Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tropic Thunder, Roberty Downey Jr. & The Legacy of Blackface

So walking to work a few days ago I saw a billboard for Ben Stiller’s new flick Tropic Thunder (release date August 13th), TV ads were also running non-stop all weekend. The media blitz has officially begun. A lot of the buzz surrounding the film is around Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in blackface as Kirk Lazarus/Sgt. Osiris. The film is supposed to be spoof on the Vietnam War movie genre (think Platoon and Apocalypse Now) and a satire about egomaniacal movie starts.

The first pictures of Downey in blackface surfaced in the March 14, 2008 issue of Entertainment Weekly, and the response has been fascinating to say the least. Most folks are rationalizing his performance by focusing on the fact that it’s Robert Downey Jr. (a REAL actor) and that it’s satire. A more interesting conversation taking place in blogs and on message boards is actually revolving around the idea that playing a different race is how you prove you’ve got chops as an actor. References to fellow cast member Jack Black who donned blackface in Be Kind Rewind and a bi-racial semi-afro’d Angelina Jolie in A Might Heart, abound to support the claim that blackface isn’t about being offensive, it’s about taking an artistic risk. Is playing Black going to be the new “gay for pay” road to critical acclaim?

I have extremely mixed feelings about the concept. I think that the film is actually a great satire on how far actors are willing to go for a role. Thing of all the insane things that actors put their bodies through for a role (think Robert Deniro in Raging Bull or Christian Bale in The Machinist), taken to the extreme what is to stop an actor from “undergoing a controversial procedure” to darken his skin to play the role “more authentically?” I feel, however, that rather than chops, what Downey is displaying is slight hubris. Clearly, Downey has balls for taking a role where he has to act in blackface, but are we expected to ignore the painful history of minstrelsy, blackface, and brownface in American cinema in order to give him, and ultimately Stiller, their dues?

I guess I’ll have to wait until August 13th to find out.

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