The Ridiculous 6 is a peculiar phenomenon. It’s Netflix’ second feature film, after Beasts of No Nation, but unlike Beasts, the anticipation for The Ridiculous 6 is much more divisive. We, the general Internet, are frustrated and cynical when it comes to Adam Sandler Movies, so to hear that Netflix has signed an ongoing deal to several more is a disappointment, to say the least. Critically, Sandler’s movies have a pretty dismal batting average: only 6/30 Sandler-led films since Happy Gilmore are considered “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average 36% critical approval.
We’re used to Netflix hitting it out of the park when it comes to its original content. When they don’t, it’s quietly tucked away, far from our recommendations by the time the next big thing comes out. Seriously, when was the last time you saw any marketing for Marco Polo? This time, it’s different. The Internet is littered with promo for The Ridiculous 6. In looking through Adam Sandler’s Rotten Tomatoes page for the sake of writing the last paragraph, I closed three autoplay trailers trying to sell me on the movie. Granted, the marketing probably isn’t for me. It’s there to reach those people who maybe didn’t know that Adam Sandler had a Netflix movie. It’s for the people who would be buying a ticket if it was in theatres. For most of us (at least those of us who read reviews on movie blogs), it feels like Netflix is cashing in on our trust and ramming something we simply don’t want down our throats.
And that’s all before we get into the controversy behind the scenes. Back in April, it was widely reported that some of the Native American
cast and crew walked off the set in protest of the representation of Aboriginal culture in the film. While the initial reports of a dozen people turned out to be four individuals, it certainly bears acknowledging.
Firstly, one of the people who walked away from the project was Bruce Klinekole, who was hired onto the project as a cultural consultant. Having such a role among the crew seems to hint at a heightened level of sensitivity, or at least respect, of the Native culture The Ridiculous 6 is going to represent. Unfortunately, according to Klinekole, in his interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, his suggestions had worn out their welcome by the first day. Assuming his reports are true, he arrived on set to find himself surrounded by inaccuracies and stereotypes, so he set to work making recommendations for improving the representation of the people he was meant to represent. His complaints apparently were ignored and by the next day, he had been told his services in this role were no longer required.
It’s clear what The Ridiculous 6 thinks it’s doing. By loading the first 5 minutes of the film with textual racism, it’s building a familiar Western-genre world, where White people are often skeptical and hateful toward Native American people. Even still, it’s laid on insanely thick. In the opening scene, we get
- a sign that reads “NO INJUNS ALLOWED”
- another sign that reads “Redskins keepout”
- a newspaper headline stating “CAVALRY MASSACRES GODLESS APACHES”
- a character who says “I didn’t even finish breakfast and I get to kill me a stinkin’ Injun.”
- he then refers to them as “savages”
- a Native American woman is referred to as a “sweet piece of red prairie meat” before she is asked if she is “partial to pale faces, Poca-hot-tits?”
- the protagonist is told that he has “been smokin’ too much of that peace pipe, kemo-slobby”
- a fight ensues, where a third sign is revealed: “MAIZE MUNCHERS SHOT ON SIGHT”
It’s… a lot. But that isn’t really the offensive part. Again, it’s world-building. It’s tasteless but it’s supposed to be. It’s exploding the racism of despicable characters in order to make them seem even more heinous. It sets up for a bit of racial reconciliation at the end when the perpetrators of these aggressions are guests at a Native American wedding with smiles on their faces. And while I certainly don’t speak with any personal authority on what is offensive to Native American people, it doesn’t seem like this is the kind of thing that the protestors of the movie were objecting to. What they were upset by is the movie’s insistence on using stereotypes as a starting point and being unwilling to budge from it.
Netflix has come to the defence of the movie, famously saying that
“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.” (Vulture)
It’s a tempting narrative to buy in to. Having not seen much in the way of Western movies, I have a vague notion of them being chock-full of racist stereotypes. So I guess it makes sense that you would do the same if you’re making a comedy/Western set in the 1800s — but it’s a strange choice, to so clearly condemn active racism, like in the opening scene, while perpetuating passive racism under the defence of satire.
