Rango funny, racist

Rango” is a funny movie, but it has too many stereotypes for me to endorse wholeheartedly.  I agree with Roger Ebert, who called it an “animated comedy for smart moviegoers, wonderfully made, great to look at, wickedly satirical.”  Gore Verbinski’s film has visual quotes from many movies (“Star Wars,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” etc.), which were delightful for the adults in the crowd.

However, there are several troubling stereotypes.  Stephen Bridenstine notes, “Wounded Bird plays a bit part as the token town Indian.  He’s quiet, mystical, and knows exactly how to track in the wilderness, just like the classic Hollywood Indian…[when] Rango refers to Wounded Bird’s ‘ingenuity’ only to say ‘no pun intended’ [it] put a bad taste in my mouth.”

Furthermore, the villain in the picture, the Mayor, is almost always seen in a wheelchair.  Whether this is age-ism or able-ism, I cannot tell for sure, but it bothered me.  My wife notes, “at least they’re depicting the person in the chair as powerful.” I thought it just served to make the character more creepy.

The band of Mexican owls and the wise old armadillo were also pretty stereotypical, although they were mostly shown in a positive light.

The final regrettable element is the usual western culture trope of a solitary hero.  Even though it takes heroism from *many* characters (including several females), when they save the town, everyone calls Rango their hero, and he accepts all the credit.

It was the #1 film last weekend; it will probably be around a while.  It does at least offer an opportunity to talk about racist/ageist/ableist depictions, and why the director chose to use such characterizations.  Definitely ask your children, “do you think Rango should get all the credit, when so many other characters helped him?”

11 comments to Rango funny, racist

  • I hardly get to see a movie that isn’t animated these days, so it was a delight that this one was so witty. Yes, you’re right on about the racist stereotypes. It gets really hard to find an animated movie that doesn’t have racist stereotypes, honestly. That by no means excuses it. I just mean to say that this is a really frustrating thing as a parent dealing with our movie culture.

  • I have not seen the movie, but is there any chance the powerful mayor in the wheelchair is an echo of Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life?”

  • SM

    Chip,

    I don’t agree that the movie is racist. That’s a pretty heavy charge to lay on a movie. Comedy deals in types, and in the dissonance between what’s expected and what happens. My perspective on this is informed by my time co-founding and co-leading a student humor magazine in college. When I first saw Wounded Bird, I thought something along the lines of, “eesh, another Magical Native American.” But with dialog like this:

    Rango: (as Wounded Bird scatters feathers into the wind) I see you’re communicating with the great spirits.
    Wounded Bird: No. I’m molting. It means I’m ready to mate.

    It’s difficult for me to see the character as a stereotype. The other characters, particularly Rango (who’s pretty unaware about most things, except after the fact), tend to see Wounded Bird in terms of the stereotype, but the movie itself presents him as something more. At least as much as such a thing is possible for a second- or third-tier character.

    The Mayor, as a tortoise, is presented as the only one who was there before there was even a town. He’s older than Dirt, you see. (Of course you do.) He’s both very old, and he’s in a wheel chair. It’s unclear to me why these facts about the character have to be an –ism of any stripe. Neither his age nor the fact he’s in a wheel chair prevent him from pursuing (and nearly attaining) his goals. Why is he in a wheel chair? We don’t know, since there’s no in-story explanation that I recall. My suspicion is the movie put him in a wheel chair, at least in part, to short circuit any easy jokes about slow-moving tortoises. (And I think Tom above makes a good point about Mr. Potter.)

    It’s a movie that takes place in the American southwest, right? There’s a mariachi band and an armadillo, and they speak with Mexican accents. Is there more to the stereotype you’re concerned about than the way they speak? Is the failing that these characters aren’t major players in the story? The owls are a chorus, and the armadillo is an animal guide/wisdom elder ala Campbell. But you know these things. In this case, you’re seeing stereotypes where I see archetypes.

    Throughout the movie, the owls are telling us that it’s Rango’s story. When Rango leaves town and finds the Man With No Name, er… The Sprit of the West, he learns the lesson: nobody can leave his (her) own story. As you point out, it takes heroism on the part of lots of characters, and no less from the women in the story than from the men. But it’s Rango’s story, and his journey—an incomplete one as he’s still pretty much as unaware at the end as he his at the beginning—is the story we’re dealing with. This is a parody of the Man With No Name movies (perhaps most directly High Plains Drifter, with overtones of Chinatown), not a parody of The Magnificent Seven (or of The Seven Samurai).

    Rango ends the story pretty self-absorbed, but he also ends the story with a dawning understanding that if you put yourself out there and people come to rely on you, then you have to be willing to see it through. Again we viewers are confronted with a situation where Rango has one view of things and we viewers have the rest of the movie telling us that there’s more going on. Indeed, Wounded Bird actually has the line: after the plan of the moment goes wrong, Wounded Bird says something along the lines of what a bad idea it was. Of course he’s the one who actually gets shot, so that actually plays into the stereotype…

    Could the movie done better with its types, or challenged its premise or the viewer more? Probably. But I’m not arguing that it’s not as good as it could be, I’m arguing that it’s not racist. Of course you could have been saying that the character Rango (rather than the movie with that title) is racist. In which case, I’ll say he’s just stupid.

