Preview: Tropic Thunder

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 “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.

4 thoughts on “Preview: Tropic Thunder”

  1. At first I didn’t believe it when it said Robert Downey Jr. was the guy in the middle. I think this has potential to blow up in their faces.

    Have you seen the “Show Boat” version with Irene Dunne? There’s a blackface section that’s really repulsive.

  2. No, I haven’t seen “Show Boat”

    Since I’ve been in this class, I’m gaining a whole new perspective of blackface. Like most people, I’ve only ever seen it as offensive. But now, I’m beginning to see its cultural significance, how audiences accept blackface as an acceptable part of the narrative, and even a certain tongue-and-cheek attitude about blackface.

    As for Tropic Thunder, I agree that it has the potential to be a complete disaster but I’m definitely interested in seeing it… right now.

  3. One of the other writers on Highbrid Nation wrote about Robert Downy playing a black man in Tropical Thunder. He worries that Al Sharpton might have something to say about it, lol. Honestly as a black person I think it’s kinda cool that movie make-up has gotten to the point where you can make someone look like another race and if the pics I’ve seen of Robert Downy in costume are accurate than they did a really good job! Plus Robert is a very capable actor so I’m sure he wont come across as stereo typical or offensive. I could be wrong though.

  4. Thanks for posting that article! I completely agree. Robert Downey looks great. He is a completely capable actor and he will, without a doubt, be great at the part.

    How this movie is received (and not just what Al Sharpton thinks) should be interesting.

    What I’m curious about though, is are audiences going to be more accepting because of how it is being worked into the narrative? Downey plays a white actor who dyes his skin to play black soldier. It not as though he is playing a black soldier throughout the film (which might be seen as worse). But that is also where the film’s satire comes into play because Downey’s character (while in character) attempts to connect with the other black actors on the film set. I just think it is interesting how audiences rationalize what they see onscreen (like I just did) as either good or bad.

    Wow. The more I discuss and think about Tropic Thunder the more I want to see it. Like I really want to see it asap.

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