Published: Salon (April 27, 2015)
You know it’s bad when you see how “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” is his most empathetic recent comedy.
Adam Sandler is probably not a racist, but his movies definitely have a long history of racial insensitivity. If anything, it’s surprising that he hasn’t been called out about this (at least on a larger scale) until now.
As the moviegoing world learned last week, roughly a dozen Native American actors walked off the set of Sandler’s upcoming comedy “The Ridiculous Six” to protest his depiction of Apaches. Among other things, they were offended by the various vulgar puns used as character names (e.g., Beaver’s Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face), a scene in which a Native American woman is shown squatting down to urinate while smoking a peace pipe, and the fact that the costumes resorted to visual stereotypes instead of accurately representing how Apaches looked. The inevitable hashtag movement protesting the film sums up the fundamental complaint rather succinctly: #NotYourHollywoodIndian
This isn’t the first time that Sandler’s movies have contained insulting racial characterizations. A short list of comparable controversies would include frequent Sandler collaborator Rob Schneider donning yellow face to play native Hawaiian and Japanese characters in “50 First Dates” and “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (although Schneider is of Filipino ancestry himself, that doesn’t excuse him using garish make-up and mugging to ridicule other Asian ethnic groups), the caricatures passed off as Mexican-American characters in “Jack and Jill” (such as a grotesque elderly Mexican woman being knocked out and revived with jalapenos and a gardener who makes racially self-disparaging comments before adding, “Just kidding”), or the various insulting tropes about Africans from “Blended” (described by one South African reviewer as depicting native Africans as “oversexed and leering, bumbling and inarticulate, or just bone lazy”). While all of these problems were noticed at the time those films were released, none received a great deal of attention because the business and creative personnel involved in producing those movies apparently, for the most part, toed the line — which, incidentally, is one more reason to applaud the Native Americans who walked off the set to publicly demonstrate their unwillingness to play along.
Although it is tempting to defend “The Ridiculous Six” along the lines used by cast member Vanilla Ice (“It’s a comedy. I don’t think anybody really had any ill feeling or any intent or anything. This movie isn’t ‘Dances With Wolves.’ It’s a comedy.”), it’s important to remember that comedy can promote discriminatory attitudes. The minstrel shows of Jim Crow America or anti-Semitic burlesques in Third Reich Germany did more than make audiences laugh. By perpetuating popular stereotypes, they reinforced the idea that certain groups of people were inherently different, with each individual being easily reducible to a handful of traits commonly associated with others who shared their background.
Ironically enough, Sandler is in a great position to understand this himself. Take this speech delivered from “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”: “For the record, the word ‘faggot,’ that’s a bad word. Don’t use it. I used to say it more than anybody, but I was ignorant. It’s hurtful. It’s like ‘kike’ for me.”
What makes these lines particularly powerful is that they seem to have been ripped straight from the comedian’s heart. Indeed, there is such a raw sincerity in their delivery that one is morally compelled to take them at face value — to assume that, when he wrote and then spoke those words, Sandler was making a legitimate effort to learn from his personal experience as a way to spread awareness of anti-LGBT prejudice.
Unfortunately, despite being one of the most influential Jewish comedians alive today, Sandler has not been consistent in extending his understandable sensitivity to anti-Semitism to his treatment of other groups. It calls to mind an observation made by Marlon Brando on Larry King Live in the 1990s, who after claiming (inaccurately) that “Hollywood is run by Jews” criticized various Jewish filmmakers who were willing to exploit racism toward other groups. “We’ve seen the nigger and the greaseball. We’ve seen the Chink. We’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap. We have seen the wily Filipino,” he noted. “We’ve seen everything. But we never saw the kike, because they knew perfectly well that that’s where you draw the wagons around.”
As someone who was nearly murdered for being Jewish as a child, I understand why so many Jews were offended by Brando’s remarks at the time; at the same time, I also recognize that he was trying to make the same underlying moral point that Sandler articulated in 2006. When you are part of a group that has experienced discrimination, you have an ethical responsibility to not only oppose the specific prejudices that have afflicted your own people, but all forms of prejudice everywhere. It’s the attitude best captured by the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who grew up aware of his own Jewish heritage and later declared that “my Jewishness is the dominant element in my life. From this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work.”
It’s important to note that this is not a question of political correctness. After all, some of the greatest comedies of all time used racial, sexual, ethnic, and/or religious humor without subtly (or not-so-subtly) validating the nastier assumptions of its audience members. When studying a classic comedy like Mel Brooks’ movie “Blazing Saddles,” or even more recent trailblazers like the TV show “The Simpsons,” it’s important to note that the jokes about racial, religious, and other minority groups are usually pretty careful about establishing that bigots and their bigotry are the punchlines — not the men and women they’ve chosen to target.
This is what makes the racist humor that has repeatedly appeared in Sandler’s movies so disappointing. Along with having a reputation for being a genuinely nice person, he is also an incredibly talented comedian, from his early days on “Saturday Night Live” to the creative silliness of his early movies like “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer,” and “The Waterboy.” Perhaps just as significantly, his dramatic roles have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for empathy, whether for victims of emotional abuse (“Punch-Drunk Love”) or psychological trauma (“Reign Over Me”).
In short, he is better than this, and as his speech from “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” demonstrates, he can even learn from his past “ignorant” and “hurtful” mistakes. With a little humility, Sandler could frankly acknowledge that he was wrong for his racial insensitivity in “The Ridiculous Six” and use this controversy as a learning opportunity – not only for himself, but for his fans. Otherwise, this will be just one more asterisk tarnishing an otherwise impressive comedy legacy, and Sandler will be remembered as just one more entertainer who couldn’t rise above the sins of his time.