Illegal Outrage: Why Machete May Be Booed In Border States
In less than 24-hours writer/director Robert Rodriguez's Machete will stick a sharp object in audiences across the country and when it does, some of you will like it, and some of you will be offended. Machete isn't just the ultra-violent action movie people seem to be expecting, it's a movie intent on making a series of pretty outrageous political statements, while it blows things up. Particularly in border states, where the debate over illegal immigration burns hottest, its message will be less likely to be well received. In fact, some are already organizing protest groups claiming the movie promotes violence against whites.
The thing is, they're not exactly wrong, or they wouldn't be if Machete weren't such a completely silly movie. But Machete is an exploitation movie and as an exploitation movie it's supposed to be excessive. That means extreme violence and insane, sexed up action sequences; but it also means extreme social and political positions on issues which it probably has no business tackling. Like any good exploitation movie it's just going as far over the top as possible and if it's done right, the intention here isn't really for anyone on either side to take anything it does or has to say seriously.
The question is, was it done right? It's so over the top the film practically begs not to be taken seriously, yet at the same time, because he's chosen to approach a sensitive social issue with the equivalent of a nuclear missile, it's hard not to argue that Rodriguez is asking for some sort of outraged response. Whether it means to make people angry or not, it will. Whether people should be angry or not, some will be. My goal here is to try and head at least some of that off at the pass by talking about a few of the things in Machete which are sure to drive a lot of people, even reasonable people, nuts. I'm a Texan. I'm not some northerner arm-chair quarterbacking on a problem I can't possibly comprehend. At the same time, I'm going to do my best not to take sides here except to admit that, overall, I actually really like Machete. So let's talk. Here are 3 reasons Machete is sure to piss my fellow border staters off.
Warning: What follows may contain minor Machete spoilers.
This is the one that's probably going to bother people the most and in the context of the film it's a fairly complex question. At one point in the movie Machete is hired to murder a Senator (played by Robert De Niro) who opposes illegal immigration. He accepts this job, almost without question. When he completes it, he's lauded as a hero in the illegal immigrant community and, to put it simply, the movie treats it as if doing this is a good thing. There's an attempt to counterbalance this by making it seem as though this Senator had it coming. And he does. But neither Machete nor the Mexican immigrant community which worships him for his attempted assassination of a duly elected American official knew that when he tried to kill him. They praise him because he tried to kill someone they disagreed with, not because he killed someone who had it coming. Worse, the movie simply takes it for granted that every Mexican in Texas would be happy if one of their own simply started murdering anyone who didn't say what they want them to say.
Obviously this isn't true, but it's not like Rodriguez is doing the southern immigrant community any favors by throwing out the idea that they'd be delighted if all of Texas's duly elected officials were murdered just so they could get green cards. Will it piss those immigrants off to be portrayed that way? The movie seems to be hoping they'll be in the audience, gleefully living out some sort of revenge fantasy. I can't predict how the undocumented community will react, but it speaks to Machete's entire attitude toward people on the opposite side of the illegal immigration issue. The film's answer to their concerns is, in short, to quite literally chop off their head.
If you look at it in a bubble, Machete is a racist film. Every white man in the movie, and there are many, is a cartoonishly evil villain who murders pregnant women and children for fun and profit. Every white woman in the movie is an incestuous, drug-addled slut. The only evil Mexican character in the movie is played by a Russian-Irish American who in real life goes by the name of Steven Seagal. That's probably not a coincidence. All Mexicans are portrayed as honest and hardworking people who can be trusted and know how to handle themselves in a fight. The movie's big finale involves a huge group of Mexicans banding together in what can only be described as a heavily armed stereotype on wheels, to slaughter a large group of stereotypical, white people for no discernable reason. We as an audience know that some of these people are evil, but the attacking army doesn't. Worse they're not all exactly evil, most of them are just hillbilly rednecks who happened to hang out with the wrong crowd. The main thing here is that Machete's Mexican army doesn't even have a good reason for attacking except the vague notion that by killing these white people in some non-specific way they'll solve the immigration problem (they don't).
Here's why maybe this isn't as bad as it sounds. Let's call it the balancing the scales defense. Some believe that in the past Hollywood has made movies in which the bad guys were far too frequently someone with brown skin, and they got away with it. So if you share that point of view it'll seem fair that Robert Rodriguez, himself an American of Mexican descent, would be able to turn the tables once in awhile. Do two wrongs make a right? I'm not sure, but in another movie, in a movie that wasn't already steeped in such potentially controversial content, maybe nobody would have even noticed or cared. And I don't believe for even a second that overt racism was in any way Robert Rodriguez's intent. Yet not everyone who watches this movie will see it that way and, like it or not, that's what's actually on film.
There are good arguments on both sides of the illegal immigration issue. None of them are made in this movie. Don't get me wrong, Machete makes a lot of arguments in favor of allowing illegals to basically run across the border any time they choose, they're all just based on generally ludicrous, incredibly faulty logic. Machete takes an empty speeches approach to ending border control and sends characters around shouting utterly meaningless but catchy slogans like “we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us!” as a way to rally the troops, treating such nonsense as if it's something profound. The proper response as an audience member is probably to just sit there, roll your eyes, and wait for Machete to cut another arm off, but elections have been won or lost on far dumber slogans. Machete doesn't debate the illegal immigration issue, it sends Mexicans running into the streets with shotguns to send any white person who doesn't want them crossing the border willy nilly, for whatever reason, to their grave. Then it celebrates as if it's accomplished something meaningful and profound.
Robert Rodriguez is a smart guy and I'd like to think that if he really wanted to make a case in favor of illegal immigration he'd be able to do a better job of it than this. Because of that, it would be easy to assume the movie doesn't mean any of it, and that, no matter how ridiculous its political stance gets, it's just kidding. But if that's true, then you have to wonder why Machete goes so far out of its way to shoehorn in politically motivated scenes which serve no purpose in the story, involving characters which aren't otherwise even part of the movie. Why does everything grind to a halt so often for so many empty—headed speeches, if it's all just a joke? Far too often Machete stops to deliver a message at the expense of its story, and that's not the hallmark of a movie which, even though none of those messages make any sense, isn't taking its politics seriously Machete says a lot, I'm just not sure whether it really believes it actually has something to say.
I want to believe Machete doesn't mean any of it. Not everyone who sees it will feel the same. Rodriguez has the right to make whatever the hell kind of movie he wants. The question is, how will audiences on either side of the immigration debate respond to it? Will those opposed to border control wrongfully see it as a rallying cry or will they simply laugh about how ridiculous it is? Will those in favor of border control see it as some sort of legitimate threat against their life, or will they assume that their opposite number is in on the joke and move on with their lives? I don't know. Machete seems utterly tone deaf to the sensitivity of the issue it's tackling. It's as if Robert Rodriguez heard Rush Limbaugh warning of a Mexican immigrant invasion and decided to respond by making a movie that said: “that's right, we're coming, and all you fuckers are dead.” I just hope that insensitivity doesn't blow up in all our faces. What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.
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