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Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Tropic Thunder Insenstive?

As you may have read, there's been some brouhaha about Tropic Thunder's fake movie Simple Jack. Here's a quick recap.

In Tropic Thunder Ben Stiller plays action star Tugg Speedman. In a bid to earn an Oscar nom and to elevate his image, Speedman stars in Simple Jack, a film whose poster's tag line reads "Once Upon a Time...There Was A Retard." According to Access Hollywood, the film was a critical and box office flop. In Thunder, Kirk Lazarus, played by Robert Downey Jr., explains to Speedman that if he wanted to win an Oscar, he should have never gone full retard.

The objections that have risen concern the film's use of the word "retard." Several groups who work with the disabled find the use of the word offensive. In response, DreamWorks and Paramount pulled down the site for the fictional Simple Jack, but have left the film itself untouched.

That the movie is untouched isn't a surprise. The film sports a $90 million plus budget and more so than the other fictional movies mentioned in the film, Simple Jack is so integral to the Tropic's plot, that a good 1/3rd of the film would have to be excised to remove all references.

If you visit Chud or Aintitcool, you'll find most folks from that side falling into the free speech, "let the movie be" camp. While if you visit Patricia Bauer's Blog, you'll find an example of Disability groups and proponents who are actively protesting the movie.

While it's easy to jump on the free speech wagon, what few of those folks acknowledge is that there are very few representations of those with disabilities on screen. Small or Large. It's true that as a satire of Hollywood, Thunder's take on Oscar bait films is pretty accurate--and fair. Yet, when it's a near lonely representation of those with disabilities, the film's meta-elements carry an extra weight of responsbility, unintended or not.

Purely as a comedy, Amos and Andy is funny. However, when the only other show featuring an African American in the lead is The Beulah Show, Amos and Andy runs into the same issues that Thunder does. Diahann Carroll, who starred in the ground breaking TV show Julia--the first TV show to feature an African American female lead who wasn't a domestic, once mentioned that she snuck off to watch Amos and Andy against her family's wishes. She thought the show was hilarious, but she didn't understand the impact the show had till she herself was on TV on a weekly basis. For the majority of Americans in the 1950s, the only African Americans who would be in their home on a regular basis would literally have been on their television. And believe it or not, for many people, they would have taken a show like that for face value.

Fast forward. Why hasn't there been a backlash about Downey in blackface? Well, because of Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Andre Baugher, etc. Although there is still a dearth of quality roles for African American actors--especially women--the industry has made significant enough strides in the last 30 years that Downey's role is possible. Folks can more comfortably laugh when the world's largest film star is Black, when one of TV's biggest hits is run by an African American women, and when, on the whole, you can name at least a dozen African American actors who are critically acclaimed, award winning, recognizable and are active.

However, it also has to be said that Downey's character in Thunder isn't Amos or Andy. Downey isn't wearing blackface in the minstrel tradition. He's not scheming someone, or acting like a buffoon. Even while staying in character, Downey's Lazarus is one of the more level headed characters.

The character of Simple Jack is the distillation of all the worse attributes that stigmatize those who are mentally disabled. He stutters, he has bucked teeth, he uses overly simplistic phrasing and he demonstrates an extreme lack of cognitive judgment. All punctuated by a bowl haircut and outfit that make him look like a man in Raggedy Andy drag. By all definitions, he could be considered the mentally disabled equivalent of a minstrel character. Which is the point of the film. And truth be told, the movie's point--that actors do take roles like Jack in a bid to earn awards--wouldn't have been made if Stiller had toned down the performance.

It reminds me of this scene from the show Extras:

One last point. Much of what Dave Chappelle did on The Chappelle Show was a brilliant deconstruction of race in America. His "When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong" was probably the best commentary on why the concept of "Keeping it Real" is asinine. However, when he realized that America as a whole couldn't see past the joke, did he keep going--using a $50 Million payday as a convenient out? Or did he take his social responsibilities seriously? Chappelle famously said this when a crowd kept yelling "I'm Rick James, Bitch!" at one of his shows:
You know why my show is good? Because the network officials say you're not smart enough to get what I'm doing, and every day I fight for you. I tell them how smart you are. Turns out, I was wrong. You people are stupid.
And if you think Chappelle's reaction was out of bounds, consider the below pic from an ad featuring a the 2008 Spanish men's basketball team. Or, consider the Don Imus blow up that occurred after Chappelle was off the air. And how about these students who, in blackface, and for fun, reenacted the Jena 6 assault.

There are times when we as a society and world buy into our own hype. And that's a dangerous trap. Just because we may no longer hide those with disabilities en masse in special homes, out of public view, does that mean that we've truly embraced and integrated those with disabilities into our everyday lives. Just as America's making The Chappelle Show a hit meant that viewers grasped all the subtle and not so subtle commentary Chappelle was trying to make.

I'm not saying that what Stiller and crew did is wrong. Personally, I think the movie is one of the funniest films of the Summer. And much like Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles or this (warning: includes strong racial language) famous scene from The Jerk, the film's satirical jabs only have punch if they are subversive.

However, until there's a time when characters with disabilities, physical or mental, are standard characters on dramas and comedies, we can expect more folks to bristle at moments like Simple Jack. That's their right and should be understandable. What folks over at Chud and Aintitcool should be advocating for are more roles for disabled actors and characters.

And folks on the other side should keep in mind that the end of the Blaxplotation era didn't usher in a new age of enlightened and well rounded black characters. That took another 20 years. Just as it was nearly 20 years between the debut of Beluah in 1950 and Julia in 1968. So be careful what you ask for, you may just get it. Instead of being included, even negatively, Hollywood may just ignore you all together.

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