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Is ‘Tropic Thunder’ the Only Blackface Performance That’s Funny to Black Men?

A roundtable that attempts to answer the question of a million tweets: Is the 2008 Ben Stiller-Robert Downey Jr. comedy racist, or nah?

Tropic Thunder is a pretty perfect example of what people online like to claim is a movie you couldn’t make today. The 2008 film about the production of a Vietnam War epic is rife with Asian stereotypes that don’t just border on offensiveness — they jump over the line into downright racism. There’s also Tom Cruise’s version of anti-Semitism dressed up as an inside Hollywood send-up of Harvey Weinstein. Not to mention, Ben Stiller’s slap-to-the-face portrayal of Simple Jack, a developmentally-delayed fictional hero. And then, of course, there’s Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Kirk Lazarus, a self-obsessed, Oscar-winning white Australian actor, who undergoes surgery to have his skin darkened to play the role of a Black sergeant. Downey performs in blackface, along with a matching stereotyped voice, for a full two-thirds of the film. 

Downey’s character is so committed to his blackface bit, like all his roles, that he doesn’t “drop character until I do the DVD commentary.” To wit: At one point, Downey ad-libs dialogue based on his character’s backstory, “Y’all might be in for a treat. Y’know, back before the war broke out, I was a saucier in San Anton’. I bet I could collar us some of them greens, yeah; pull us some crawfish out the paddy, yeah; I could make us some crabapples for dessert, now. Ya’hear! Hey-ya!” 

It’s left to another character, played by Brandon T. Jackson (who is actually Black), to call Downey out. “‘Hey-ya, ha!’ That’s how we all talk — we all talk like this, ‘Suh,’ ‘yessuh,’ ‘ha,’ ‘yeah,’ ‘Mhmm, gonna get me some crawfish and some ribs, a-ha, yeah!’” Jackson shouts at Downey, before reminding the actor who he really is: “You’re Australian! Be Australian!”

This constant tension over authentic lived Blackness versus Downey’s surgically-altered version of blackface is threaded throughout the film as if to serve as commentary. But Stiller, the writer-director-star of the film, is not Black. Which helps to explain why he credits Downey Jr. for “pulling off” a truly offensive premise for a joke. “I give all the credit to Robert,” Stiller said at the time to CNN. “I felt he really was so committed to that character, the guy that was playing that guy, that as an audience you bought his sincerity. Very few people, I think, could pull that off.”

For his part, Downey Jr. has said he thought the blackface was okay because it clearly wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, since the whole movie is over-the-top. In an interview with Variety, he explained, “When I thought about how Jack Black was going to be strapped naked to an ass and tripping on dope the entire time, it suddenly all felt okay. Besides, everyone who read the script thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever read.”

He added to CNN, “To me, the most important thing was Alpha Chino [Jackson’s character] has to give him a beat down and tell him that what he’s doing is crazy the whole time. Otherwise it’s just demeaning to Brandon’s character. And if it’s demeaning to an actual Black man in the movie … I would have run for the hills.”

Downey Jr. hasn’t really changed his tune in the ensuing years either. Last year, he returned to the subject when he was a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience, telling the host that 90 percent of his Black friends “were like, ‘Yo, this is great.’” As for that other 10 percent? “Welp, you know… I can’t disagree with them,” he said. “But I know where my heart was.”  

So, what’s the deal: Is Tropic Thunder a brave form of comedic truth telling that we just don’t see made any more? Is it a racist film, but one that attempted something good and pure but failed to live up to the premise? Or is it straight-up foul and can’t be redeemed from its use of blackface, anti-Asian stereotypes, and of course, jokes made at the expense of developmentally-delayed people? 

Basically, is Tropic Thunder racist, or nah?

To consider these questions from multiple POVs, I gathered a roundtable of Black men from different generations and different regions (including my pops) and asked them to chop it up and contemplate these questions as deeply as they could.

* * * * *

Did you think Tropic Thunder was funny?

Michael Collett, designer, 35: Not in the slightest.

