Culture on My Mind
June 19, 2020
This week’s “can’t let it go” are a pair of favorite movies from my childhood.
I love the Short Circuit films.
Yeah, I said it. Both of the films are drenched in late ’80s cheese and dance around the lines between programming and life. I have no shame.
The first film, Short Circuit from 1986, focuses on a robot (designated Number 5) built for war that gets struck by lightning and develops a consciousness. Number 5 is voiced by Tim Blaney, who modern audiences would recognize as Frank the Pug from the Men in Black films and his puppeteering work over the last 35 years. The five war robots were programmed by two scientists, played by Steve Guttenberg and Fisher Stevens, and when Number 5 is struck by lightning, it inadvertently escapes the defense research facility and ends up in the care of Stephanie Speck, a food truck owner and animal lover played by Ally Sheedy.
The film also stars Austin Pendleton as the irritating president of the robotics corporation and G. W. Bailey doing what he does best as the head of security. It was directed by John Badham, who also brought us Saturday Night Fever, Dracula, Blue Thunder, and WarGames. Number 5 has a true sci-fi pedigree since he was designed by Syd Mead, the “visual futurist” famous for his work on Blade Runner and Tron.
Over the course of the film, Number 5 develops sentience and proves that he is alive, after which he chooses his own name: Johnny 5. It’s a fun and cute, but ultimately forgettable romp.
The sequel, Short Circuit 2, came out in 1988. Only Fisher Stevens and Tim Blaney made the jump to the second film, with a voice cameo from Ally Sheedy, and Kenneth Johnson – the TV sci-fi guy responsible for V, The Bionic Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and Alien Nation – picked up the directing duties.
The sequel finds the two original characters on the streets of New York City with a con-man (Michael McKean), a new love interest (Cynthia Gibb), and white-collar crime. This one is a bit more cringe-worthy in many aspects, but I enjoy the robot’s story and character a lot more, especially when he keeps two books (input) for special attention: Pinocchio and Frankenstein.
The film ends with the Be a Real Boy trope of granting the “other” American citizenship for their special efforts. It was the ’80s, gang, Cold War and all.
A third movie was developed by the studio, but there wasn’t enough interest.
All of the cheese and schmaltz aside, the biggest problem with these two films lies in cultural insensitivity. The sole human character that stars in both films – Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit, but Benjamin Jahveri in Short Circuit 2 – is a white man portraying an Indian man.
For background, the character was not intended to be Indian. Fisher Stevens initially had the role, but he was fired and replaced by Bronson Pinchot. When Perfect Strangers started, Pinchot left for the television and Stevens was rehired. When the character was changed to Indian descent, Stevens grew a beard, dyed his hair black, used contacts to change his eye color, and darken his skin with makeup.
In short, the film employed brownface to make the character work.
The effect was convincing among Indian moviegoers. As the urban legend goes, many believed that Fisher Stevens was actually Bollywood actor Javed Jaffrey. The resemblance is uncanny, particularly with the beard and round eyeglasses, but Jaffrey set the record straight soon after. Another fan who was confused, but for an entirely different reason, was comedian Aziz Ansari.
In 2015, Ansari published a piece in the New York Times discussing acting, race, and Hollywood. In it, he describes how he was amazed to see an Indian character as a film lead with a love interest.
Seeing an Indian character in a lead role had a powerful effect on me, but it was only as I got older that I realized what an anomaly it was. I rarely saw any Indians on TV or film, except for brief appearances as a cabdriver or a convenience store worker literally servicing white characters who were off to more interesting adventures. This made “Short Circuit 2” special. An Indian lead character? With a Caucasian love interest? In the 1980s? What’s going on here? A bold foray into diversity far ahead of its time?
He was devastated when he found out that Stevens used a culturally insensitive method to play a role. Brownface (and yellowface) are siblings to the practice of blackface, a practice that was popular in the 19th century. In the United States, it was used by white actors to portray blacks, and spread racial stereotypes that betrayed the true nature of slavery and society’s views on minorities. It was popular through the early 20th century, but has since become seen as offensive, disrespectful, and racist.
To that end, when Ansari found out the truth, he saw it as a mockery of his ethnicity. What amazed me, though, was how Ansari tracked down Stevens to talk with him about the role and the pain that it caused. The end result was something that we can all learn from.
After a long conversation, I can confirm Mr. Stevens is not a villain, but was, when he took the role, a well-intentioned if slightly misguided young actor who needed a job during a more culturally insensitive time.
It was 1987, Stevens needed work, and the world wasn’t nearly as culturally savvy as we are now. To his credit, as Ansari discovered, Stevens tried to make the portrayal as authentic as possible, including full immersion in the culture.
Through the discussion, Stevens grew to understand just how much the approach harmed the culture even though he put the work in to avoid playing his own minstrel show.
The reason that I bring this up is because of my love for these films. I’m not Indian, but I understood where Ansari was coming from as I grew to understand the damage of blackface and similar practices. It threw my enjoyment of the movies into question. Does it make me a bad person to still love the film even though it contains these cultural misrepresentations?
Similarly, look at any of the classics that we still enjoy today, from Star Trek to the James Bond franchise. How do we square our fandom with the ideals that drove those shows, from subtle racism and jingoism to misogyny and beyond?
Ansari and Stevens came to the answer in their discussion, and it’s the same one that Sue Kisenwether, Gary Mitchel, Mike Faber and Michael Gordon, Michael Bailey, and so many others in our circles have talked about many times: It depends on the lenses that we use to analyze it. It’s okay to still enjoy classic Trek or Short Circuit as long we acknowledge the shortcomings of the time and how culture has evolved. We can still enjoy something, be critical of it, and acknowledge both the cultural impact and how we’ve evolved in the time since.
It wasn’t okay for Fisher Stevens to apply brownface for those films, but it was accepted. To that end, it is not acceptable now.
This is how we learn and grow as a human culture, and how we develop sensitivity and respect for each other.
Rumors have been about for a while about making another Short Circuit film, either as a sequel or a complete reboot. Aziz Ansari and Fisher Stevens agreed on how to make the character of Benjamin right going forward.
Without a doubt, the role should be played by someone of Indian descent.
Culture on My Mind is inspired by the weekly Can’t Let It Go segment on the NPR Politics Podcast where each host brings one thing to the table that they just can’t stop thinking about.
For more creativity with a critical eye, visit Creative Criticality.