I imagine that Robert Rodriguez was bracing himself for controversy over his new film Machete. Given the uproar that the use of foul language in Kick-Ass caused, I think it’s safe to say that Rodriguez’s retro “mexploitation” film was just asking for trouble when it came out. I anticipated a lot of politically correct discussions about the film’s premise, and potentially some discussions of negative stereotypes it might evoke. However, I certainly could not have suspected that it would provoke some sort of “race war”.
Basically the context of this discussion is that Arizona has passed some controversial immigration laws and Rodriguez decided to have a bit of fun by sticking a reference to it at the start of a trailer for his new film, which sees a Mexican assassin named Machete (you don’t even need to ask why he’s called that) set up for an assassination attempt on a United States Senator as a pretense to start some racial politics. Now, keep in mind we aren’t talking about a film with the subtlety and complexity of Syriana or Traffic here, we’re talking about a movie about a man named after a large knife.
Apparently the fact that this is a spin-off from a movie that nobody saw and is an intentional throwback to the era of exploitation films somehow slipped by some commentators, who have offered not-at-all over-the-top snippets such as this one:
Hello friends, this is a very important message. We’re trying to avert a tragedy and possible trigger for serious race war in the United States, something the establishment has been stoking and preparing for decades. Whether he knows it or not, Robert Rodriguez– I would say it’s a 90% chance right now — is going to trigger racial riots and racial killings in the United States with the September release of his film, Machete.
Yes. Machete, a film that will be lucky to scrape into the top ten in its opening weekend, will start a race war. I doubt it. I honestly don’t think the film is on anybody’s radar at the moment, let alone serving as a match to ignite the flames of racial hatred.
I’m not even sure how I feel about the film. I kinda want to see it because it looks so ridiculous and gratuitous (and because it features Robert DeNiro), but I also didn’t like Grindhouse, the movie which spun it off. I liked the concept of it, but the execution left me cold. This is a movie based off a two-minute fake trailer that was stuck inside a film which really failed to make an impact. It’s hardly a racially-charged call to arms.
It’s simply a (hopefully enjoyable) bit of pulp cinema which has the same fun with Mexican stereotypes that recent blaxploitation films like Undercover Brother or Black Dynamite have had with their own clichés. Or to put it more succinctly:
The movie is a farce of course, poking fun at Mexican stereotypes while empowering Latin actors in lead roles, similarly to Blaxploitation films. Although they can laugh at themselves in the film, its just a strange coincidence that SB 1070 actually got passed into state law – the bad guys do exist!
Of course there will be debate and discussion over the Arizona law – and it would be great if Machete contributed to it and encouraged any engagement – but let’s not kid ourselves. Anyone buying a ticket to Machete isn’t buying a ticket based on politics. the film doesn’t represent a public and considered rejoinder to the legislation in the same way that Milk provoked a debate on California’s gay marriage ban (I don’t think the fact that they are celebrating an annual day in his honour for the first time after the film took home a lot of Oscars is a coincidence) or Oliver Stone’s Nixon attempted to frame a retrospective debate on that most controversial world leader. The people who will see Machete will be people familiar with Rodriguez’s filmography – those who liked Desperado or even Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
It was a bit cheeky for Rodriguez to stick that little segment in front of the movie’s first official trailer, but it was at most an immature prank and – at best – would have encouraged a few people to have a quick google search to be ‘in on the joke’. It certainly wasn’t a declaration of war on the state of Arizona by a fictional Mexican assassin (no matter how ridiculously badass) or his director. Of course, the term “proportionate response” has no meaning in either the worlds of politics or entertainment, so it wasn’t long before people were throwing around terms like “race war”. It’s disappointing that Rodriguez appears to have conceded a bit of ground and has cut some scenes from the film itself.
It’s even more disappointing because it means I can’t close this article with the note that “they f*cked with the wrong Mexican”.