JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The border which Torrez and McLaughlin were planning to have built even wildlife would have to obey.

Booth’s guards, all Hungarian, express their empathy regarding Mexican immigrants, “We let these people into our homes, watch our kids, park our cars, but we wont let ‘em into our country. Does that make any sense to you?” As white characters, the guards are neither part of Von’s anti-immigrant group or part of the Network. They exist in part for more centrist white audience members to identify with, meaning that by the end of the movie at the least, white audiences might question U.S. immigration policy.

Dishwashers watch immigration news. News stories which depict brown faces when discussing immigration is an example of a racial project.

Booth’s wife and daughter are two white characters in the film who are juxtaposed with Machete based on gender rather than race. This frame depicts one of the most sexual scenes in the film wherein the two women are starring in their own porno and think Machete is their co-star. Machete uses the opportunity to get back at Booth by leaving him the videotape of the encounter.

The character Julio is racially white but culturally Mexican and fights against the white anti-immigrant vigilantes.

By including representation of migrant populations including (male) day laborers, gardeners, paleteros, and dishwashers, as well as characters with the cultural markers of Chican@ness such as pachucas, ‘homies,’ and low rider culture, director Robert Rodriguez was partially making this film for these underrepresented populations to watch. In fact, in terms of the marketing of the film, Rodriguez and the cast handed out tacos from a “Machete” Taco Truck at Comicon and he and the cast rode up to the film premiere in low riders.

Fanboy types watched the film exclusively for the explosions, sex and gore.

Here Machete uses the gun with the hand he just chopped off still attached to shoot more gunmen in the opening sequence set in Mexico.

During the final war between the Network and the vigilantes, the Network side was joined by all types, including this paletero that trailed behind the others.

Members of the Network killed the vigilantes in very creative ways.

 

Racial formation

Race is social and cultural rather than biological. But how is it shaped and formed in order to have signifiers attached to each color, each characteristic, each geographic location? Critical race studies have generally focused on Blackness and whiteness. The one-drop rule, slavery, freedom, biraciality, “passing,” and anti-Black racism have been written about and analyzed at length. More recently whiteness studies have discussed whiteness outside of its relation to Blackness and have attempted to expose whiteness as several different things—such as property, privilege, and most importantly, something visible.[29] [open endnotes in new window]

Also recently biracial and multiracial studies have emerged and interrogated the Black/white binarism of critical race studies and looked at the implications of multiraciality. Gloria Anzaldúa’s new Mestiza consciousness is a long-awaited theory which has been used extensively in Chican@ and Feminist studies to discuss the complicatedness of being a person descended from the Spanish colonizers and the Indigenous colonized people of Latin America. Anzaldúa, along with her colleagues, were able to discuss race and racial mixture in a Latin@ context. However, unlike the typical “white/Black in America” articles of critical race studies, her theory necessarily explores gender, sexuality, race, geography and the constructed borders between and among these identity markers as changeable and simultaneous. She discusses Chican@ identity in a way which de-centers race and citizenship. Even Mexicanidad isn’t necessarily about being from Mexico:

“Being Mexican is a state of soul - not one of mind, not one of citizenship. Neither eagle nor serpent, but both. And like the ocean, neither animal respects borders.”
To analyze how race is “formed” has been foundational for critical race studies as it has helped track how perceptions of race are constructed and how racial hierarchies function to oppress people perceived to be of color or Jewish. An important factor in looking at race is recognizing that the penalties applied to people of color are done so when they are perceived to be of color. Thus, while mixed-race, multiracial, biracial, and people who are not-white may identify as “a person of color,” if they are not perceived to be, they may benefit from white privilege in certain circumstances. Whiteness scholars have described white privilege as how whites benefit from living in a white-centric and white supremacist country. These benefits include historical legal benefits such as being in a family line allowed to own property, perceived as nonthreatening, represented in the media and in politics, and able to buy band-aids, wear nylons, and use crayons in “skin color” that matches their skin.[30]

Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant wrote their foundational work, Racial Formation in the United States in opposition to the assimilationism of ethnicity theory. They argue that ethnicity theory did not take into account that which keeps some ethnic groups from assimilating fully to hegemonic “Americanness” due to the equation of Americanness with whiteness. Omi and Winant argue that though race is not inherent, biological, or essential, color-blind policies which aim to deny race’s existence only strengthen its effect. Their theory of “racial formation” traces the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed.”[31] They describe how race is formed and transformed through racial projects “in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized.”[32] Racial projects can be large-scale, institutional, ideological or individual and can be racist or not, but they are always at work. A major historical example of a racial project was the European conquest of the Americas wherein the “discoverers” began the project of categorical social reorganization of humans, in this case a hierarchical one.

