What the blackface! That is what I said to my wife a couple of months back as we passed a promotional poster for DreamWorks’s much anticipated movie, Tropic Thunder. The poster was the image of Hollywood drug addict turned media darling Robert Downey, Jr., (Ironman) in what looked like blackface. What were they thinking? As a black man, my instinct was to be offended by even the notion of a movie, comedy or not, where the white lead character is made up to look like a black man. It was all just a little too Al Jolson-esque (Jazz Singer) for me and was likely to spur America-hasn’t-changed conversations around the dinner table of many African American families. Had I obeyed my initial instinct to boycott the movie, I would have missed out on one of the best movies of the year.
The film is a farcical tale of five actors who, while producing a Vietnam War film, are left to fend for themselves in jungle by the director of the film, Steve Coogan (Hamlet 2), as an attempt to elicit authentic acting of from them. (Tugg Speedman – Ben Stiller, Kirk Lazarus – Downey, Jr., Jeff Portnoy – Jack Black, Alpha Chino – Brandon T. Jackson (This Christmas), and Kevin Sandusky – Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up)) During the movie, the actors discover that they are no longer acting, but rather trying to survive in the jungle after being discovered by heroin smugglers. Decent plotline right?? Wrong. Enter the “Black Crusaders.” As Tracy Morgan’s character on NBC’s 30 Rock explains:
The Black Crusaders are a secret group of powerful black Americans. Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey are the chief majors. But Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell and Gordon from “Sesame Street,” they’re members too. And they meet four times a year in the skull of the Statue of Liberty. You can read about that on the interweb!
This fictional organization is dedicated to preventing negative stereotypes of blacks in Hollywood.
However, throughout America, there are wannabe Black Crusaders who seek attention by rousing up black people about anything having to do with race. Comedic expression, or patently satirical looks at Hollywood escape their comprehension. All they see is racism.
It seems like the Flack Crusaders got an early a start on Tropic Thunder. There was a groundswell of condemnation of the film as racist even before Poptimal’s advance screening of the movie three weeks before the movie opened. There were cries for apologies from DreamWorks and yes . . . even talk of a 1960’s civil rights style boycott. Again, all of this before the movie even debuted.
It is obvious, even by the most casual of observers, that Tropic Thunder is a biting and satirical commentary on Hollywood actors, studio executives, and agents. It is a gross exaggeration about how silly and self-involved people in Hollywood can be. This is established right off the bat by movie’s opening fake trailers. The trailers show each of five lead actors in the most ridiculous light imaginable. Whether its a rap video pushing an energy drink with the chorus line “I love the P****,” the forbidden and timeless love between a monk and an alter-boy, or the seemingly endless sequels of action movies, these fake trailers set the immediate tone that Hollywood is the butt of the movie’s jokes, not any ethnic or other minority group (link to story on mentally disabled). Robert Downey, Jr. plays a serious Oscar caliber Australian actor who is known for going to extremes to become the characters he plays. When he decides to play the role of a black soldier what is the most extreme thing he can do . . . yup get skin pigmentation surgery to make his skin darker. It is silly, its over the top, and it is ridiculous. But what it is not, is racist. Anyone who says otherwise, is just looking for a fight, or to get attention.
Poptimal will be the first to advocate for an individual’s right to criticize pop culture phenomena such as movies and TV. In fact, we are sure that down the road we will have an opportunity to call a film or TV show racist, or otherwise insensitive. But our readers can rest assured that we will do so only after actually viewing the offensive content, which is more than we can say for the Black Crusaders. It would be a shame if America where to miss superb and hilarious performances by Tom Cruise, Robert Downey, Jr., and Brandon T. Jackson (a young black actor) because of what they heard from a collection of people who did not even bother to see the film.
If we are going to criticize Robert Downey, Jr., here are some other past Hollywood leading actors we should criticize for wearing blackface:
- Al Jolson, Jazz Singer
- Fred Astaire, Swingtime
- Mickey Rooney, Babes on Broadway
- Judy Garland , Babes on Broadway
- Bing Crosby, Holiday Inn
- Gene Wilder, Silver Streak (being prompted by Richard Pryor)
- Dan Aykroyd, Trading Places (co-staring with Eddie Murphy)
- C. Thomas Howell, Soul Man
We suggest that you shake these haters off and go see the film. Decide for yourself. And then come back and tell Poptimal what you think of the movie.
The views expressed in this article are that of the editor may not reflect the views of the Featured Writers.