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Why RDJ’s Blackface Wasn’t Controversial

Why RDJ’s Blackface Wasn’t Controversial
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Summary

  • RDJ’s blackface portrayal in
    Tropic Thunder
    was a satire of a fictional white actor using blackface, not a genuine return to the repugnant practice of blackface in cinema.
  • Tropic Thunder
    mocked Hollywood’s problems, including whitewashing and using serious subjects for profit, with the RDJ blackface being portrayed as part of the overall outrageousness of the industry.
  • While the RDJ blackface didn’t receive major backlash,
    Tropic Thunder
    faced controversy for its portrayal of a differently abled character and the use of a derogatory slur, highlighting the narrow line between poignancy and offensiveness.



The Tropic Thunder blackface was a memorable moment from the movie, but didn’t receive a major backlash or cause any real controversy for Robert Downey Jr. or the movie. The 2008 movie was a hit comedy that satirized Hollywood in some pointed and hilarious ways. One of the subjects addressed was the tendency of “method actors” to take their roles incredibly seriously and go to great lengths to achieve authenticity with their sometimes bad behavior only earning them more praise for their dedication.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, a fictional five-time Oscar-winning Australian method actor who is cast as African-American Staff Sargent Lincoln Osiris. Lazarus undergoes a controversial “pigmentation alteration” procedure to darken his skin and, being method, he’s in the habit of never breaking character until after he’s done DVD commentary. The move was a bold choice for the actor following Robert Downey Jr’s comeback role in Iron Man. However, Downey Jr. didn’t suffer any career setbacks for the Tropic Thunder blackface, and there are clear reasons why.


Tropic Thunder
is available to stream on Paramount+.

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The RDJ Tropic Thunder Blackface Was In-Universe (This Matters)

Tropic Thunder
is making a firm statement against how Black characters are both portrayed and overlooked in mainstream action movies…


Robert Downey Jr. isn’t playing a Black character in Tropic Thunder — he’s playing a white actor who decides to portray a Black American in the fictional war movie. Kirk Lazarus is clearly portrayed as white at the start of the movie, and the distinction matters. The Tropic Thunder blackface was a depiction of a fictional white actor using blackface and rightly being called out for it, rather than a return to the repugnant genuine use of blackface from eras gone.

Given the incredibly racist history of blackface in cinema, it’s understandable that — without context — shots of Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder would prompt a response. However, it’s clear on viewing that Tropic Thunder is making a firm statement against how Black characters are both portrayed and overlooked in mainstream action movies of the era. Robert Downey Jr. was even nominated for an Oscar for the role and has continued to defend it since, and the lack of controversy is due to the movie’s satirical approach.


The brilliance of Tropic Thunder is that nothing is sacred. This includes holding up a mirror to the lengths some actors, just like the fictional Kirk Lazarus, will go to land that career-defining role — and the ethical considerations some will readily put to the side in taking it.

Chino doesn’t let Kirk off the hook for the blackface Lazarus dons, and even claims that he’s making the movie to offer some
“real representation.”

Tropic Thunder mocks everything “wrong” with Hollywood: product placement, drug use and addiction, problematic productions, megalomaniacal producers that are more interested in making money than telling stories, and the ludicrousness of Hollywood using serious subjects as money-making fodder.


The Tropic Thunder blackface is no different, as it is shown as part of the same ridiculousness of Hollywood, nor does it go unaddressed in the story. Alongside Ben Stiller and Downey Jr. is Brandon T. Jackson in the role of Alpa Chino, a rapper attempting to break into acting. Chino doesn’t let Kirk off the hook for the blackface Lazarus dons, and even claims that he’s making the movie to offer some “real representation.”

How RDJ’S Blackface Managed To Not Be Controversial

The Movie Trusted The Audience To Understand The Real Joke

Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr shooting the war movie in Tropic Thunder's first scene

Kirk’s method acting ends up playing a pivotal role in Tropic Thunder‘s movie climax. After Tugg is kidnapped by the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang and forced to perform his problematic film Simple Jack every night, Tugg has a crisis of identity. Kirk recognizes it, having experienced it himself. In an attempt to help Tugg as himself rather than as his character, Kirk finally sheds his mask. It’s a hilarious and rather succinct way to also mock the sometimes inexplicable things method actors do.


Tropic Thunder is trying to make audiences laugh with its outrageous comedy, but its other goal was to provide some social commentary on the dark underbelly of Hollywood. By leaning into how ridiculous it is, and making the subject of the joke whitewashing and Hollywood as a whole rather than Black people, the Tropic Thunder blackface was able to avoid causing any real controversy.

Tropic Thunder was ahead of its time here, since terms like “whitewashing” only reached prominence in the last decade, even though the practice has been around since the earliest days of Hollywood and continues to be controversial.

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How Jamie Foxx Brought Back The RDJ Blackface Discussion In 2022

Can Downey Jr. Pull Off The Same Joke Twice?

