After winning a Golden Globe for his performance in Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen—along with co-writers Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, and Dan Mazer—was nominated yesterday for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. If the notoriously stiff Academy is willing to see the humor in a character who likens Jews to cockroaches, then why can't the Anti-Defamation League?
Hollywood has a long history of racial insensitivity—stereotypes are its stock in trade. But, as with Borat, watchdog groups are too quick to sound the alarm when things get out of hand. Unfortunately for film-goers with less-fragile constitutions, some of the most deliciously offensive characters in cinema have been relegated to the dustbin as a result. Where were the Golden Globes when Long Duk Dong dropped his L's in Sixteen Candles? It just doesn't seem fair. Come with us on a tour of Hollywood's walk of shame, where we gaze, slack-jawed, upon the ten best stereotypes ever captured on film.
Long Duk Dong
From: Sixteen Candles, 1984
Played By: Gedde Watanabe
Groups Offended: Asians, exchange students
Gedde Watanabe's first big screen role was as Chinese exchange student Long Duk Dong in the John Hughes teen romp Sixteen Candles. With his broken Engrish, his belittled sexuality, and his uber-dork hairstyle (bowl cut, parted down the middle), the Donger—though one of the most beloved characters of the '80s—represents one of the most egregious Asian stereotypes on celluloid. The Asian community was not pleased with the depiction, particularly at a time when anti-Japanese sentiment was strong due to the American fear of Japanese corporate takeover, but it doesn't stop us from laughing when we see those clips of Watanabe on VH1 nostalgia-fests parroting his Candles catchphrase, "What's-a happening, hot stuff." Watanabe defended his portrayal of Dong in a 2001 interview with AsianWeek, saying the Donger's motivation is "the American Dream. That's the bottom line." Now that's conviction, especially from a man who has played such label-defying parts as "Asian tourist" in Armageddon.
From: The Looney, Looney, Looney Bugs Bunny Movie, 1981; various Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies animated shorts
Voiced By: Mel Blanc
Groups Offended: Mexicans, mice
The Fastest Mouse in All Mexico hasn't always been the most ethnically sensitive rodent. Speedy's crimes against political correctness include illegally crossing the border, stealing cheese, wearing a huge sombrero, and having an exaggerated accent. Though Speedy had many virtues—alacrity, loyalty, intelligence—his Mexican mice brethren were, in general, drunk, fat, and lazy: the trifecta of insidious Chicano stereotypes. In the Oscar-nominated 1957 short Tabasco Road, Speedy admonished his friends Pablo and Fernando: "No mas tequila. Already muy loaded!"
In 1999, the Cartoon Network pulled Speedy Gonzales from the U.S. airwaves in part because he perpetuated negative Mexican stereotypes. But according to a Fox News interview with the network's spokeswoman, Laurie Goldberg, Speedy is "hugely popular" south of the border and thousands of Latinos signed petitions to reinstate Gonzales. A Warner Brothers spokesperson told Radar that Speedy is not only "heroic," but also "aspirational," because of his smarts. Sombrero and all, the Cartoon Network brought Speedy back for a limited run in late 2002.
James 'Buffalo Bill' Gumb
From: The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
Played By: Ted Levine
Groups Offended: Gays, transsexuals, lesbians, serial killers, cannibals
Serial killer "Buffalo Bill" Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs certainly portrayed homosexuals and transsexuals as disturbed and sexually deviant (his calling card was to skin the women he killed and wear their flayed hides—it was his way of becoming a woman), but at least it wasn't your typical limp-wristed gay stereotype. And some might argue that it helped to defy the misconception that gays are inherently weak.
Still, gay rights groups boycotted the film, and GLAAD's L.A. executive director, Richard Jennings, fumed in a press release, "What makes this film's extremely negative portrayal so damaging ... is that the film industry has shown itself ... incapable of depicting positive gay or lesbian characters." Though Lambs director Jonathan Demme never outright apologized for offending GLAAD, it's generally thought that his next big film, 1993's Philadelphia, was a mea culpa to the queer community.
From:The Shining, 1980
Played By: Scatman Crothers
Groups Offended: African-Americans, mystics, Lady Cleo, Dionne Warwick, most of the Psychic Friends Network
In a 2001 speech, Spike Lee decried the black filmic stereotype that he called the "Super-Duper Magical Negro." These African-American characters are around solely to help Caucasian protagonists with their crazy native voodoo powers. With his uneducated dialect full of ain'ts and misplaced gots, Dick Hallorann in Stephen King's The Shining is a textbook Magical Negro, helping child-hero Danny when he's trapped with his mother and father at a haunted Colorado resort. After Danny's dad, Jack (Jack Nicholson), turns psychotic, he sends a telekinetic SOS to Dick to come save them. Dick comes roaring up to the Overlook in a snowcat, but just as he's about to save Danny and his mother, Jack chucks an ax into Dick's chest. Dick's efforts, however, still gave Danny and his mother time to escape.
Apparently, the Magical Negro is a stock character Stephen King can't get enough of. In the 1999 film The Green Mile, prisoner John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan) saves the lives of several people, as well as a mouse, with his mystical blackness. Tell us, Spike, would you rather have the mouse die?
Jar Jar Binks
From: Star Wars: Phantom Menace, 1999; Attack of the Clones, 2002; Revenge of the Sith, 2005)
Voiced By: Ahmed Best
Groups Offended: Jamaicans, nerds
Jar Jar Binks was most offensive to Star Wars purists who found the Rastafarian-looking CGI creation to be an affront to the good taste of the original trilogy, but Binks also caused moral outrage among Jamaicans, who thought Jar Jar's muddled patois was mocking their accents. Jar Jar also insulted with his appearance—thick lips, bug eyes, empty stare—which smacked of the Al Jolson archetype.