Jameel Raeburn, writer/podcast host, 31: I’m ashamed to say that I absolutely found the movie funny, but I’d like to let everyone know that I was 18 at the time. Honestly, though, I’d probably still find a couple moments of the movie funny.

Dave Schilling, writer/podcast host, 37: Yes, at the time, I loved the movie. I think I probably still like it now.

Carlos Walker, artist, age not given but a Gen Xer: I thought it was corny. It may have had a moment or two, but nothing hit.

Zaron “Pop” Burnett, writer, 70: No, I don’t get what was funny. It was extremely interesting, and there were some funny moments, but I wouldn’t call it funny by any stretch.

Did you think it’s racist?

Raeburn: Yes.

Schilling: No, I think I understood the joke with Robert Downey Jr.’s character, even if it simply wouldn’t fly today.

Pop: No, I didn’t. It was a very interesting use of race, because Robert Downey Jr. was totally committed to being the Black person he thought that he was playing, and the Black actor pointed out to him that he was doing a very shallow stereotype. And as hard as he worked at it, all he could assert from the outside was a shallow stereotype. I thought that was an important statement. 

Walker: Yes. What Black man sounds anything like that? I mean, yes, we do have our own vernacular but that isn’t it. 

Collett: This movie is so racist in so many ways, it’s hard to keep up. Robert Downey Jr.’s full-on blackface does a lot of work covering up the pervasive and elementary orientalism of the entire premise and the rank anti-Semetic caricature of whatever Tom Cruise is doing. Even the actual Black character is a fuckin’ racist premise. It’s kinda amazing.

How did the blackface joke/trope play for you? Was it funny?

Collett: Not even once. It was bad the whole way through. 

Schilling: I was more receptive to the joke at the time, because firstly, it was parodying Hollywood’s obsession with a certain stereotype of Blackness, and two, because Robert Downey’s father was one of the great patrons of Black filmmakers and actors in his heyday as the director of Putney Swope. It felt like a well-considered bit of satire.

Raeburn: Conflicting, knowing that the act of blackface was racist but as a lover of comedy knowing that it managed to stay funny without stepping into a completely over-the-top, minstrel show. Mannerisms were used, but never stepping beyond the line of being offensive or being a full-blown caricature. The idea of the character was enough, the mannerisms sprinkled in enough to sell it, but they never went past a certain line. So yes, I found it funny — especially the scenes playing off of Brandon T. Jackson.

Pop: I didn’t think it was as much of a joke as it was an expression of a presumptive confusion. One of the conventional wisdoms is that when people become liberal, or think they’re progressive, they think they understand Black people. And they think their understanding of us extends to a point where they can argue with Black people about things Black people do. And so, I thought they hit that right on the head. The movie exposes that arrogant level of presumption without doing a lecture on it. It’s just in there. 

Walker: No, it’s never funny. Because people never understand what that type of joke means to us. Kind of like Lil Nas. He made a video about being in prison, and it was like making a statement that all men in prison, especially Black men, are gay. That has been a stereotype for decades, and it still carries weight even though it’s far from true, and this is what we as a people have had to live with when it comes to blackface.

Is there another blackface performance you have ever found funny?

Schilling: Does Tommy Davidson in Bamboozled count? If not, no.

Pop: Stormy Weather. In it, there were two Black comedians who put on blackface. They come out and they talk, and they were funny doing it — because they started out Black and they put on the blackface. It was one of the actual conventions that were commonly used among comedians of their day, so it wasn’t really offensive to anyone at that time.

Raeburn: Nope. Most are pretty offensive.

Collett: To be honest, this is the longest I’ve ever subjected myself to blackface. It’s usually an instant-off for anything I see it in. 

Walker: I will never, and have never — because of its significance as to how we’re looked at as lazy and watermelon-eating. All of that is because of the blackface tropes from back in the day.

Did Downey Jr. in blackface qualify as commentary on the history of blackface?

Schilling: Yes, he made a skillful point about appropriation, cultural erasure and the ways opportunistic creatives use blackness as a means to further their careers. The fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for the performance is the icing on the cake of that particular joke, proving the film industry didn’t get the joke at all.

