, the stereotyping is used to code him as Black. It's kind of bizarre; though, since we're talking about giant alien robots without proper human facial features, I'm not sure how you *could* set them apart along (human) racial lines without resorting to blatant stereotypes. You could have them interested in different things; you could play with the accents and word choice; you could could draw names from different cultures (Srsly, though. "Jazz"?). But none of that's really the same thing.
It's too subtle, too thought out, too much like individual variation. It's not "Race" unless there's a visceral identification.
But the thing is, would they still be coded as White if Jazz *hadn't* been set apart as Other?
I... can't decide.
Even pretending they had not all been voiced by white guys, I have no idea. Even - especially - if it's never brought up as an issue, the writers are going to bring certain assumptions to the keyboard, aren't they? Even if ALL the nominally humanoid robots belong to that same cultural default....
It's still White.
And I'm white, and so many of the assumptions the writers make are probably going to be the same as my own. I'm not going to *see* it.
It's troubling me, because it's not like Transformers is the only show with non-humanoid characters who can't act too non-human because then how would the kids identify. Do those characters read as, you know, *people*, or do they they read as White?
And it's troubling me that - judging by how they treated Jazz, who *didn't* - maybe you don't get one without the other.
Or maybe you just don't get one with the Other.