Brow Beat

Bad Ass, the Deeply Uncomfortable “Epic Beard Man” Rip-off

Over the weekend, the trailer for a movie called Bad Ass appeared online. The film has an IMDB page and a Facebook page, and the trailer features some recognizable faces: Danny Trejo as the titular bad ass, plus Charles S. Dutton and Ron Perlman.

Even so, some of the first sites to share the trailer—like Vulture and Cinema Blend—were unsure whether the trailer advertised an actual film. Vulture described the video as “either a parody, the trailer for a parody, or just an excuse to make Danny Trejo beat people up while wearing a fanny pack.” At Cinema Blend, Sean O’Connell finds it “hard to tell if this is a trailer for a legitimate feature, or if Trejo, Charles S. Dutton, and Ron Perlman got together one afternoon to make a viral video clip for Funny or Die.” And watching it, you can understand this reaction:

As O’Connell notes, the clear forerunners for Bad Ass are Machete (also starring Trejo) and Hobo with a Shotgun, both of which began as trailers before becoming feature films. The multiple bus-crash scenes in the Bad Ass video look pretty expensive to me for a fake trailer—but perhaps someone was willing to invest enough to attract attention for an actual movie to be made later. At least one site is reporting that the film either has been or will be made.

But the trailer’s production history is far less interesting than its troubling and highly selective appropriation of imagery from a famous viral video that spawned multiple Internet memes. The so-called “Epic Beard Man” video showed a 67-year-old man, later identified as Thomas Bruso, beating a younger man (though not young; he’s reportedly 50 years old)—known only by his first name, Michael—on a public transit bus in Oakland. The incident was recorded by another passenger, a young woman named Iyanna Washington. In part because Bruso is elderly and does indeed sport a truly epic beard, he became a cult hero.

But there has always been an uncomfortable aspect (or, really, two or three uncomfortable aspects) to that hero worship. Bruso is white, and Michael is black; early in the video, Bruso appears to ask Michael, “How much would you charge me for a spit shine?” Whether he intended this question innocently is open to some debate, but Michael—who has said, in the course of apologizing for his actions, that he was intoxicated—took it as a racist insult, and the incident unfolded from there. Bruso, meanwhile, has a history of public altercations, and, according to an AC transit spokesman, had not taken his usual medication on the day in question. Whatever actually happened, the wish to see Bruso as an uncomplicated hero involves a serious cultural myopia—when, that is, it doesn’t involve simple racism.

In Bad Ass, on the other hand, the opening bus incident involves a Mexican-American man protecting an elderly black man from two white skinheads. As he leaves the bus, Bad Ass says, “I told you I didn’t want to fight,” as though he was forced into it, and only did what was necessary. While the essential underlying conflict has been utterly revised, however, the filmmakers have dressed Trejo almost exactly as Bruso was in the Epic Beard Man video (right down to his iconic fanny pack), in an obvious effort to capitalize on the attention the video received, and to appeal to that video’s many fans.

Hollywood has been prettifying history in various ways for years, of course. But just because Bad Ass (based, the trailer announces, “on a true story”) is a proudly B-grade entertainment doesn’t mean the filmmakers should get a pass for at once exploiting and cheaply revising a complicated incident whose actual appeal was a far more troubling matter. 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.” 

Other Bruso fans on that Facebook page shared a less disturbing reason for objecting to the film. “Boycotting this and telling all my friends to do the same,” one wrote, “until the original Epic Beard Man gets royalties.” Seems only fair, and he could use them: As of May, at least, Thomas Bruso was homeless, and had been for several months.