Perhaps some of you have been following the controversy surrounding the film "Tropic Thunder." And it's not as if the cast and film crew were unaware that their work would raise some eyebrows, as their omnipresent media campaigning demonstrates. Robert Downey Jr's role as a white actor who dyes his skin to play a black soldier is discussed in just about every interview and set piece on the film that I've seen, with each focusing on how the point of the film is to mock Hollywood, not offend "real" people. And, given what I've seen of the film's reviews, their strategy seems to have worked. Stiller is given much credit for an entertaining film that turns Hollywood pompousness on its head, and Downey earns raves for following his Iron Man success with an iron-jawed, intentionally self-absorbed caricature. So, why is there so much controversy? Probably because the filmmakers and reviewers all anticipated the wrong controversy, and this error in judgment tells us a lot about the current state of identity politics and cultural politicking today.
The controversy currently placing a damper on "Tropic Thunder's" box-office roar has come not from groups protesting Downey's cross-racial performance, but from Disability Rights groups decrying a running gag in the film having to do with Ben Stiller's character, Tugg Speedman, portraying yet another character called "Simple Jack," referred to throughout the film as "retard." Downey's portrayal of a black man is not even close on the over-the-top scale to Stiller's characterization of Simple Jack, a distinction which itself is joked about in the film. But the film's internal self-awareness of mocking caricatures seemingly has not found its way off the screen. The cast and crew of Tropic Thunder appear entirely unprepared for the amount of controversy the Simple Jack character has attracted. And it is this lack of preparedness that I find most revealing, particularly when stood next to the efforts the cast and crew put into defending Downey's character.
Full disclosure: I've already seen the film, and both laughed and cringed. The movie does indeed try to push many boundaries in its broadly painted humor, although it does have a tendency to lay down the artist's brush in favor of an industrial-sized spray gun. But I don't intend here to write a review of the film, but to comment on the commentary about the film. What I find most interesting are not so much the jokes in the film, but the ways in which those jokes are accounted for in the discourse about the film, particularly in the publicized statements made by the cast, crew, and others involved in the film's production.
Let's start with the discourse surrounding Downey's character, Kirk Lazarus. In the film, several scenes are devoted to Lazarus's embattled relationship with fellow actor, Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson). Chino is a person of color, whereas Lazarus is playing a person of color. Much of the dialog between the two consists of Chino mocking Lazarus's inauthentic, stereotypical portrayal of a black man, and Lazarus -- harldly ever breaking character -- questioning Chino's inability to accept him as a fellow black man. Chino makes a handful of jokes pointing out that he is the only "real" black man in the film, which Downey's character, to comic effect, treats as personal slights. I read the overall thrust of these scenes as attempts to establish notions of authentic and inauthentic black-ness, which provide the audience with a guide to and excuse for laughing at Downey's performance. These scenes map out the means by which the audience should interpret Lazarus as "funny" rather than "offensive." The presence of Jackson's character, in other words, provides a notion of black-ness against which Downey's character can be identified clearly as inappropriate, excessive, and worthy of mockery (and the actor himself can also be both excused and applauded for this performance). Downey's character simply cannot be taken seriously because there is a "real" black man on the screen, continually pointing out the farce for the audience.
Interestingly, this dynamic of authenticity and inauthenticity extends beyond the film itself. In an Entertainment Weekly interview with the film's three stars (Stiller, Downey, and Jack Black), co-star Brandon Jackson's authenticity as a black man is again referenced, this time in an appreciative sense for having helped the other, white cast members avoid a potential incident. The interviewer notes that, "Your costar Brandon T. Jackson told me there was a scene in the script where Osiris [Downey's character-in-a-character] uses the N-word and that he said it went over the line." To which Downey responds, "Brandon might have saved the movie that day." Stiller adds, "For sure. We were rehearsing in Hawaii and we got to that scene and I said to him, 'What do you think of this?' Brandon said, 'This feels wrong.'" It is worth noting that Jackson is not included in the interview, only referenced. His absence adds to his authentic status, however, as it is his perspective as a person of color which is given credit for having drawn the line between offensive and inoffensive, keeping the film close to line but from crossing over it. Put more pointedly, the cast in their interview employ Jackson's black-ness in the same way the film employs Chino's black-ness: as an authentic corrective for Downey's performance and Stiller's direction. Both on the screen and off, the idea is presented that the film really is only kidding around in its portrayal of race. We are not to take Downey's character seriously because Jackson is held out to be an authentic counterpoint to any questions about racial insensitivity; Downey's performance received Jackson's tacit benediction, so everything is a-ok there. To suggest otherwise, it is implied, would be to try to substitute our judgment for Jackson's, and who are we to do that, after all, especially as it has been proven that these talented filmmakers were unwilling to step across such a boundary? To be sure, Jackson's character receives his own fair share of controversial mockery, but it is the way in which the racial authenticity and authority of the character Chino and the actor Jackson are used in the film and in interviews that demonstrate both how concerned the filmmakers were with avoiding this controversy, and how they could be blindsided by the protest they actually walked in to regarding Simple Jack.
