After seeing the animated movie Turbo, Code Switch's Karen Grigsby Bates and Kat Chow reflect on the movie's attempt at showing diversity.
DreamWorks Animation's movie, Turbo, hit theaters earlier this week. Touted for its multicultural cast, the movie follows a young garden snail named Theo, who dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500 and winds up making friends with a motley crew along the way.
And that crew seems like it could be perceived as a racial representation of America — or at the very least, of East L.A., where Turbo takes place. There are the brothers behind the Dos Bros Taco Truck, Tito and Angelo; the Latina auto mechanic; the female Vietnamese manicurist and the white hobby-shop owner. Even the snails, voiced by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Samuel L. Jackson, have affectations that indicate they're supposed to be decidedly "urban," of a certain race (ahem: black).
So did DreamWorks' multicultural cast make for a movie that actually reflects diverse perspectives? One that perhaps moves beyond stereotypes? We know that this is a movie about, um, snails that want to be race car drivers, but we couldn't keep ourselves from talking about how the movie handles race.
KC: "So Karen, you saw the movie at a theater in Los Angeles, the city where it's supposed to take place. What'd you think? And, what was that audience like?"
KGB: "Honestly? My first thought was it was too loud for little kids to sit through! But I was also interested in seeing who was coming to see this movie, and half of the audience, maybe more, was Latino. So it seemed like people were excited about seeing their culture — or a representative of it — on the big screen.
"It's definitely family fare, and it had a lot of references in it that my audience recognized — L.A.'s topography was pretty clear, for instance — but as I kept watching, this little tape kept running through my head: "Glad they built a movie around Latinos, but a taco stand? Really? So inventive!' "
KC: "Er, yeah. 'Dos Bros Tacos.' What? The two brothers clearly embodied a few stereotypes that folks have about the Latino community — especially since they worked in the food industry. We meet them for the first time when they're in this struggling strip mall in East L.A., with not much business. Everybody seems a little resigned."
KGB: "On the one hand, the lead characters (the two brothers who run the taco truck) are charming — but they're stereotypes. Not quite the 'Heeeey Cees-ko I theenk we might be in trou-ble,' kind of stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless.
"But as I looked around me at the Latino families in the theater, they seemed thrilled. The context — folks wanting to be their own bosses, trying hard to make it — seemed familiar. The accents didn't bother them. They were kind of like black people in the '50s when someone showed up at the movies or on TV. Just happy to see someone who looks like them on the screen — even if it's not in a role that's on their dream list. I can't imagine Asian folks will be so happy with Ken Jeong's character [the female Vietnamese manicurist], though."
KC: "Oh, and I have some thoughts on Ken Jeong — but first: One of the brothers, Tito, and his code-switching! There were instances when he'd pull on these black-frame glasses — you know, like the hipstery ones that are popular — and he'd become a whole lot whiter. He'd lose his accent. He'd even walk differently.
"He did this when he was aspiring to be more than he currently was, in a sense. Like when he was dreaming of attracting customers to his taco stand with the snail racing, or when he was trying to register Turbo for a spot in the Indy. It was as if, with those black-frame glasses and different ways of talking, people would pay more attention to him — he'd get things done that way."
KGB: "It's not that he didn't want to be Mexican-American — you could see he and his brother were both proud of their ethnicity — but he was being pragmatic. He knew if he needed to get something done — like getting Turbo entered into the Indy 500 — people in power were going to have to see him. They didn't see him as a Mexican-American kid with a different idea, but once he went all Clark Kent, walked like a white guy (a white guy who wasn't imitating a hip-hop star), all of a sudden, he became visible. Sad."
KC: "Did you notice that Tito and his brother and their strip mall friends, besides the 'black' snails, were the only minorities in the movie? Not that most mainstream movies or TV shows necessarily are the pinnacle of diversity. But there was just such a stark contrast between these very 'ethnic-ized' characters and everyone else they were interacting with. Like when it's race day, and all of the fancy cars are pulling up to the track, Tito and his crew roll up in the taco truck, which they'd been sleeping in. The announcer says something like, 'Well, I guess taco trucks are in.' That was pretty condescending and also made, somehow, the brothers' livelihood seem a little bit foreign."
KGB: "Which is interesting, since tacos are a favorite American snack and salsa outdistanced ketchup, like, years ago. Of course, the Indy 500 is in Indiana, so maybe it was a dig at mid-country homogeneity. I don't know. I've only been to NASCAR, and I can tell you, there's not a whole lot of color up in there."
KC: "Salsa out-distanced ketchup? What about Sriracha?
"But Ken Jeong's character was also irksome. Jeong said he took the role because he wanted to be in something that his young daughters would be able to get — something that wasn't his character in The Hangover. [Note: That video contains some swearing.]
"And yet, here he was, playing a female Vietnamese manicurist. I didn't have a problem with him voicing a woman. It was the character herself that bothered me. She had a heavy Vietnamese accent, spoke in broken English, was half the size of any other character, and was violent. She tried to beat up the lead driver, who was supposed to win the race, and it was sort of funny. But it played on all of these kung-fu-ninja tropes that made me roll my eyes. Now, I've heard Jeong, who is Korean-American, do Vietnamese accents before in his stand-up --"
KGB: "-- OK, I haven't seen his stand-up (and I'm going to get into trouble for this, I'm sure) but I've seen him in plenty of movie roles, and Jeong, for whatever reason, always strikes me as a heartbeat away from Mickey Rooney's racist Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's: loud, oblivious to social cues, barely able to speak English. Or Jeong is timid and basically sexless, unlike Gedde Watanabe's Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles, who is a horny little devil. All stereotypes. It's like Jeong willingly inherited the Steppin Fetchit character that black folks hated for so many years. Why?"
KC: "Exactly. So this movie is full of stereotypes. But are they toxic ones? Or can we just agree that they exist, they're no good, and that maybe, maybe, the next animated feature will have more nuanced characters? Is that too much to hope for?"
KGB: "Agreed. But that will happen a lot more quickly if the studios that make these films have more diverse staffs. And I guess that's a discussion for another day."
KC: "A whole other can of worms — or maybe, snails."