  • SM, you are right to challenge my use of the word “racist.” I do not mean that Verbinski hates people of color, or would like to do harm to people in wheelchairs. However, he does have a keen sense of our cultural feelings and fears, and–like most good directors–he uses those cultural understandings when casting and shooting his movie. In his “Pirates” movies, virtually every black character is either scary and menacing or mysterious and wise. These are common stereotypes in U.S. culture. This is the way he uses his Native American “Wounded Bird” and the aged and/or disabled “Mayor” characters. However, he does use female roles in strong action sequences, because our culture has come to accept female agency (at least a little; the protagonist and ultimate hero is still male). I would like to see Mr. Verbinski and all directors break away from such stereotypes, although I know that would rob them of one of their most useful tools: the powerful feelings in our cultural subconscious.

    I guess I am critiquing our culture, *using* the film as a lens. I do note that virtually every mainstream film (with the exception of Bulworth) supports the status quo. Learning to see the stereotypes and consumerism in movies helps us to see them in real life.

  • SM

    Chip, I see what you’re saying about the relationship between the mainstream and the status quo, and the challenges we face expanding who and what they encompass. (I’ll have to put Bulworth on my Netflix queue now.)

  • Danielle

    I for one have not seen the movie yet but I would like to and I am going by all of the ratings and the reviews as to how the movie plays out. Does anyone take in consideration that the children seeing this movie are probably still too young to even understand what your founded clues of “racism” are? I understand there are a few curse words and if you are some of the very few Americans who try to keep your children away from such language (which would be a very good thing) then I understand. But think of how many children are exposed to those words every day in their own home? Also the nickelodeon movie “Fred” where he repeatedly says “gammit”? Yes it’s not exactly the same as the real word but I would not like for my young child to run around yelling “gammit” just like some parents do not want their children to say “freaking” or words like that that remind them of curse words. I just think it is stupid for adults to waste their time sitting and analyzing every little detail of a child’s movie that the child more than likely won’t even pick up on being “racist” or anything like that. But then again I am only 17 but I still feel that many adults are over reacting. The cussing, I understand. But everyhthing else, your children are probably too young to even know what is going on. So just let them enjoy the movie.

  • Rdh

    I also noticed some prostitute bird types that were voiced by black women. All they said was “hey, sugar” or something like that. The fact that the animals clearly have culture (Anglo American, native American, Mexican) says something.

  • Vera in CA

    Danielle, this is BY NO MEANS a “children’s” film. I would NOT take a small child to it. 90% of it will be over the kid’s head; and happily the film does not dumb down to them. (I mean, the only child character, Priscilla, has a matched set of pistols and asks if she’s allowed to gutshoot someone in defending the town while while the posse’s away…) Just because something is animated doesn’t mean it’s for kids. That’s, um “Ageist” while we’re talking about “ist” anything here… There are some supremely adult themes going on here — I’ve seen it 3 times now and get something new out of it every time.

    Basically, if someone ‘gets’ the West (particularly California)and loves Hunter S. Thompson, that person will love this film.

  • SM

    It’s true that this is a movie grown-ups can enjoy. But also my wife & I took our six-year-old, who enjoyed it plenty at his own level. Which is the slapstick level. It’s been a few weeks now, and he’ll still ask if we remember the part where Rango hid in a bottle, or the part where that one guy got caught in a fireball and Rango tried to put him out and accidentally made another fireball. Then we laugh because it’s slapstick, and the timing for the joke was great.

    And as he grows older, we (do and will) talk about characterizations, the differences between real life and stories, the hurtfulness of stereotypes, and the way that humor works.

  • Neep

    Ageist? Don’t be ridiculous. Besides, the mayor doesn’t need a wheelchair. We know this because his boots are caked in red mud, the same boots that made the prints in the sand. He can infact walk. It’s a nod to the film The Brave. There are tons of references to spaghetti westerns, including the native American. It’s so typical that someone has to over analyse great films like this and try to have a righteous overshadowing of it.

  • ksmsw

    Danielle – a big part of the problem with racism and racist stereotypes in “children’s” movies (or movies that children will most likely see) IS that it will go over their head. They won’t understand the ideas being presented through the stereotypes and these will be ingrained in their minds and attitudes as reality. After that, they will perpetuate these stereotypes in their own actions and beliefs, allowing them to become further ingrained in society and perpetuating discrimination and oppression against marginalized groups. This is why it is so important to teach our children about the underlying message this movie and other media sources are putting forth about different groups in society. If they don’t understand the reality and the background of oppression and discrimination, they will grow up to accept it and perpetuate stereotypes.

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