Cartoonish Depictions in a Cartoon: The Controversy Over Mutafukaz
There has been some controversy concerning Guillaume Renard and Shojiro Nishimi’s 2017 animated film Mutafukaz. The issue has to do who gets to depict whom. In this case we have depictions of black people and black neighborhoods created and presented by two non-black men. If it isn’t already obvious Shojiro Nishimi is Japanese and Guillaume Renard is French.
The main character of the animated film is black, black as in charcoal black. He lives in a grimy, run down neighborhood covered in graffiti and trash. He is beset by violent, drug selling gang bangers and lowlifes. As a result the makers of the film, who do not come from this community, were accused of being racist.
I went into this movie knowing nothing. I didn’t know who made it, where or even when it was made. I knew it had a cool looking poster and so I watched it. I watched it and I really enjoyed it. What do I do with this experience when I find out that the film’s source makes the film problematic?
There is a difference between a white person choosing to tell a story about a black character and white person choosing to make a cartoon caricature of a black character. Caricature by its nature deals in reduction and exaggeration. These are qualities that overlap with racist ideology, but they are not the same. Angelino, our main character, may have some stereotyped features but he is presented as multidimensional and sympathetic. It is through his narration and through this eyes that we see the world. His inner dialogue is human and relatable. Even his friend who has a flaming skull for a head is open and relatable. These characters are not demonized, or made to be stand ins for a race or a people. They are individual.
The gangbangers, our hero must endure, are less dimensional. They are parodies, but in terms of racial politics they do not require the same respect as other inhabitants of this environment. In many ways real life gangbangers are living a life of stereotypes and limited dimensionality. Even while in the film they are depicted as violent thugs they are still a positive force in the film. They contribute to Angelino’s success.
On its face Mutafukaz is, at the very least, visually spectacular. The city scape in which it is set is rich with detail. The graffiti, the detritus, the people, and cars, the numerous signs and flyers are all carefully and fully brought to life. The usual abbreviated background of animated films is transformed into a rich visual field with references to They Live, Santos and The Blue Demon, Men In Black, Grand Theft Auto, The City of Los Angeles, and much more.
The animation itself uses a host of different ideas and presentations. There are changes in focus, speed, depth, and level of abstraction. There are drastic color changes that play with the viewer’s sense of reality. There are radical changes in camera angle and movement that bring a sense of grand cinematography. The skill with which this film was made is very impressive.
The story itself is a gonzo, science fiction, thriller. Its a bit like the Matrix in that the protagonist Angelino doesn’t realize he is at the center of a cosmic sized conflict. He has untapped power that he will have to discover and develop before the bad guys get a hold of him. Mutafukaz does not take itself as seriously as the Matrix but as a cartoon it takes advantage of its ability to catapult itself over the top and include absurd elements like luchador superheroes and alien gangsters that can turn into black, octopus, sludge creatures. As a cartoon it revels in an outlandish fantasy that allows the filmmakers to unleash their creativity and imagination in a way that live action can not.
The scale and scope of the images, the mixture of detailed realism with stylized abstraction, the humor, the pacing and playful editing make this an engaging and entertaining movie. Examining the authors of the film and considering their position in society is certainly relevant and worth considering but this beautifully and meticulously rendered story speaks for itself.
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