Last week, we heard the news that Adam Sandler's latest project, The Ridiculous Six, has already fallen foul of some rather sensitive controversy. It appears around a dozen of the Native American actors and actresses on the production, as well as the film's cultural consultant, walked off the set amid claims the film's script was offensive and degrading to Navajo, Apache and other Native American cultures.
At the time of the first reports, we heard a few of the jokes and inaccuracies the Native American actors had taken offence to - including character names such as Beaver Breath and No-Bra. Furthermore, a video has now emerged showing a discussion about the script between producers and offended Native American actors. You can watch that moment, admittedly with bad sound quality, below:
In the wake of these accusations, Defamer managed to get hold of a draft of The Ridiculous Six dated December 7, 2012 which includes additional jokes that could be construed as offensive to Native Americans.
Now, before we go into them, a couple of disclaimers are necessary. Firstly, it is now known how closely this 2012 version of the script matches the one currently being passed around set, although it does appear to reference some of the offensive material mentioned by the discontented actors. Secondly, jokes very rarely work when provided out of context. We do not know what the wider situations around these jokes are, or how the characters which say them are presented - although I get the feeling that's not a big issue with Adam Sandler. With that in mind, let's take a look:
- Sandler’s character, Tommy, aka Three Knives, a white man raised by Native Americans since childhood is married to a woman named Smoking Fox. A recurring joke refers to her "sweet zum-zum."
- A female character named Beaver’s Breath, is propositioned by a male character, asking, "Hey Beaver’s Breath." To which she responds, "How did you know my name?"
- A "sexy" female character named No Bra (originally named Sits-on-Face in the 2012 script), is depicted crudely squatting to urinate behind a teepee while stereotypically lighting up a peace pipe.
- Will Patch (Will Forte) propositions Sits-on-Face by asking her, "How about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?"
- Cicero (Danny Trejo) interacts with Sits-on-Face by calling her "Strawberry Tits," to which she indignantly corrects him, saying "I am Sits-on-Face." Cicero responds, "Well, then I’m Stiff-in-Pants!"
- There are numerous instances of crudely-punned pseudo Native American names like Five Hairy Moles, One Eyebrow, and Four Pickles.
Is This Satire?
Saying what people can and can't joke about has always been a contentious issue, especially when it gets wrapped up in issues of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
Netflix, who is producing The Ridiculous Six as part of a four movie deal with Sandler, is defending the film by suggesting the it is meant as a satire of the times it represents, claiming:
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. The movie has 'ridiculous' in the title for a reason: Because it is ridiculous.
Just so we're all singing from the same hymn sheet, here is the definition of a 'satire':
The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
So, do the jokes presented above fall under satire? Well, one of the perhaps unwritten rules of satire is that it should ideally satirize the status quo or the mainstream, and satire has frequently been used by comedians to lampoon politicians and the powerful on all sides of the spectrum. Comedy becomes tricky when it appears to be directed at a minority which has historically been oppressed, often because they have little recourses to respond on the same level.
Of course, issues of race are also fair game for satire, especially how race is discussed within the mainstream media. But the important issue here is that the audience must understand any seemingly offensive views expressed by a character are not genuinely held by the actor saying them or the writer who wrote them - but are merely used to satirize views we know are held by some/or exist. Think, for example, Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.
The main problem with The Ridiculous Six script is that the ignorant people appear not to be the white characters, but the Native Americans - since they have the silly names and behave in an uncouth fashion. In this sense, the 'stupidity and vices' exposed belong to the Native Americans and not the white characters, suggesting this doesn't really fall under the traditional definition of satire. Of course, maybe Sandler is simply satirizing himself as a white, affluent comedy writer who does not understand the sensitivities of the Native Americans?
Netflix claims it is a satire of the genre of Westerns which were popular in the 1960s and '70s, in particular their less than flattering portrayal of the 'Indians.' It seems easier to defend The Ridiculous Six one these grounds, and the ridiculous portrayal of the Native Americans could be more of a meta-comment on how colonizers, Europeans and later Americans used to view the other. In this sense, the joke isn't "haha, don't Native Americans have silly names," but more akin to "do you remember when we used to make movies which suggested the Native Americans were savages? Weren't we stupid back then!"
Admittedly, the jokes we've seen do not really seem to support this, but we also have to remember they are taken entirely out of context. We're still not really sure how the film is presented (is it more of a spoof of a 1970s Western, for example?), and until the final product has been delivered we should probably reserve judgement.
Were those actors right to walk off set?