Tropic Thunder and Post-Racial Blackface

by Lauren Pabst


Robert Downey, Jr. has received an Oscar nomination for appearing in blackface in Tropic Thunder.

The reason that this is acceptable is that Downey, Jr. is not himself wearing blackface. Rather he is playing a character who dons blackface in a ridiculous illustration of Method acting (akin to gaining or losing enormous amounts of weight and other physical transformations undergone for high-profile film roles). You see, this is acceptable because the joke isn’t about blackface. The wearing of blackface is incidental, just another example of actors arrogantly stretching to play characters they don’t resemble.


Sounds like a Hollywood inside joke. And, indeed, the entire film Tropic Thunder (written and directed by Ben Stiller, a Hollywood insider from birth) plays like a big inside joke, nudging at an absurd and Machivellian studio system, while at its core, performing exactly to the specifications of banality, violence and cynical lowest-common-denominator humor to earn its own blockbuster status.

The film follows five actors playing actors, who set out to film a movie version of a former Green Beret’s memoir of the Vietnam War (which later turns out to be phony). The actors, whose director is desperate for “authenticity” are dropped into the jungle for some guerrilla-style filmmaking and accidentally find themselves in the middle of a Thai heroin smuggling operation. Body parts fly, Stiller is kidnapped, and hilarity ensues.

It is significant, the way in which the film incorporates blackface into its arsenal of irreverence, which also mocks developmentally disabled people, but in a similar round-about way. Stiller’s character (a Tom Crusie-like Hollywood megastar) has played a developmentally disabled farmhand, referred to several times in the film as a “retard,” which led disability rights groups to call for a boycott of the film. The filmmakers again justify this by explaining that the joke was really on actors who play mentally disabled characters as a ploy to win awards. But still, the image of Stiller, aping a mentally challenged person, decked out in a blond bowl-cut wig and buckteeth.

Like this piece of mockery, blackface is incidental in the film, just a piece of background on which the filmmakers can riff. The comedy playbook they are working from assumes an absolute saturation of its public with the tiresome swamp of that old “political correctness.” Tropic Thunder celebrates an apex of thoughtlessness in the guise of biting satire; but in the end, it’s like an US weekly reader dissing and devouring every page. It’s embarrassingly obsessed with the target of its bile; Hollywood.

The presence of Brandon Jackson, a black actor, seems to have been written in to cool the sting of Downey, Jr.’s meta-minstrel show. Incidentally, Jackson plays Hollywood’s version of a closeted homosexual rap star. But apart from the character’s cringing accessories, (he peddles an energy drink called Booty Sweat, his name is Alpa Chino, he peddles Alpa Chino chinos, etc.) Jackson is given very little to do, other than put Downey, Jr. in his place.

But with Jackson firmly in place, critical acclaim for the post-modern blackface poured in. Stiller and the audacious gang had apparently pulled it off. David Edlestein, in New York magazine: “But there’s a bigger reason the portrait isn’t offensive: As much as Downey sends up the Shafts and Super Flys, he respects the beauty and weight and potency of the archetype. He drops his voice an octave (at least) and what comes out is gorgeous. He really does make a damn fine Negro.”

Are we beginning to see how that nebulous idea of “post-racial” America is functioning in popular culture? Blackface is a punchline, but for a joke not concerning black people, so we are free to sit back and enjoy the fine performance. (That just happens to be in blackface.) Yes, it’s outrageous! But the filmmakers are perfectly aware of how offensive it is! Wait, why aren’t you laughing?

Like on TV’s The Office and Family Guy, it seems that the sheer outrageousness is accepted as the means through which ethnic humor loses its sting. Trespassing in these taboos seems now to equal “edgy” comedy. The problem is that, especially with such a topic as blackface, the historical context is way too significant and relevant today to gloss over in such a thoughtless way.

For a critical and visceral look at the painful importance of the device of blackface (and its modern-day pop cultural offspring), nothing can beat Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which not only places the Kafka-esque entertainment industry under a much sharper satirical scalpel than do Stiller et al, but does so with much more style and sensitivity. Bamboozled examines the many different shades in which the idea of blackface (ironclad white control over depiction of black people in entertainment) appears in the entertainment industry – past and present. Though the film was criticized for being didactic and preachy, perhaps Lee simply chose to scream his points in the face of so much deafening mainstream silence on the theme. In dealing with the subject of blackface, Lee is as sincere as Stiller is jaded.

But Tropic Thunder doesn’t just decontextualize blackface. It also paints a nasty coat of irony over a formerly sacrosanct cult of mainstream moviemaking; the “pity the invader” Vietnam War tragedy.

From Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter to Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, there is a long tradition of American G.I.s as tragic heroes in Vietnam War movies, as the macho posturing of John Wayne in World War II movies gave way to a more introspective art form that tried to salve the emotional wounds suffered by the U.S. population in respect to the Vietnam War.

