Tropic Thunder

Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan

Directed by Ben Stiller

Rated R

Second only to the spectacle of the Olympics this week has been the sturm und drang surrounding the release of Ben Stiller’s latest, Tropic Thunder. As the cast has made the round of entertainment magazines and late-night talk shows hawking the film, various interest groups and countless bloggers have called for a boycott. From the mildly tasteless mentally disabled character Simple Jack, played by Stiller’s character in a stab at respectability, to the 12-year-old Vietnamese drug lord, to Robert Downey Jr.’s afro and “black” accent, there seems to be plenty offense to go around. And I find myself in the position this week of determining if this movie crosses the line of good taste and common decency or if it’s just plain fun.
But nothing’s ever that simple, is it? Because the furor over Tropic Thunder isn’t really about Downey’s blackface performance (or the repeated use of the word “retarded”). Indeed, many of the calls for boycotts began long before anyone actually saw this movie.

No, Tropic Thunder has struck a very old nerve. That it has stepped into the minefield of American race relations and blackface minstrelsy is perhaps the most potent visual reminder of our racist past.

I think, though, that in all the uproar we may have lost sight of just what exactly is wrong with a white guy painting his face and pretending to be a black guy. My favorite blackface movie is Spike Lee’s Bamboozled precisely because the blackface doesn’t involve white people putting on burnt cork. Protesting his network’s lack of intelligent, sophisticated black characters, Pierre Delacroix, played by Daman Wayans, creates The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety show riddled with black stereotypes and starring two street performers in classic vaudeville blackface makeup.

The show is an immediate surprise hit. Americans of all stripes are all too willing to laugh at Mantan Moreland (Savion Glover) and Sleep-and-Eat (Tommy Davidson). A secondary storyline has a group of young black neo-nationalists calling themselves The Mau Maus, who, propelled by a hip-hop soundtrack and black pride, hatch an ill-advised plan to take down Delacroix’s show.

What makes this movie so compelling, despite its flaws, is that it points out the real problem with blackface — it isn’t the act of painting the hands and face black that’s offensive and harmful. It’s the claim of authenticity that goes along with that act, the assumption that something real and true is being represented when someone darkens his face, paints on a huge red mouth, and shucks and jives on a stage.


So Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer is offensive, as is C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man. But so is Samuel L. Jackson in Black Snake Moan, Terence Howard in Hustle & Flow, and 50 Cent on any given day.

What offends me, what black people should rise up and shout about, is when blackness is reduced to just a few character types: The Magic Negro (Jennifer Hudson in Sex in the City, Morgan Freeman in almost anything), The Thug (the rapper du jour), The Sassy Black Woman (overweight and loud), The Player (Samuel L. Jackson’s specialty), The Hot Black Chick (young, with a nice ass).

Minstrels come in blackface and black skin and I object to them wherever I see them. I didn’t, however, see any in Tropic Thunder.

Full disclosure: I laughed my ass off. The movie works as a satire of the self-importance and overindulgence of Hollywood. It also has great fun with an audience that enables Tinseltown excess by purchasing tickets to the latest Rambo sequel or laughing every time Eddie Murphy puts on a fat suit.

The movie begins with a series of previews, the first of which is an outrageously dirty commercial for rapper Alpa Chino’s (played by comedian Brandon T. Jackson) Booty Sweat (a soft drink) and Bust-A-Nut (a candy bar). It’s very telling that the audience, at least the audience I was with, didn’t know it was a joke until it was almost over. The satire works because we have become trained to accept black men acting the fool on television.

Blackface alone isn’t to blame for that.

There’s a lot to be disturbed by in pop culture. (Any given VH-1/Flavor Flav enterprise, for example.) Tropic Thunder isn’t one of them. Intent matters here. Downey’s bravura performance is clearly meant to poke fun at pompous white actors (like himself), not mock black people or black culture.

Yet, I can understand those who object to Downey achieving that performance through blackface. Be that as it may, I still believe not all blackface is created equal.