Director George Lucas responded to allegations of racism on the British show Newsnight: "How in the world you could take an orange amphibian and say that he's a Jamaican? It's completely absurd." Preach it, Lucas. The director's protestations, however, did not quell the public's rush of hatred against Jar Jar. To this day there are several extant Jar Jar hate sites on the Web. Hell hath no fury like a nerd scorned.
From: The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001
Played By: Kumar Pallana
Groups Offended: Indians, hipsters
Pagoda is the manservant of Royal Tenenbaum, who recruited the turbaned Pagoda in Calcutta after Pagoda tried to stab him—not exactly a glowing depiction, especially since Pagoda is barely a character in The Royal Tenenbaums, merely a foil for comic relief. But in an industry severely lacking of Indian characters—the last one we can remember is Hrundi vs. Bakshi in Peter Sellers's The Party—shouldn't the Indian community be happy with any depiction at all? Turns out, they didn't mind that much. In fact, it took a white liberal magazine to throw stones. An article by Christian Lorentzen in N+1 lamented progressive filmmaker Wes Anderson's "casual racism," calling Pagoda, "essentially a caricature coolie. In other words, he's a walking ethnic joke."
Apparently, Anderson learned his lesson—his next project, The Darjeeling Limited, is the tale of three brothers who find themselves by traveling through India. Three white Americans finding spiritual enlightenment by going to India and experimenting with Eastern philosophy? Way to make amends, Wes! We only hope the lovable Pagoda might serve as their guide.
Grand Vizier Jafar
From: Aladdin, 1992
Voiced By: Jonathan Freeman
Groups Offended: Arabs, street urchins
Ol' Walt Disney has long propagated racist stereotypes (see the Uncle Tom stand-in Uncle Remus in 1946's The Song of the South), and Aladdin's exotification of the Arab world is no leap forward for the filmmaker. In the opening scene, there are miles of outstretched dunes and a disembodied voice sings, "Oh I come from a land/ From a faraway place/ Where they cut off your ear/ If they don't like your face/ It's barbaric, but hey, it's home."
Besides playing on stereotypes of Middle Easterners as arbitrarily violent, Aladdin also gives its protagonists, Aladdin and Jasmine, Anglo features and perfect American diction, while the villain Jafar has a giant beak, swarthy skin, and a slightly ambiguous foreign accent. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee took note, and their protests convinced Disney to change the offending lyrics for the video release. But that's nothing compared with the real crime against humanity: years of ear-splitting easy-listening renditions of "A Whole New World" from the likes of Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson.
From: The Passion of the Christ, 2004
Played By: Mattia Sbragia
Groups Offended: Jews, Jews for Jesus
In the New Testament, the Romans are held responsible for the persecution of Jesus, but in The Passion, Jewish high priest Caiaphas is the one really embracing the Jesus-beating. During a midnight interrogation of Jesus, Caiaphas and his Jew-thugs slap Jesus around and spit on him, and later, when it comes time to decide if Jesus will be crucified, Caiaphas is the one who convinces a waffling Pontius Pilate to put Jesus on the cross. Even the bloodthirsty Romans are appalled at the violence of the Jews, seeing a beaten Jesus and asking the Jewish elders, "Do you always punish your prisoners before you judge them?"
When The Passion came out in 2004, the Anti-Defamation League bashed the film, fearing that the "depiction [of Jews] will restimulate old anti-Semitic stereotypes and hatred." At the time, director Mel Gibson defended himself against such accusations, but then in 2006 went on an infamous drunken rampage where he stated, "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." In spite of the tirade, Apocalypto, his latest, just received three Oscar nominations—for makeup, sound editing, and sound mixing. It seems Hollywood might have forgiven Mr. Gibson. Can you?
From: Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961
Played By: Mickey Rooney
Groups Offended: Asians
All those teenage girls who worship at the emaciated altar of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's seem to ignore the aggressively racist portrayal of her landlord, Mr. Yunioshi, by Caucasian actor Mickey Rooney.
Rooney plays Yunioshi in "yellow-face" with exaggerated, prosthetic buckteeth. He is obsessed with Hepburn's Holly Golightly, whom he calls "Miss Gorirghtry." Yunioshi spies on Holly and is always nagging her to come upstairs and pose for him. Ew. But let's not blame the stereotype. Besides being overtly creepy, Mickey Rooney's portrayal is physically repulsive and his acting stands out as by far the worst in the film. In the DVD edition of Breakfast, producer Richard Shepherd cops to Rooney's ridiculousness, saying, "If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I'd be thrilled with the movie!"
From: Gone With the Wind, 1939
Played By: Hattie McDaniel
Groups Offended: African Americans
While it can be argued that Gone With the Wind was of its time in its treatment of Mammy and African-Americans in general, it failed to erase the fact that Hattie McDaniel's character in GWTW was one of the first in a long line of stock African-American female characters: the big, funny, sassy black woman who teaches whitey how to laugh (see Latifah, Queen). Though she played a house slave in the film, McDaniel did pave the way for African-American actors, as she was the first to win an Academy Award (though she had to sit in the back of the theater during the awards ceremony). In response to accusations of playing into black stereotypes by only portraying maids and slaves, Hattie responded with élan, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."