Robert Downy Jr, Jeremy Piven and Jamie Foxx on the set of All-Star Weekend

For his part, Ben Stiller doesn’t regret Tropic Thunder to this day, and continues to vocally defend the movie. However, Stiller isn’t universally agreed with in Hollywood on this. To some, Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as a method actor willing to don blackface for a movie was not only acceptable but an outright hit. Jamie Foxx reached out to RDJ after Tropic Thunder about playing a Mexican man in his directorial project, All-Star Weekend. According to Foxx,

“I called Robert, I said, ‘I need you to play a Mexican. I said, ‘Sh*t, you played the Black dude [in ‘Tropic Thunder’] and you killed that shit.’ We got to be able to do characters.”
(via
IndieWire
)


Much like Tropic Thunder, the goal of All-Star Weekend was to generate outrageous comedy that would also poke fun at Hollywood’s and society’s norms. However, due to the ongoing prevalence of cancel culture and heightened sensitivity, Foxx has opted to keep the project shelved for now until “people go back to laughing again.” The outcome of Robert Downey Jr.’s casting as a Mexican man is up in the air, then, but his shockingly non-controversial part in Tropic Thunder remains a topic of debate to this day.

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Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder specifically satirizes war films, but it has nods to all kinds of Hollywood classics, from Forrest Gump to Freaky Friday.

Blackface Isn’t The Only Tropic Thunder Controversy

Is The Simple Jack Joke Satire Or Offensive?

Ben Stiller looking confused in Tropic Thunder


Robert Downey Jr.s now-infamous ”
You never go full r****d”
line has been a source of memes, but also has unfortunately been brandished against the differently abled

While Tropic Thunder hasn’t been pulled from distribution because of Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface, it’s fair to say that it wasn’t universally accepted as appropriate. As commentators like Jamie Foxx prove, the debate around blackface and Tropic Thunder‘s use of it is incredibly nuanced, regardless of the intent.

However, blackface isn’t the only controversy surrounding Tropic Thunder, as Black Americans aren’t the only marginalized group utilized by Ben Stiller’s movie to critique the movie industry of the 00s. When Tropic Thunder was released, multiple advocacy groups for people with disabilities called for a boycott and even removal of the movie from theaters (via NPR).


One of the key moments for Ben Stiller’s character in Tropic Thunder, the washed-out actor Tugg Speedman, is when he’s captured and forced to re-enact one of his former roles — an exaggerated Forrest Gump-like character named Simple Jack from a fictional movie of the same name.

The use of the R-word has near-unthinkable by 2020s standards, but it was all too common in media in the 00s and even the 2010s.

Not only is Stiller’s portrayal of Tugg Speedman portraying Simple Jack seen by many as grossly offensive, but another scene in the movie also contained a line that, to this day, is seen by many living with disabilities as a source of upset. Robert Downey Jr.s now-infamous “You never go full r****d” line has been a source of memes, but also has unfortunately been brandished against the differently abled, especially in school settings.


The use of the R-word has near-unthinkable by 2020s standards, but it was all too common in media in the 00s and even the 2010s. What makes this Tropic Thunder controversy particularly disheartening is that opinion around this word within the groups affected hasn’t changed — even when Tropic Thunder was released in 2008, it was generally understood just how demeaning and hurtful the slur was to those with disabilities.

So offensive is the character of Simple Jack that snowboarder Shaun White issued a public apology for dressing as the Tropic Thunder character in 2018, over a decade later (via CBS). While this problematic element of Tropic Thunder isn’t as widely discussed or dissected as Tropic Thunder’s blackface, it’s yet another layer of a highly controversial satirical movie that walks the narrowest line between poignant and offensive that’s perhaps ever been seen on screen.


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Being Self-Aware Isn’t Always Justification

It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Use Of Blackface Was Met With Harsher Responses

RDJ As Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder, alongside Sweet Dee from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Both are doing blackface.

Despite the Tropic Thunder blackface issue getting little to no backlash, self-awareness doesn’t always justify choices like this. The movie certainly wouldn’t work in today’s climate, and it’s surprising that it was able to slide back in 2008. Another cinematic product tried to use blackface for comedic effect in 2010. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is known for being an irreverent comedy about a bunch of narcissists who own a bar, and the TV series has been panned for being racist on more than one occasion.


Aside from Dee’s extremely racist characterizations when she’s “performing”, the show released 2 separate Lethal Weapon-themed episodes, in which the gang tries to make “Lethal Weapon 5 and 6” on a home video camera. The first episode sees Mac in blackface trying to play Murtaugh, and it’s even commented on as offensive in the episode, to which Mac responds “I think it was in poor taste that you were doing Murtaugh in white face.”

The gang tries to create Lethal Weapon yet again three seasons later, but this episode sees both Mac and Dee in blackface, as he reprises his role as Murtaugh, and she plays Rianne, his daughter. The episodes are supposed to poke fun at just how ridiculous and out of touch the gang is, but streaming services obviously didn’t feel the same as these It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes were pulled from Hulu.


It’s strange that the blackface in Tropic Thunder didn’t get the same level of pushback when both were effectively making the same critique of blackface with near-identical methods. Either way, it proves that being self-aware isn’t always justification for offensive material.

Tropic Thunder

Written and directed by Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder follows a group of bumbling actors attempting to make a Vietnam War film, who find themselves dropped into a real-life warzone when they are abandoned in the middle of the jungle they are shooting the film in. Stiller also stars in the film, with an ensemble cast that includes Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., and Jay Baruchel. 

Release Date
August 13, 2008

Runtime
107 minutes

Studio(s)
DreamWorks Distribution



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