In contemporary culture, blogs and especially their comments fora are textbook racial projects as the conversations, language used, and exchanges shape, reshape, and reflect interpretations of what race is and how it is discussed. In this light, Lisa Nakamura’s groundbreaking books Cybertypes[33] and Digitizing Race[34] have effectively disproved that the Internet is a raceless utopia, finding instead that the Internet is not only a place where “race happens” but is part of racial formation, what Nakamura calls “digital racial formation.”

Digital racial formation thus points to racial projects which occur on the Internet. For example, exchanges on a blog comment forum may begin with “trolling,” but each conversation can potentially inform someone of a term or an idea they had never heard before.[35] In this way, when on a basically apolitical film site a comment like “all jews should be shot” pops up within a discussion of a movie with absolutely no references to Jewish people, the comment has causes and effects.[36] Though this comment was most likely made in jest by a film fan who found racial discourse inappropriate on AICN (Ain’t it Cool News), it is still undeniably violent.

The fact that the commenter chose to introduce Jewish people into a conversation about people of color may show that there has been a relaxation in the acceptability of anti-Semitism as the popular culture version of “Jewish” is white (such as Jerry Seinfeld). Race and whiteness are often spoken about as being at-odds with one another, as in, one is either of a certain race or someone is white. But Daniel Bernardi has pointed out in his writings on whiteness and Hollywood that their meanings are linked or paired by being at-odds with one another. Race is defined against whiteness thus they are interdependent.[37] Bernardi says that whiteness is constructed and represented in Hollywood but that though present, it is also “absent” as it is taken for granted and invisible.

Like many whiteness scholars, Bernardi is critical of whiteness, whether in its mediated forms or IRL (in real life), when it is portrayed as the default state. An oft-used example of the default state of whiteness is the avatar used in video games and many Internet sites, whether it be a whole person or just a hand (as in some shooting games). It is when whiteness stands as an unquestioned norm that academics, scholars and activists point out the inherent racism of the positioning of people of color as different or aberrant. Whiteness scholars are quick to point out that whiteness is an invisible, taken for granted privilege. But even such a critique which traces the difficulty of the racial project of making the invisible visible, as Sara Ahmed points out,

“may come in part from a sense that the project of making whiteness visible only makes sense from the point of view of those for whom it is invisible.”[38]

Though Rodriguez’s Machete depicts the border vigilantes as stereotypical white rednecks, they are not the only white people in the film. White characters also include politicians, laborers, and members of the Network, which alters the stark divisions made by critics and past exploitation films. As depicted in the film, whiteness and race are much less simple then being either/or, default or aberrant, or necessarily at-odds with one another. In reality and in popular culture race and whiteness are mixed up, complex, and often arbitrarily determined. More and more Latin@/Chican@ youth are born into culturally, racially and generationally mixed families, thus going beyond bicultural/biracial and first generation and entering into tricultural/triracial, fourth and fifth generation, Afro-Latin@, Mestiz@, Hapa, and more.
Machete is an example of how a fictional narrative can just throw people together and not explain how Mexican they are, or if they are citizens or not, and just let the audience decide who is who. It is in the audience reception that we are able to see how people read the character’s races, ethnicities, and nationalities, and how they did so tells us more about the “reader” than it does the characters. Since so much reception is based around a white/Mexican binary, it is telling that mixture, in a number of forms, is still something that racial formation is grappling with.

The Internet as audience

The Internet is a vast network with seemingly endless forms of social discourse about a wide array of topics. The rhetoric found on the internet is rich in information about how people think and talk about race in their reactions to news and entertainment. 

According to Fox, Machete was being marketed to “the Latino community.”[40]  It is important to note that I am discussing the reception on the Internet, a luxury which not all people have access to, much less use regularly.  In fact, according to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, only 45% of Latino adults had access to broadband Internet last year (Meanwhile, 65% of white adults and 52% of black adults had access).[41] Therefore, I would not claim that digital reception can be looked at as representative of all populations, but that in the case of the film Machete since there was a digital eruption about racialism and racism, it deserves to be looked at. Further, as the film was promoted in large part on the Internet via the fake trailer, Internet advertising, and video and print interviews online, the film’s viewership was already limited in large part to those with Internet access.

Though Fox aimed to target “hispanic audiences,” the people taking notice of the film have been political extremists, Rodriguez fans, and left academics, activists, and writers. The characters in the film, migrant border crossers, dishwashers, gardeners, and day laborers are not the main demographic viewing the film and thus not filtering their own representations. Thus, the conversation about filmic representation in the digital sphere ends up focusing less on class and migrant status and more on race.

