Friday, February 20, 2009

A dude writing about a dude complaining about a dude disguised as a dude playing another dude

I have to admit that I was surprised when I read that Robert Downey Jr. had received an Oscar nomination for his role in Tropic Thunder. Then I thought about his turn as a “dude playing a dude disguised as another dude.” It was brilliant. The movie wasn’t, but like most of Ben Stiller’s work there were moments of crisp satire and the entire cast brought solid acting chops to the table. Part of Ben Stiller’s appeal is the manner in which he merges impressive acting skills with the totally absurd.

Tropic Thunder is a send up of popular culture. It wasn’t a spoof of action movies or 80s era Vietnam retrospectives. It was a commentary on our consumption of entertainment, disguised as a parody. And Robert Downey Jr. stole the show. His portrayal of Australian method actor Nick Lazarus not only lampooned how seriously some actors take themselves, but it took a shot at the audience for indulging these guys. It was brilliant and not the least bit insensitive to racial issues.

I’m not surprised that there was controversy. There are always people out there looking for a reason to be offended and, speaking as somebody who often finds ways to oblige them, I have to admit that it can be a lot of fun. I think that’s why Ben Stiller peppered his production with a number of jabs at the mentally challenged by using the term “retard” and he also used Jack Black as a vehicle to crack jokes at the expense of drug addicts. And perhaps the obese. Of course most of the jokes about “retards” centered around how the mentally challenged are portrayed in film and one of Ben Stiller’s closest friends is still trying to overcome a substance abuse problem so I trust that his humor wasn’t based in cruelty.

Tropic Thunder wasn’t a great movie but it made me laugh and that’s about all I expected. I didn’t even stop to think about how offended some people would be at some of the jokes. I guess that just goes to show you how stupid people can be. Satire requires a little effort on the part of the audience. You have to be smart enough to get it. I don’t think Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. have to apologize because there are so many people who are too dense to get the whole joke.

Mel Gibson, Guy Pearce and Hugh Jackman have more business getting offended since they hail from down under…one of them might be offended if they’re actually from New Zealand and I lumped him in with all those kangaroo punchers…but Why did Stiller and Downey opt to skewer Australian actors? Clearly that’s an intentional shot at somebody. Still, there hasn’t been any word about the Aussies organizing a ban. Not that those Aussies are a particularly organized lot.

The worst aspect of the outrage is that it brings out the real racists. If you bother reading comments after articles or message board posts you’ll see plenty of crackers saying that black people now have more rights than white people and slavery was over 200 years ago. Neither of those comments is true, but that’s what they say and it validates why some black people are offended by what has been called a “blackface” performance.

Racism isn’t over and in spite of what some white people say it is not a two way street. Whites still have the power. That doesn’t make it OK for black people to indulge racial prejudice but the fact remains that white racism is far worse because white racism has a measurable impact. I don't get offended when I hear black people use terms like cracker or honky because my grandparents weren't lynched and I've never been beaten down by the cops.

Hollywood has made tremendous strides in recent years and I can’t abide the playing of the race card when it comes to movies. We all know that The Color Purple got screwed by the academy and Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X was so spot on I don’t know how anybody could have picked Al Pacino over him, but I personally thought Clint Eastwood was the best actor that year. I also thought Denzel deserved the Oscar over Kevin Spacey in 2000, but I often don’t agree with the Academy…Just like I didn’t agree with them when he won an Oscar for his overwrought performance in Training Day.

But Denzel is one of the most respected actors in Hollywood and he deserves that esteem. He’s a brilliant performer and his charisma is even more impressive when you realize that he has transcended race. You might not have noticed it, but black actors are becoming headline stars. They’re earning roles that aren’t necessarily written with race in mind which was unheard of 20 years ago. When Denzel broke into the business, black actors played black characters. Period. Opportunities were limited and sometimes the roles were just offensive, sterotypical garbage. Like Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. Now Will Smith is the most bankable star in Hollywood and he's getting good parts. He’s the Bruce Willis of the new millennium; a believable everyman with a trademark sense of humor. That’s huge.

The character of Nick Lazarus is an interesting commentary on the state of affairs in Hollywood. In a comedic way, Tropic Thunder demonstrated how things have changed. 20 years ago black actors were just happy to get parts, now they are playing characters so compelling that white actors are jealous. Nick Lazarus is a fictional character who went to an extreme no real actor would consider but the fact remains that we’re living in a moment where, at least in Hollywood, equality is within reach.

It’s too bad that people didn’t get it. It’s a shame that I had to find a deep meaning in a movie as inane as Tropic Thunder. It’s terrible that there are white people who think that a handful of black scholarships and a few affirmative action quotas have solved the problem of racism. But at least we’re getting somewhere.

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