The “pity the invader” trope is examined by investigative journalist John Pilger in the documentary Vietnam: The Last Battle (1995). In this documentary, Pilger returns to Vietnam (from which he did courageous, entirely “unembedded” reporting during the war itself), only to find the neo-liberal economic policies of globalization trying to succeed where bombs and chemical weapons failed.

In Pilger’s words:

“The history of the war has been rewritten by Hollywood, with a series of films that have blended Rambo and self-pity, a potent combination. The message has been sometimes crude and sometimes subtle, but always the same. America made mistakes, but it was really the fault of the Vietnamese for defending their country. In other words, the crusade was flawed, but it was a noble one.”

Hollywood’s depiction of the Vietnam War has always been overwhelmingly one-sided and with Tropic Thunder, even this reverence for the American victims of the war is tossed away. This has resulted in a new generation (in the military is largely made up of a small percentage of the population kept in a perpetual economic draft) tricked into laughing at scenes of death and jungle warfare with the flimsy justification of identifying with the inside jokes of the Hollywood elite. No matter how much Entertainment Tonight or TMz we consume, we are not the insiders. The joke is largely on us.

We have been bamboozled into laughing at war. Perhaps not actual war, but a depiction of war, full of evocative images and symbols full of significance.

For example, a thoroughly retro device is woven through Tropic Thunder: the depiction of the Southeast Asian villains as children. The Thai heroin processing plant is presided over by a stock image of a child soldier, a pint-sized tyrant, complete with beret, scar and cigarette. That the film chooses to go there is very weird, for multiple reasons. The classic 19th Cenutry theme of European colonial literature depicting the strange, non-European people they encounter as backwards children, or in childlike terms (Kipling, Defoe, etc.) is an eerie image to revive in these neo-colonial times.

This is underscored when the heroin gang turns out to be obsessive fans of the Stiller’s character’s developmentally disabled farmhand movie. (They even hit the floor in genuflection when Stiller is revealed as the star of the movie, an embarrassing bit of retro buffoonery). Soft-pedaling, the film still makes the point of intellectual inferiority for the gang even in the movie’s own film-obsessed terms, i.e. they worship the dreck of Hollywood, a strong condemnation indeed from this erudite bunch of filmmakers.

The comedic depiction of child soldiers has to be placed in the context of the Western media’s current obsession with child soldiers in the on-going wars in several African countries. There is a great lack of knowledge in mainstream America of the foundations and details that characterize these conflicts, and indeed, the political situation of African countries in general. The Second Congo War (1998-2003), also known as Africa’s World War, which resulted in over 5 million civilian deaths, is particularly absent from mainstream media’s radar. (To learn more, listen to the excellent radio documentary, “The Ravaging of Africa,” by Canadian journalists Kristin Schwartz and Asad Ismi.)

The Western media does have a relative obsession with child soldiers, as opposed to the context and history of conflicts that have produced them. Decontextualized first person accounts often find their way into the consciousness of Americans without a proper explanation of the conflicts themselves.

Back in Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s character is brainwashed by his captors and in his cracked mental state he begins to yearn to adopt a toddler of the group. Stiller seems to just want to mock the current Hollywood trend of international adoptions. Indeed, international adoptions are problematic, not because people in wealthy countries adopting children from the Global South don’t provide loving homes, but for the simple fact that taking the children of a country suffocated by poverty and instability wrought by colonialism and its new incarnation, globalization, should provide no excuse for the lack of awareness of the extent to which wealthy countries and economic systems still have their collective economic foot on the necks of these “developing” countries.

But Stiller brings up the topic purely for laughs. The film’s action-packed climax sees Stiller being literally stabbed in the back by that same toddler, whom he then flings into a river, much to the delight of the audience at the screening I attended. The child is, of course, seemingly unharmed, and crawls over to a riverbank to pout among the rubble. A toddler sitting alone in the rubble of a Southeast Asian village? This image seems designed to rub out the harrowing pictures of Vietnamese orphans wandering alone in the aftermath of U.S. bombings.

Bombarded though we are by images, we can’t overestimate their enduring power on the screen to desensitize us to reality. Downey, Jr.’s neo-blackface situates the the movie squarely within the queasy belief system of “post-racism,” whereby the presence of a black actor blunts the offensiveness of a white actor in blackface. There is also a “post-war” mentality, represented by a pop cultural yearning for “Hollywood insider” status that allows for laughter at scenes of war. But the U.S. is very far from a post-war nation – it is actively engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the sales of arms to numerous other war-torn countries around the world), which employ the same strategy of state-of-the-art weapons technology against people that characterized the U.S.’s war on Vietnam.

The transgressions of Tropic Thunder are symptomatic of this bored and cloistered cultural moment. Pop culture vehicles like this fancy themselves “above the rim” of political correctness, but their ham-fisted irreverence in respect to the weighty, complex topics of racism and war is like delicious sugary salt – gobbled by some, poured into wounds the wounds of others, the world over.