Jokes about race are tricky, especially in an era where all communication, from Twitter to the privacy of your own home, is being monitored by the PC police, ready to pounce on anything that bears even the slightest whiff of would-be impropriety.
If all the hullabaloo over newly minted Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s Twitter timeline taught us anything, it’s that when riffing on race, you’d better bring your A-game. If the barbs are sharp, they’ll fly, but if they’re lazy and cheap, it comes off as, well, a wee bit racist/sexist/you name it.
I grew up a fan of Adam Sandler’s puerile brand of comedy. Every so often, a Billy Madison quote will involuntarily come hurtling out of my mouth. But in recent years, Sandler Inc. has taken its show on the road and set its comedy sights not on self-flagellation, but fish-out-of-water tales of extreme ignorance abroad—all, apparently, so that Sandler can vacation with friends and family.
“Yes,” Sandler responded to Jimmy Kimmel’s query of whether his movies are just excuses for paid vacations. “I have done that since 50 First Dates. It was written in another place. I said, ‘Imagine if we did it in Hawaii, how great that movie would be.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s a very artistic idea.’ I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Good work if you can get it. Where the problems arise is that, unlike 50 First Dates, whose biggest cultural peccadillo was portraying Rob Schneider as a goofy coconut bra-sporting Hawaiian, Sandler’s “satire” has begun to focus more and more on cultural “satire,” which doesn’t exactly mesh well with Sandler’s simplistic comedy stylings.
Which brings us to the events of Thursday afternoon. A dozen Native American cast members decided to walk off the New Mexico set of Sandler’s latest film, The Ridiculous Six, in protest over perceived cultural insensitivities.
The film, a spoof of The Magnificent Seven, was co-written by Sandler, directed by Frank Coraci, and produced by his company Happy Madison for Netflix. It also stars Will Forte, Taylor Lautner, Steve Buscemi, Nick Nolte, Rob Schneider, Whitney Cummings, Luke Wilson, and… Vanilla Ice.
According to Loren Anthony, a member of the Navajo Nation and one of the cast members who walked off the set, they were hired last week and arrived on set this Monday. They were hired to play Apache characters, and soon noticed a number of red flags during filming.“I'm Navajo and the Apache people are our cousin tribe, so we respect their culture,” Anthony tells The Daily Beast. “The wardrobe was totally not Apache, it was Comanche. The props on set weren’t Apache either, and were disrespectful as far as the placement of feathers on the teepee. As time went on, we got wind of what the story was about, and it was very disrespectful to our indigenous women—and all women in general. It was very demeaning, so we decided to walk.”
Among the offenses were “a main character who has the name Beaver’s Breath, and all adults know what a ‘beaver’ is,’” says Anthony. “And the name for the other Native American lady was Wears No Bra. The dialogue was also very disrespectful,” Anthony adds, including an alleged scenario involving an Apache woman squatting and peeing while puffing on a peace pipe, as well as “black guys with bronzer on” portraying Native Americans.
Anthony says that the film had hired a cultural adviser, Bruce, to monitor any potential inaccuracies or cultural missteps pertaining to the Apache characters, but his complaints were brushed aside, and it was Bruce who led the walk-off.
“They didn’t try to reconcile or justify anything or make anything better for us,” Anthony says, when asked if Sandler or the filmmakers tried to talk them out of leaving. “They didn’t want to change anything in the script and said they’d put a lot of money into it so far, so they didn’t feel like we were a priority. We had a cultural adviser who served as a consultant, and he’d constantly be letting the director and writers know what was wrong as far as cultural taboos, but they didn’t listen to him, so he felt disrespected and decided to walk off. One of the directors said, ‘If you don’t like it, you can leave.’ And then we all walked off.”
Anthony says that there will be even more cast members walking off the set today in protest because the filmmakers and Sandler still refuse to make any changes to the script. They also took video of the incident.
A spokesman for Netflix, the company distributing the picture as part of Sandler’s four-picture production deal inked last fall, issued the following statement to The Daily Beast:
“The movie has ridiculous in the title for a reason: because it is ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of—but in on—the joke.”
This is not the first time a Sandler flick has been accused of racial insensitivity. In years past, the Sandler canon has been littered with thinly-drawn stereotypes to draw cheap laughs, like the aforementioned Hawaiian Ula in 50 First Dates or the Mexican gardener Felipe in Jack & Jill, and things began getting pretty problematic with last year’s critically mauled catastrophe Blended, featuring Sandler and Drew Barrymore getting up to some hijinks at a South African resort.
“Somehow Adam Sandler thought it would be a good idea to make a move in 2014 about Africa in all its wild, untamed and tribal splendour,” wrote South Africa’s City Press film critic Binwe Adebayo. “From the jazz hands and fake ‘African’ accent of American actor Terry Crews to a supporting character called Mfana, it is a shameless sequence of tired stereotypes made for a seemingly ignorant, borderline unconscious audience.”
And perhaps that’s the key here—the “tired” nature of the jokes. If you’re going to wade in culturally sensitive waters, you’d better have something of substance to say; unimaginative, churlish cracks, like the ones reportedly spouted in Sandler’s latest, aren’t gonna fly. This goes doubly for a community like the Native Americans, who’ve been unjustly demonized on film for as long as Hollywood has been around.
“I really had to think about this because a lot of people were involved, and for some people there was a financial incentive,” says Anthony. “But my integrity and the things I stand for can’t be bought. It’s been going on for too long.”