Walker: Yes, it did provide commentary, because at the end of the day, blackface is blackface no matter who plays it. I will give him the benefit of the doubt for doing it — and not apologizing for doing so, even though it was lame.

Pop: No, I don’t think it commented on that at all. I thought it may have provoked a discussion of it, and by doing that, it has the opportunity to advance the discussion.

Collett: Unless there’s a PowerPoint after the credits that traces the line between Al Jolson and whatever his character’s name was, I can’t see at all how this remotely qualifies as a commentary on the history of blackface. It’s just another entry, sandwiched in between Ali G, or wherever it falls in the timeline.

Raeburn: I think it qualifies more as commentary of comedy during that period and how much things were allowed to fly, more than commentary on the history of blackface.

Brandon T. Jackson plays Alpha Chino, the rapper turned actor. He’s also the sole Black cast member (besides the grip who punches the director), and he calls out Downey Jr. for his acting choices/blackface. Did that provide enough context and self-awareness that it made the point of the satire?

Schilling: I think that it did. Granted, I wish Brandon had a bigger role in the movie, but it was important — and remains important — to have that conversation.

Raeburn: Yes, it did make it worth it. Without Brandon T. Jackson in the film to draw attention to it and bring the context and self-awareness, it would be pretty offensive considering Downey would represent the only Black figure in the cast.

Collett: The Alpha Chino character is racist as fuck, too, though. The out-of-touch rapper, surrounded by an ignorant entourage who’s secretly gay? I know this movie is old enough for a work permit at this point, but that wasn’t a particularly sharp observation in the first Obama administration either.

Walker: They tried to call it out and that’s what makes it a tad bit durable, but at the end of the day, it still landed as a bad joke.

Pop: It’s a complicated question, because the reason blackface was insulting is because the white people who stole it from Black people stole it while Black people were still enslaved. They were claiming that we were animals, but then taking everything from us, including our blackness. I mean, they claimed everything — all the cooking we did, all the medicine we found, all the music we made — despite also claiming that we were inferior people. 

So when they started performing in blackface, it couldn’t be seen as anything other than theft and ridicule, as opposed to the way it was used by Black comedians like Bert Williams at that time. He’d throw on blackface all the time. And he never made a comment about it. His audience expected him to be in blackface. That was the humor Black people came to the theater desiring to hear. But if that same comedian on stage was a white person who did their act in blackface — a la Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor — they weren’t doing the same thing. They were just doing what they heard Bert Williams do. 

In the 1980s, Ben Vereen did a tribute to Bert Williams, and he did it in blackface. A lot of Black people got mad at him, because they didn’t know the history of Bert Williams. All they knew was that blackface was offensive. But they had no idea that Al Jolson had stolen it from Black performers, because there were Black performers all over the country performing in blackface in front of Black audiences. Those white comedians took Bert Williams’ act, his blackness, and did it themselves. That was disrespectful. They used our blackness to demean the very people that they stole it from.

Would you feel comfortable watching the movie in a room of only Black people? Would you feel comfortable watching it in a room of mixed ethnicities and races?

Walker: It would make me uncomfortable looking at it with a bunch of white people or other races because of the unwarranted humor.

Collett: I wouldn’t feel comfortable watching this movie around anyone. People I know would think less of me if I put this on. This is bad in a way that will color my experience of the work of everyone in it for the rest of my days. Not that I cared for Ben Stiller or Jack Black particularly beforehand, but I definitely feel like my jaundiced opinion of their work was warranted now. As for Downey, sheesh. I thought he was supposed to be sober after Chaplin, but someone around him must have been off that pure white to have thought this blackface thing was a good idea. 

Raeburn: I would feel comfortable watching this movie in a room of only Black people because a lot of our generation, especially via social media, try to find the humor in things that may be offensive. I would absolutely not feel comfortable watching it in a room full of mixed ethnicities and races though. I probably wouldn’t laugh. Other races finding any bit of blackface funny completely sucks the funny away from me. I don’t know where their intentions lie.

