Tropic Thunder: The Joke’s On Who?

So last week when Tropic Thunder opened there was a controversy over Robert Downey Jr.’s use of the word “retard” in the script (and I think some really disgusting mockery of people with disabilities in the film).  The film’s opening night was met with about 200 protesters at the premiere. This did not stop the film from grossing over $25 million it’s opening weekend.

While I support the  critique of the way people with disabilities are treated in American comedy and the way so much of our language is infused with references of disability and usually as a joke(retard, lame, riding the short bus, etc.)

But what’s interesting about this film is that there is seemingly no lack of discussion or outrage at the racial blackface and portrayal of Asians (i.e. Vietnamese) in this movie. Here’s the trailer:

Though I have not seen the movie, the synopsis from IMDB pretty much tells me exactly everything I need to know. So the film, written by Ben Stiller, is about a group of Hollywood actors (and one rapper-turned-actor) making a Vietnam War flick, which they will do on location in the jungles of Vietnam.

The film is supposed to be a spoof of how these blockbuster films get made, complete with archetypes of Hollywood actors. Robert Downey, Jr. plays the “artist/actor”–the Academy Award winning actor who is so dedicated to this film, he undergoes an operation to turn his skin brown, since the character he wants to play is written for a Black actor.  From the trailer, the scene with him practicing his “black” accent is right out of an old vaudville/minstrel act. Is this making fun of “actor’s actor” or is it making fun of how Black people supposedly talk–so convoluted and full of malapropisms that it is difficult even for the “actor’s actor” to mimick? What is really getting the laugh?

Furthermore, the actors get to the jungle, and think they’re shooting a film, only to find out that they are really at war with some guerrila Vietnamese  heroin growing/smuggling gang, who mistakes the actors for DEA agents. One actor is ultimately captured by the gang, of course called “The Dragons,” led by, according to the synopsis on IMDB, a “prepubescent” boy. The actor is later recognized by the gang as an actor, and is forced to act out one of his most famous films over and over. He even attracts a “son”, a young gang member who becomes infatuated with him. Is the joke on the actors, or Asians who are continually infantilized in white supremacist imagery–and yet at the same time, are threatening and can be prone to violence?

The last turn of events is with the rapper-turned-actor, who is shown early in the film (I think the opening scene to boot) promoting “Booty Sweat” energy drink and “Bust-A-Nut” candy bar, while performing his hit song, “I Love Tha’ Pussy”. After this overt performance of Black male hypersexuality, it is later revealed that he is gay. With the hip-hop persona as the backdrop, the “down-low” framework isn’t too far behind. Is homophobia and misogyny indicted in this portrayal, or are stereotypes about Black covert and overt sexuality reinforced as a punchline pretending to be satire?

There are other acts of violence that happen to the “The Dragons” as the “heros” escape them, make a movie, and ultimately win Academy Awards.

Many people will want to say well they “go after everybody” and I obviously “don’t get it.” But “going after everybody” doesn’t make it OK, and if it is satire, and it doesn’t push past the narratives enough to render them powerless, then it is actually just plain ole’ minstrelsy.

9 thoughts on “Tropic Thunder: The Joke’s On Who?

  1. …the dragons? really? christ. i wasn’t too thrilled with the commercials, it looked like it was trying way too hard to be “edgy”. it seems like a waste of money.

  2. I really do think you need to see the film before critiquig it. I had my doubts but Downey Jr’s blackface is constantly brought up and criticised, particularly by the rapper turned actor in the film. It’s a source of tension for the two and I think is in part showing how blacks feel when our culture is misappropriated. Furthermore, because you haven’t seen the actual film, you’re missing the crucial plot twist with the film winning its Academy Awards. It turns out it’s a movie about a movie about a movie. Everything was fake and the rapper actually isn’t on the down-low at all, seen embracing his lover Lance Bass. So again, please see the film before passing so much judgment. The film does have a few issues, but many of the things you bring up aren’t as valid because you haven’t experienced the film.

  3. Ummm…my background is in theatre, actually. I understand very well the nature of satire. But everything can’t be dismissed as a satire, and if you read the last paragraph of the critique, you’d understand that I expected for people to say that I “just don’t get it.” The problem is, I get it too well.

  4. based on only having seen trailers, I agree with you. I have no reason to believe that ben Stiller of all people is able to handle the subject matter in a non racist way. but, I’m really looking forward to your take after you see the film.

  5. Pingback: one last post on tropic thunder « cripchick’s weblog

  6. Why not watch it before calling it out for its racial undertones? I think you are spot on with the disabled commentary, however, the imbd guide is not enough to conclude that the movie was inherently racist.

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