15 August 2008

Tropic Thunder Blasted by Disability-Rights Groups

By Terri Mauro

Tropic Thunder, the Ben Stiller comedy opening Wednesday, is being sold as an equal-opportunity offender, the kind of film that has Jack Black making fart jokes and Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. You don't expect a lot of sensitivity from a rowdy R-rated satire on the excesses of Hollywood actors and war movies. But advocates for people with developmental disabilities are accusing the filmmakers of crossing the line between good dirty fun and hate speech.

Disability-rights groups including The Arc, Special Olympics, and the National Down Syndrome Congress are not amused by a subplot involving Stiller's character, an action-movie star who made an unsuccessful stab at Oscar respectability by playing a man with intellectual disabilities in a movie called Simple Jack. Well, we'd say "a man with intellectual disabilities." The film says "retard." A lot. Journalist Patricia E. Bauer, who has been covering the brewing controversy in her Disability News blog, shared this approximate tally after an advance viewing:
Number of repetitions of the word "retard" or its variations: At least 16 in the "full retard" scene alone, not counting the uses of words like "idiot," "moron," "moronical," "imbecile," "stupid," "dumb" and "the dumbest M*****F***** that ever lived." All are used to describe the character of Simple Jack, who is described in an introductory segment as a "mentally impaired farm hand who can talk to animals."

That "full retard" scene (see a video on the About.com Movies site) involves Stiller and Downey discussing the perils of getting too far into a role like "Simple Jack," with Downey's more accomplished actor character advising Stiller's to "never go full retard." That phrase already landed on a t-shirt, and the Simple Jack movie had its own website for a while featuring the tagline, "Once Upon a Time ... There Was a Retard."

The film has its Los Angeles premiere today; also today, screenings are scheduled for disability-rights groups in the hope of heading off protests. Based on Bauer's observations from her early screening, it seems as though the offensive material is pervasive enough that it would be difficult to excise quickly. DreamWorks, the studio behind the film, has already indicated that no such cuts will be made. Perhaps they're hoping that advocates will decide it's no big deal once the material is viewed in context.

Or, more likely, they don't care. I have an unhappy suspicion that the target audience for a movie like this is one that will be more eager to see it if they think it's drawing protests. When you're trying to cultivate an air of outrageousness, picketers and boycotts kind of do your selling for you, don't they? Especially when you're offending a group that the public at large doesn't exactly bend over backwards to be respectful toward. In a way, I'm more worried about my daughter's English teacher who thought "Mongoloid" was a perfectly good word to put on a vocabulary test than I am about a deliberately offensive comedy using an offensive word offensively.

Except ... does this comedy really mean to be as heedlessly offensive as it claims? They had me going for a while, until I read this exchange in an interview with the stars in this week's Entertainment Weekly about the potential for problems with Downey's skin-darkening character:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The challenge with that character was to find the right line. You want to make fun of this pompous actor, but if you play it wrong, it verges on being minstrel-like. Your costar Brandon T. Jackson told me there was a scene in the script where Osiris uses the N-word and that he said it went over the line.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Brandon might have saved the movie that day.

BEN STILLER: For sure. We were rehearsing in Hawaii and we got to that scene and I said to him, ''What do you think of this?'' Brandon said, ''This feels wrong.'' It was definitely a constant process of feeling it out.

Hmm. Feeling it out. Finding the line between rowdy fun and hate speech. How handy it must be to have somebody on set who can let you know when you've gone "over the line." I was reminded of something Bauer wrote early in her coverage of the controversy, in response to that "equal-opportunity offender" excuse:
People of different races surely were involved in the making of this film, and were able to express opinions about which references were humorous and which might have gone too far. So were people with different sexual orientations. How many people with cognitive disabilities were involved in the making of this film? Were any people with cognitive disabilities involved in focus groups for this film? How many are employed by Dreamworks, or by parent company Paramount?

