It is always strange for me when what I’m learning in my film classes manifests itself in some way in current films and pop culture. Today after my Race, Ethnicity and the Hollywood Musicial and a discussion about the use and meanings of blackface, I went to Entertainment Weekly online and read this preview of Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort, Tropic Thunder (opening August 15).
The film, directed and co-written by Stiller and starring Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr., is an epic comedy about the production of a Vietnam Era film.
Downey, pictured in the center, plays Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar winning actor cast in the role Sgt. Osiris.
From EW.com “Problem is, Lazarus’s character, Sgt. Osiris, was originally written as black. So Lazarus decides to dye his skin and play Osiris, um, authentically. Funny? Sure. Dangerous? That’s an understatement. ”If it’s done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago,” Downey says. ”If you don’t do it right, we’re going to hell.” [..]
The question is: Can this satire not only be a box office hit but not be a read an offensive portrayal of African Americans?
Stiller says: ”I was trying to push it as far as you can within reality. ‘I had no idea how people would respond to it.” (When a rough cut of the film was screened, it scored high with African-Americans.)
And Downey says: ”At the end of the day, it’s always about how well you commit to the character. ‘I dove in with both feet. If I didn’t feel it was morally sound, or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I’m just C. Thomas Howell in [Soul Man], I would’ve stayed home.” [Source]
The bottom line: Satire, when it’s done right, can be the most effective way to make a point. Tropic Thunder is not necessarily making a statement about blackface (see Spike Lee’s Bamboozled), but it is definitely making a statement about Hollywood and those who make moveis. I’m most interested in seeing how more people, other than a sample audience, respond to Tropic Thunder.
The trailer for Tropic Thunder debuts online March 17.