When viewed in the context of the Lazarus-Chino/Downey-Jackson dynamics, the blind spot seems ironically obvious. There is no cinematic or interview counterpart for the controversial Stiller character of Simple Jack. And it is this lack of a discursive counter-perspective that opens up the film for attack and has left the cast and crew still struggling to find a way to express themselves. Regarding the protests of the film's portrayal of disabled persons and the frequent use of the word "retard," Stiller had only this to say in a recent interview, "I did not set out to offend anybody, but sometimes, when you are making an R-rated comedy, that happens.” Stiller's unapologetic apology seems a bit flat, and for good reason. Without the benefit of a counter-narrative or counter-part to Jackson's presumptive authority, Stiller can draw his authenticity only from his own personal intentions as an artist (which, one supposes, we're not allowed to question) and from the allusion to the Hollywood process itself (for which his own status provides his credentials). In the same article, Jack Black defends his director/co-star using a similar logic, saying, “The jokes are all in context of what some actors are willing to do to win an Oscar.... That is a longstanding joke in Hollywood — that certain types of roles, like the one joked about in the film, help put you in the minds and eyes of the Academy voters and to what lengths some actors will go to bring one of those gold bad boys home.” Here again, Stiller and Black's own authenticity as Hollywood stars is offered as proof of the innocence of their intent. But the sentiment propelling this logic seems a bit insincere and coercive: Because they get the joke, we shouldn't find it offensive.
Part of the reason why I find such defenses to be lacking in substance is because it is a different -- contradictory, even -- rhetoric than that used to defend Downey's performance. If, as the movie's defenders claim, adults going to an R-rated film will understand it is just Hollywood humor, then why doesn't that same argument apply to all the portrayals in the film, and why was such concern placed over Downey's character? The cast and crew's obliviousness to this difference seems to be what is catching them up in their public statements. Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, put his finger quite pointedly on this contradiction in saying, "it seems to me that the movie tried really hard to go too far and then pull back on everything that was offensive except the issue of people with intellectual disabilities. I just think Ben Stiller and the people involved in this movie just didn’t think it was going to be offensive.” Imparato is not simply accusing the filmmakers of being insensitive, but of being unaware of their own efforts and their implications.
Imparato and others aptly draw our attention to the blind spot in the film's reasoning. In trying so hard to prove that they mean no harm on the issue of race, while soliciting accolades for their willingness to push the proverbial envelope, the filmmakers both ignore the potential harm its myriad other stereotypes may generate amongst the moviegoing public. But I believe this instance itself is merely symptomatic of a greater social trend, which is a general failure for people to connect the dots when it comes to understanding issues of language and identity, rather than simply making gestures toward sympathy. And the symptoms generally present themselves in a similar fashion: someone finds something offensive, the creator of that something claims they didn't mean to offend and the other person simply didn't "get it," and then each side retreats behind walls of personal myopia. The difference I see in the Tropic Thunder controversy is that the filmmakers knew they were going to encounter some resistance because they were trying to amplify stereotypes in an effort to create humor. And I don't fault them for that, as it has been a tried and true method both for generating laughs and for spinning the mirror back on those of us in the audience. But where I see the potential for even greater misunderstanding to come forward is in the filmmakers' beliefs that only some of their caricatures need to be defended or mitigated, and the rest are simply good-natured humor; a belief that only certain kinds of representations are worthy of mitigation, whereas others need no consideration. The filmmakers seem to want to mock everyone, but apologize only to a few. This hypocrisy -- intentional or not -- demonstrates not only an inability to connect the dots of language and culture, but also an inability to even recognize why language specifically designed to humorously alienate as many people as possible might have actually offended more than just the few they anticipated. The controversy and the cast and crews' response to it calls into question their stated defense, which is that they did not intend their use of stereotypes to offend anyone. What is demonstrated most specifically, however, is that the filmmakers seemed to be able to write stereotypes into a film but not understand their meaning outside of the film. Their position is that we are supposed to appreciate their humor, while they should be excused from understanding their audience's outrage.
In the beginning of the interview I cited earlier, the journalist comments that Downey began the session by ingesting several herbal supplements and then lighting up a cigarette. Stiller, upon seeing this, reportedly asks Downey, "Do you see the contradictions?" At least they're trying. Maybe there's hope, yet, for both the filmmakers and we in the audience, because this controversy has already revealed much about the ways in which attitudes toward identity politics are all too often a matter of staging defensive politicking, and of doing a somewhat lousy job of it, at that. While it certainly is nothing new to say that both Hollywood movies and political interest groups can take things too far, it is discouraging to see, in this instance, the lack of awareness played out so obviously in the media reports, particularly in the statements by those who say they are offended by other people being offended(!). I certainly hope Tropic Thunder, among other things, provides an occasion for us all to see more clearly and deeply the connections between thought, word, action, and feeling -- and to be a bit more respectful in our treatment of each. Defensive politicking may be a necessary element for public figures in the media age, but one certainly hopes to see an increase in the self-awareness necessary to elevating their efforts into something more productive and beneficial.