Pop: If it was a room full of all Black people, I’d likely piss them off with the discussion. Because most typically, they’d have a negative position from the start because it was a white director — like, “What do you know? What do you know?” as opposed to having an open mind and saying, “Let me see what this white boy’s talking about.” If they have to insist on taking everything as a racial thing, I’d eventually make them mad by arguing that this country is ours, too. That said, I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one Black person in a room full of white people watching it.

In the film, Downey Jr. (in)famously tells Stiller to “never go full retard.” What did you think about that joke?

Schilling: I found it incredibly funny when I was a college-aged man with no connection to that community. A lot of people thought that was a perfectly acceptable word to use in the early 2000s. Now that I’m older, and hopefully, more empathetic, I can see how unnecessary and hurtful that word is. So I wish it wasn’t in the movie. That includes the whole Simple Jack thing. It was clear where the joke was aimed — at actors who put on the trappings of marginalized people in cartoonish performances for awards attention. But it was done in a way where the film kind of had it both ways — mocking the target and getting laughs from mocking people with developmental issues.

Collett: The joke? Or the extended acting like an abled person’s worst caricature of a developmentally disabled person, which Stiller does on multiple occasions? Because they’re both really, really bad. 

Raeburn: While I understood what he meant, it’s in poor taste to use that word. Not even as an 18-year-old did I think that word was appropriate.

Walker: I understood the meaning when he called out the other characters. But at the same time, the humor was dry and landed on deaf ears.

Pop: Yes, I was offended. I’m offended on behalf of the people I know and love who have children who are challenged, and for all people who have ever been called that.

The line “never go full retard” blatantly involves the r-word, which is hyper-offensive, but in a movie where a character is in blackface, it’s treated as the lesser offense. However, blackface isn’t actual Blackness — it’s an abstraction or performance — whereas being developmentally delayed is a reality. These aren’t equal premises for jokes. Do you think that nuance gets lost in our rush to be offended? Not that we should rate offensiveness per se, but we can make a distinction of types of offensiveness. Blackface is less offensive than r-word jokes, would you agree?

Collett: I honestly can’t say. The Ben Stiller parts were essentially developmentally-disabled-face, especially when you add in the false teeth and the physical affectations. I don’t think either of them are particularly good premises for jokes.

Schilling: I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on how offensive anything is, because offense is a very personal question. My hope is that in 2021, we do our best to mitigate the negative effects of our behavior as we live in a very harsh, thoughtless world that lacks empathy. I can see very clearly why people with developmental delays would hate that line, and it would have been easy to make that point without using that word.

Raeburn: As a society, we’re comparing a lot of ideas of what can be construed as offensive or not based on old standards and what was allowed before. But it’s important that to grow as a society we understand what may be deemed offensive by other groups of people and then, together, move forward. There are people who felt like segregation was the way to go in the 1960s, but in the 2020s we see how flawed and detrimental that system was. We’re constantly evolving, and society should evolve as well to note that neither term is more offensive than the other, they’re just flat-out offensive to whomever they target.

Walker: When I watched the movie and they said something about being handicapped, I thought damn, but that’s the part in me that’s seen how we’re treated and want to sympathize with everyone else. I disagree with the idea that the r-word jokes are more offensive, though. I can see where you may feel that that’s more offensive, but let’s look at it this way: I’d say as a Black man that nothing is more offensive than to disrespect being Black. They have never been enslaved, hung, burned, had their penis and other body parts encased in glass jars for souvenirs, put through Jim Crow or mass incarcerated. So, for me, Blackface and how we’re portrayed is way worse.

Pop: It’s not an abstraction. The way blackface is an abstraction, “retard” is not an abstraction. There are different questions to consider: Is all blackface offensive, or is blackface just offensive when it’s not a Black person doing it? And is there a time for it, or should people just retire it altogether and recognize the historicity of it and reference it but never show it again? But with developmental disability, all you can do is find a way to thrive and live a better life than what was set out for you by misfortune. You can change your position on blackface, two or three times, but your position on prejudice against developmentally-delayed people can’t really change. There’s no joke to be made.