i don’t see any connection to Vietnam, Walter

One of my favorite podcasts, How Did This Get Made?, recently interviewed Danny Trejo about his new movie Bad Ass. Here’s a short trailer:

If seeing a middle-aged bearded dude beat people up on a bus reminds you of something, perhaps you’re familiar with this video, officially titled “AC TRANSIT BUS FIGHT I AM A MOTHERFUCKER,” but better known on the internetz as “Epic Beard Man”:

This was the video that got passed around the blogosphere a couple of years ago as a kind of YouTube Dirty Harry; one site posted it under the headline “67-year-old man beats down young thug on public bus,” and it was generally understood to be a teen tough (black, natch) getting his ass handed to him by an old white dude who was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. It swept the nation, garnering some four million hits inside a week.

Details emerged rapidly, and at first, they made the story even cooler. “Epic Beard Man” — a.k.a. Thomas Bruso — wasn’t just any old duffer handing out public transit justice — he was a Vietnam veteran, apparently, so, in the words of Cracked magazine, “Holy shit! He’s not just some awesome old guy, he’s a bearded Rambo!” Also, did you see his T-shirt? “I AM a motherfucker.” Lesson for young punks: do not mess with Epic Beard Man.

Except then more details emerged, and the whole thing seemed much less cool. Again, I’ll let Cracked summarize:

Watching the video, the idea that Bruso was somehow the underdog never really materializes if you don’t have that idea in your head to begin with. First of all, he’s probably got a hundred pounds on Michael and a good five inches. So really the only thing that might make you think Bruso wouldn’t win a violent conflict with Michael (assuming you’re not just afraid of black people in general, as most of the internet appears to be) is Bruso’s declaration “I’m 67 years old….” What’s strange is that everyone seems to have missed Michael’s response, “I’m 50….”

You might also notice that the white guy is wearing a shirt with the word motherfucker on it, and that he casually drops the word “Chinamen” when defending himself against racism. There is almost nothing about Bruso that doesn’t shout “crazy homeless guy.”

This is to be expected from a guy whose mom tried to bake him into a baby pie, and who was then shipped off to fuckin’ ‘nam, man…right? This also can be expected from someone who’s bipolar, which EBM is. If you’re thinking, “Wow, he went to Vietnam and was bipolar?!” then we hate to break it to you, but people suffering from bipolar disorder are prone to lying for attention.

In fact, EBM’s sister says her brother never went to Vietnam. He was honorably discharged due to his mental disorders. He was never put in an oven by their mother, never knocked out their father….

At the time he became Epic Beard Man, Bruso was moving around San Francisco, teetering on the brink of homelessness. In fact, he believes his most recent eviction was caused by the video that made him famous. Tom Bruso isn’t a badass hero. He’s a mentally ill old man who, in his own words, “can’t even remember yesterday,” and is “out of my mind and can’t think anymore.”

And all of those things were on clear display in the video that brought him to our attention. But of course, a video titled “Bi-Polar 67 Year Old Beats Crap Out of Much Smaller 50 Year Old” wouldn’t have become an internet sensation. So someone early on edited all of that stuff out, and made up a new story that appealed to our imagination, desire for justice and the racism simmering just below the surface of most sites on the web. It’s no different from what Hollywood does when they release a movie that’s “based on a true story.”

Prophetic, Cracked. Fucking prophetic.

Because, to bring things back around, it turns out that Bad Ass is more-or-less explicitly based on the Epic Beard Man video. And Trejo confirms this in the interview with How Did This Get Made?, although to his credit he treads lightly and doesn’t dwell on it.

Which might, in the right hands, be interesting. What would Paul Greengrass or Richard Linklater make of this troubling encounter? There’s a lot of great, interesting stuff in that video about race (before blows are exchanged, the woman taking the video shouts “say it again, pinkie!” and “beat his white ass” while another black woman tries to calm the men down), but even more about how violence erupts in general — the long fuse, the bizarre ambiguity of the conversation about the “shoe shine” remark, the contribution of mental illness (Bruso) and drunkenness (Michael), the fact that there isn’t a clear victim here.

And then there’s the aftermath: the original video has racked up some 97,613 comments already, the most recent two being, “dumb fuckin nigger got whatt he deserved” and “Lol the black guy is such a bitch. he says ‘ill fuck you up’ when the guy already left the bus. I wouldv’e walked back on and given him another taste of that fist.” Stupid racists celebrate Bruso online as some kind of folk hero stemming the tide of barbarism, but the reality of his life is still that he’s broke, homeless, and in need of mental health services. Yeah, there’s a really interesting movie in this.

But that’s not the movie writer/director Craig Moss decided to make, because a sad, weird old dude on the bus doesn’t make a great action hero. So instead of being a bipolar yarn-spinner who claims to have gone to Vietnam, Trejo’s character is an actual vet, and apparently one trained in hand-to-hand combat. (Compare his swift, precise movements in the trailer to Bruso’s wild, childlike swings.) Trejo faces two big foes instead of one much smaller man. And when the fight ends in the original video, a clearly rattled Bruso screams in a high-pitched voice, “I told you not to fuck with me!” before running off the bus. But in this trailer, the line is changed to a guttural, manly “I told you I didn’t want a fight,” and Trejo gets to stride away in action-hero slo-mo.

But the most cowardly change has to be that the racial subtext is completely inverted: as the logline of the trailer says, “he protects an elderly black man from a pair of skin heads.” Like Dirty Harry and Death Wish, the popularity of the “Epic Beard Man” meme rests on a myth (not really supported by the video itself) of a confident, powerful white man taking back the streets. But also like those movies, Bad Ass sugar-coats the message by making the bad guys white, thus creating plausible deniability for racists who want to enjoy the myth but don’t want to be called out on their racism.

Not, of course, that racists on the internet are always afraid to show their stripes. Slate reports that fans of Thomas Bruso are angry that the character’s ethnicity has been changed and the racial undertone has been flipped:

Some of the original video’s fans aren’t happy, by the way, with these changes: One wrote on the movie’s Facebook page that the filmmakers “are promoting racism by not allowing epic beard man to be white,” thus “feeding ignorant people who blame whites for racism and believe that racism only occurs when a white person is acting aggressive toward another race.” 18 people “liked” that comment; 12 liked another: “Anti-white tabloid trash movie that reversed a true story. Fuck this movie.”

But there’s good reason for progressives to be disturbed by the inversion, too. By draining the story of its racial dynamics and make it unambiguous (who doesn’t hate skinheads?), and by removing the complicating factors (Michael was intoxicated, Bruso struggles with mental illness), Moss turns “Epic Beard Man” into what its fans wanted all along: a comforting fairy tale in which a vigilante takes action and restores order to America where police won’t.

What could possibly go wrong?

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