In order to focus within the vast network of materials on the Internet which referred to the film Machete, I will be describing and quoting from a few specific forums, each of which I chose to be representative of a certain general reaction from  Internet audiences. The comments sections of the respective reference and rating sites the Internet Movie Database (IMDB)[42] and Rotten Tomatoes[43] represent folks who enjoy and often take very seriously the rating, reviewing, and/or critiquing of movies. Since Machete caused such a racially charged stir on the Internet, the sites both attracted users who may not normally post on them as well as caused apolitical established users to engage in political/racial discussions. These sites are an important sample as each site has no raciopolitical agenda whatsoever; an average entry reads the film for things such as plot development, character dimension, and professional quality. Additionally, I am quoting from a conversation between two contributors on the pop culture blog Racialicious in order to represent anti-racist concerns and views about the film. Since this blog does center on race, it represents how the film might appear when looking through a racial lens which rejects the idea that whiteness is the norm or supreme “race.”

The next two samples are from the articles and comments sections at Ain’t it Cool News (AICN), a newsite for TV, DVD and comic book news; and “conspiracy king” Alex Jones’s two websites, Info Wars and Prison Planet. These two sites’ user demographics represent polarized viewpoints on the film. AICN (Ain’t it Cool News) is ran by Harry Knowles, a fan of Rodriguez. Knowles’ readers are generally also pre-existing fans of gore, Rodriguez, or film in general. Like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB (The Internet Movie Database) this site is generally not a forum for political or racial conversations, but AICN uniquely brings in a more “fanboy” audience which includes “Comic-Con” goers; fans who might go so far as to buy several versions of the DVD, posters, and action figures; and viewers who generally read the film in relation to other Rodriguez films or other films in the exploitation genre rather than see it in terms of plot, politics, or race.

Alex Jones and his readership, however, whether or not they actually watched the film, responded to it with pre-existing anti-immigrant biases. Jones’s two websites are overtly focused on politics and are much more pre-occupied with the film’s effects on viewers then anything else. To Jones and his readership, the film’s “message” may actually cause racially motivated violence, and thus its reception is loaded with fear and anger. I have found that the anonymity of Internet posting with “handles” has allowed for a startling amount of exaggerated hate speech, violent threats, and disrespectful language. This is certainly the case in the way commenters responded to Machete, though further study would be necessary to determine if the people posting these insults and threats use similar language in real life (commonly abbreviated online as IRL).

Lastly, looking at the race-focused pop-culture blog Racialicious, I intend to show how the film Machete is discussed with an anti-racist racial lens. Racialicious is run by Latoya Peterson, a self-described anti-racist feminist media junkie; it is run by a team of about 10 writers and editors though it also accepts submissions. Unlike Ain’t it Cool News, the blog is overtly political, and unlike Info Wars and Prison Planet it is overtly left-leaning.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and Rotten Tomatoes

The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has become a go-to for movie consumers to see what a movie is about, what actors are in it, and what other movies or television shows an actor has been in. IMDB also has a lot of other uses, such as a user generated 1-10 star rating system. It can also be used to look up a director or producer’s CV, find quotes from movies, and have discussions about TV shows or films with other IMDB members. Rotten Tomatoes has also become a one-stop reference point for filmgoers. It uses a “Tomatometer” to indicate a rating percentage from 0-100 by either all critics or top critics and another rating percentage from audience members. Rotten Tomato users can read reviews by droves of Internet, magazine, blog, and newspaper film critics, top professional critics, and audience members who write in amateur critic style. Each of these websites are used by a wide audience as cinematic reference points.

Unlike other blogs and websites, IMDB does not have a review of the film and then allow comments. It simply has a very basic synopsis; then users can either review the movie or have conversations on message boards of their own making. A quick look at IMDB shows that Machete has a star rating of 6.9, 333 user reviews, and five pages of message board conversation topics. Message boards cover a range of topics such as the portrayal of Catholicism; the rating and discussion of the actresses bodies; the music the film’s liberalness, stupidity, or humor or lack thereof. The review section focuses largely on plot, character development and quality of acting. For example one reviewer spent several paragraphs critiquing how many minutes each character had of screen time and how many minutes were devoted to action. Another reviewer criticized the casting of Steven Seagal due to his weight gain.

Rotten Tomatoes, a widely-used reference site, earned a 73% on its Tomatometer from critics, and a 64% from audience members. The site has 174 reviews of the film by professional and amateur movie critics, 26 of which are hosted on the film’s main page, half good (fresh) and half bad (rotten). This site, unlike sites with comments boards, does not foster conversations, exchanges, or arguments as the critics each wrote reviews independent of the other reviews. The reviews generally make similar critiques, that the film was “repetitive,” “messy,” “crudo,” or “lack[ing] in subtlety.” Most all reviewers, if they did have something good to say, said the film was “fun.” More than anywhere else, probably due to the lack of exchange on the site, Rotten Tomatoes did not have comments about the film’s politics as correct or incorrect, just a general consensus among critics that the politics were too simple, and too obvious.

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