Slate movie critic Dana Stevens was online at Washingtpost.com to take readers’ questions and comments about the potentially offensive elements of Tropic Thunder, such as blackface and “retard” jokes. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Dana Stevens: Hi, this is Dana Stevens, Slate’s movie critic, logging on to discuss Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder and topics related thereto. Anybody out there?
St. Mary’s City, Md.: While I haven’t seen Tropic Thunder, I know that Ben Stiller tends to push satire to absurdist extremes. When I first heard about the controversy, I suspected right away that the real target of Stiller’s “retard” language was, in Ann Hornaday’s words, “overweening, ambitious actors who take roles as physically and mentally challenged characters because they’re proven Oscar-bait.”
So do the protesters not understand that they are not Stiller’s target? Do they understand the satire, but worry that moviegoers will not? If it’s the latter, they may have a point, given that Archie Bunker became a hero to reactionaries who didn’t understand that their attitudes were being condemned. Or are the protesters simply reacting emotionally to the words used regardless of the context? Perhaps instead of condemning Stiller, the protesters should instead condemn the moviemakers who exploit disabilities for sentimentality while pretending to promote awareness about them.
Dana Stevens: There are a couple of points I want to address in your question. The first is that, like many of the groups protesting against it, you haven’t yet seen the movie—perfectly understandable as it only opened yesterday. You hold the view that the movie’s use of what advocacy groups are calling “the R-word” isn’t targeting people with disabilities; they hold the view that it is. But if the discussion is to go forward, shouldn’t everyone at least be willing to see the movie with an open mind toward the other side?
You also say, rightly I think, that words, even potentially explosive words, can’t be understood out of the context in which they occur. Satire is a notoriously difficult thing to police.
Kansas City, Mo.: Do you find that there is any kind of a generational divide in the use of “retard” as an insult? I have noticed that kids/teens/twentysomethings seem to use it less than older people, although younger people use “gay” in its place—”that’s so gay” instead of “that’s retarded.”
Dana Stevens: I don’t know how they’re being used by kids now, but unfortunately both these insults sound pretty timeless to me. I remember both of them being tossed around in my 1970s-era schoolyard. And both terms—which function by implying that the object of your scorn is as lowly as someone belonging to one of these categories—are demeaning and hateful things that kids should be taught not to say. But for what it’s worth, the movie isn’t using the word “retarded” as a simple schoolyard taunt—it’s putting it in the mouths of characters who are self-absorbed and despicable to a comic degree. Which is where we get into the question of context again.
Clinton, Md.: Aside from being offensive, it seems to me that jokes about mental disability or jokes that rely on blackface are just unoriginal. Why aren’t filmmakers willing to try harder than that? Is it because they know they don’t have to?
Dana Stevens: There are a lot of things you could say about Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of a white man playing a black man in this movie, but “unoriginal” is hardly one of them. On the contrary, I thought the movie took a lot of chances in its willingness to tread into the minefield-ridden territory of race relations and the appropriation of black culture by the white mainstream (which happens not only in Hollywood but in the music industry—look at Elvis.)
The “Simple Jack” question (for the uninitiated, that’s the name of a mentally disabled character Ben Stiller plays in a movie within the movie) is a bit more complicated. Apparently the marketers of the movie were very aware of potential offense to black audiences but failed to anticipate the outcry from the disability community. One thing they have now done is pull some material, like a fake trailer for the movie “Simple Jack,” from their website. I wasn’t personally offended by the Simple Jack subplot—Hollywood’s penchant for sentimentalizing the mentally disabled seems more condescending to me—but I can see how the trailer on its own could be offensive.
Boycott: Do you think that this effort “boycott the film” will backfire and give it more publicity? I agree that the language should not be used in advertising, but boycotts? I’m not so sure.