When I say “passive racism,” I’m talking about the less blatant but more invasive aggressions that happen in the movie. The most well-known example is the naming of the three female Native American characters in the movie: Never-Wears-Bra, Beaver Breath, and Smoking Fox. For some people, the names are a funny joke, playing off preconceived notions of Native naming, with some boob humour in there for good mix. For others, like Bruce Klinekole, the humour math works out a different way. For him, the idea of having every female character that is representative of his culture be reduced to a joke name does more harm than the comedy of the joke is worth.
In many cases, it’s not even the script that people objected to. It’s the things that, to anyone who doesn’t know any better, seem like minutiae but to someone whose sole job is to try to be an ambassador for their culture, mean the whole world. Klinekole mentions costuming and the set dressing of tipis as examples where the designers were working off of whatever would look the most “Indian,” regardless of tribe or meaning. Suggestions to make these representations more authentic were ignored. I have no idea if the unwillingness to listen to Klinekole’s suggestions were budgetary, related to convenience, or an unwillingness to budge from dressing the movie as stereotypically as possible, but I do have to wonder, if he wasn’t there to make suggestions to make the script less offensive, or to guide a more respectful representation of Apaches, why would you even hire a cultural consultant? When Vincent Schilling, the author of the above Klinekole article spoke with NPR about the situation, he asked the right questions.
Well, you know, if we’re in on the joke, then why can’t we be part of the process? So if you want to be ridiculous, great. But then why have a cultural consultant if you’re not going to listen to him? I hear what Netflix is saying – yeah, OK, the title’s ridiculous – but people are telling native people how to be offended and when they can be offended without consulting them.
The Native stereotype that The Ridiculous 6 is the most insistent on perpetuating is Adam Sandler’s character, White Knife, aka Tommy Stockburn. White Knife is white but was raised from a young age by an Apache tribe. During this time, he has adopted their culture and become an embodiment of several Native American stereotypes: the “Magical Native American,” the “Badass Native,” and the “Noble Savage.” It’s all positive stereotyping, as White Knife is shown to be in tune with nature (he can disguise himself as a tumbleweed and can MacGuyver together an explosive from household plants); he is highly athletic, especially when assisted by his knives; and he is noble, courageous, and loyal. But, for a movie that claims to be satire, it doesn’t do much with its stereotypes except repeat them. White Knife’s superpowers are played for badass effect as much as comedy and although supporting characters repeatedly comment on it being “some mystical shit right there,” it’s not clear if we’re meant to be laughing at their gobsmacked reactions, the stereotype White Knife represents, or just the word “shit.”
At some point, every part of this comes down to a choice. Somebody involved in The Ridiculous 6 chose to make this movie and chose to include these representations. Someone chose to hire a cultural advisor and then chose to ignore his suggestions and fire him. Bruce Klinekole chose to take the job and then chose to leave, while others chose to stay, whether for the paycheque or because they didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Someone chose to make a movie that spends more time focusing on stereotypes for the sake of comedy than to make compromises that truly invite Native American people to be in on the joke and to feel genuinely represented through symbolic gestures, while still being willing to laugh at themselves.
Adam Sandler has the right to make this movie the way he wants. I am not suggesting the movie should be banned, nor am I demanding a public boycott. But, Native American people (not to mention Mexicans, African-Americans, and people with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders) also have the right to be offended by it. That’s how this works. The solution is not to tell offended people to get thicker skin or to shut up so you can enjoy the movie. There are people in the world who cared enough about respecting their culture to walk away from a job in order to bring attention to what they perceived as an injustice. That’s not a small thing. So choose to watch The Ridiculous 6 if you want to. You likely already know if you’re going to enjoy it. But do be willing to enjoy it (at least a little bit) less for the sake of compassion by listening when someone is trying to tell you that the joke comes at the expense of a dignity they haven’t given up willingly.