I doubt there are any good answers to those questions. I've had respect for this studio and these actors in the past, and it sort of amazes me that it would have occurred to no one to get a reality check on this plot from someone involved with Special Olympics or The Arc. For those who think all this furor is just proof that these organizations can't take a joke, it's instructive to look at the relationship between Special Olympics and another crude comedy that played on stereotypes, the Farrelly Brothers' The Ringer. That film was enthusiastically embraced and promoted by Special Olympics, and not for nothing, employed many actors with intellectual disabilities who were in a position to provide a counterpoint to those stereotypes.
No such counterpoint is offered in Tropic Thunder, and not much creative thought seems to have gone into this particular storyline. And that's too bad, because I don't think actors who take on disability roles as awards-bait are a bad target for satire. I've read interviews with actors who seem to believe that they understand everything there is to know about living with a disability because they played a disabled character, and I'd be willing to laugh at that. Using self-consciously politically correct language, certainly a valid target in liberal Hollywood, might actually have made the satire sharper. It ought to have been possible to make this about mocking self-absorbed and condescending actors, as the filmmakers claim was their aim, and not about mocking people with disabilities.

Falling back on an offensive word to get laughs is lazy comedy, and if the film's potential fans aren't bothered by the language, they should be bothered by that.
What do you make of all this? Will you boycott the film? Would you have seen it in the first place? Do you think protests will hurt the film or help it? Share your thoughts

1 comment:

  1. JOSIE BYZEK: 'Tropic Thunder' and the R-word

    I refuse to join the boycott of "Tropic Thunder." When I saw the e-mails from fellow disability rights activists to denounce the movie because of the repeated use of the R-word - "retard" - I groaned. Don't they know what the word "satire" means?

    "Tropic Thunder" is a satire about how Hollywood doles out rewards. The movie is meant to be offensive, from having Robert Downey Jr.'s character play a black man to having Ben Stiller's character muse on how retarded he must act to win an award. The R-word, according to some accounts, was used a total of 17 times, and this offended the good people of the Arc, the American Association of People with Disabilities and others so much that they took to the streets.

    Any person with a disability who has been the target of the R-word knows it is painful. But for decades, many of us have tried to get the media, especially Hollywood, to realize it's even more hurtful to exploit disability-themed inspiration and pity in order to get a prize of some sort.

    It seems if an actor wants to get an Oscar nomination then all he has to do is play a guy with severe cerebral palsy, like Daniel Day Lewis did in "My Left Foot." Or play a depressed blind guy, like Al Pacino did in "Scent of a Woman," who can be saved only through the ministrations of a young, idealistic nondisabled person.

    Or play a guy who is so simple he runs across the country on a whim and finds himself central to tremendous historical events that he has no understanding of, like Tom Hanks in the insipid "Forrest Gump."

    These films laced with stereotypes encourage viewers to have the following thoughts: "Those people are so heroic, I could never live like that. ... Oh, how wonderful that handicapped boy could overcome adversity. ... Oh, how tragic that poor young crippled boxer in 'Million Dollar Baby' must live such an awful life through no fault of her own, no wonder she wanted her coach to kill her." And on and on.

    Movies like these depend on nondisabled audiences dehumanizing or infantilizing us.

    We don't want your pity. We want dignity.

    What we don't see coming out of Hollywood are people with disabilities as three-dimensional characters who love their lives. Nor do we see disabled actors playing roles that have nothing to do with disability. Now that would be progress.

    As misguided as the calls for a "Tropic Thunder" boycott are, I have to acknowledge that they've been successful in one important way. Many news and morning shows have finally reported on the real pain that slurs cause people with disabilities.

    Perhaps some of the folks who saw these reports will be able to take this one step further and ask themselves why these slurs are so hurtful, and what it would take for a disability to be considered just another personal characteristic, maybe akin to wearing glasses or being tall.

    I'd like to see a movie about that.


    Josie Byzek is managing editor of New Mobility, a lifestyle magazine for wheelchair users. The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703; e-mail: pmproj@progressive.org; Web site: www.progressive.org. For information on PMP's funding, please visit http://www.progressive.org/pmpabout.html#anchorsupport.