Dana Stevens: There’s no question that the net result of the calls for boycotts will get more people interested in the movie (as happened with The Passion of the Christ a few years ago). It’s the old “no such thing as bad publicity” effect. I’m all for voting with your feet—if a movie offends you, by all means don’t see it, and stand outside it waving a sign—but this notion of banning individual words or types of representation, along with the legal concept of “hate speech,” worries me a little. The line between hate speech and free speech can get pretty thin.
Laurel, Md.: I’m a black women who’s really not into comedies, but Robert Downey Jr.’s character is the only reason I wanted to see Tropic Thunder in the first place. I can tell he’s being genuine. If he was on some Soul Man-type crap then I’d probably be mad, but he actually looks like a black man. The sneak preview I saw was hilarious, and I’m far from offended.
Dana Stevens: Downey’s remarkable performance is at the heart of what makes this particular aspect of the movie work so well (leaving Simple Jack and his problems aside for the moment). It is, quite literally, soulful, and lovingly indebted to black actors of the past (like Richard Roundtree of the Shaft movies) without being a minstrel-style race caricature. This isn’t just due to Downey, but to the way his part’s been written—it’s complexly satirical, not just “Ha ha, look at the dude in blackface.”
I’m following up your question with one from another black viewer who was annoyed by the movie, or at least the idea of it:
Durham, N.C.: I still don’t get it. I understand that Robert Downey Jr. is excellent (I have thought so, for a long time). I don’t understand in what universe Ben Stiller thought this was okay. After all is said and done, both Stiller and Downey will continue to have “white male privilege.” In the mean time, I have paid them $10 to insult me. As a critique of the industry, the wound is too close. There is a frenzy about Mad Men, when The Wire has been overlooked for years. I hope that Stiller goes out of his way to have a true relationship with black audiences (as well as other folks he has offended). No matter what his intention? This isn’t cool. Stiller has not advanced the conversation.
Dana Stevens: This opens up a really touchy question about representation in the entertainment industry: Do white filmmakers have any right to explore issues of race in their work (in any way other than earnestly plodding drama calculated to offend no one)? Spike Lee used blackface as a form of social commentary in his film Bamboozled; is Ben Stiller out of bounds if he does the same? I’d argue that muzzling discourse on race based on who’s doing the talking doesn’t advance the conversation, either. Before you decide Tropic Thunder is insulting you, see the movie. (If you really can’t bring yourself to enrich Ben Stiller, pay for another movie at the multiplex and sneak in! Not that I’m encouraging such behavior.)
And while it’s true, and depressing, The Wire was unfairly overlooked by the Emmy awards, it was almost universally adored by the critical establishment—here at Slate we all but built a Wire shrine.
Pittsburgh: As someone who has a person with a mental disability in the family, I took no offense to the use of “retard” in the movie. It’s all about context, and anyone with a scintilla of intelligence should be able discern the true target of Stiller’s script was Hollywood. I am aware that a certain portion of the audience will find humor in this segment for the wrong reasons. Should Stiller have “dumbed-down” this part of the movie because a few idiots will find humor in the use of the word alone? Should Les Grossman’s part have been toned down because it plays on stereotypical moviemakers? No. It’s a movie, and those who cannot discern Stiller’s true targets shouldn’t be allowed to censor him.
Dana Stevens: It’s good to hear that not everyone with a personal relationship to someone with a mental disability is automatically offended by the movie. In her review in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis points out that the Les Grossman character that Tom Cruise plays, a grotesque caricature of a vulgar Jewish movie mogul, is arguably the most offensive thing in the movie, amounting to a kind of “Jewface.” Maybe it’s because Stiller himself is Jewish, or maybe it’s just that Tom Cruise was so unexpectedly hilarious in that role, but that one rolled right off my back.
Dana Stevens: Wow, I’ve gone overtime on this chat because there were so many good questions to answer. Sorry I couldn’t get to them all. But before you all go forth to continue this conversation in real life, give the movie a chance, if only for Downey’s performance alone.