Anyone else tired of hearing how Robert Downey Jr. ‘messed up’ by taking on the role of Kirk Lazerus, who played Lincoln Osiris in Tropic Thunder? The ugly history that blackface has in this country when it’s been used by actors is something that most anyone would agree is a horrible idea, but seeing RDJ take on the role in the satirical war movie about a group of actors trying to film a movie with no idea of how much danger they’re really in was a hard ‘no’ for a lot of people. Even RDJ admits that it was kind of a bad idea, despite the fact that it won him an Oscar nomination that he would later lose to Heath Ledger thanks to his role in The Dark Knight. But seriously, the part of Lincoln was one that turned out to be one of the funniest in the entire movie, not because of the blackface itself, but because of how RDJ took it to the edge and then pushed it a little more, revealing just how ridiculous it really was and taking a great deal of the sting out of it by creating a character that was so easy to laugh with and ridicule. Adam Holmes of CinemaBlend has more to say on this and you can bet that he’s not the only one.
Apparently even RDJ’s mother was horrified that her son would take on this role and do what he did. Joey Paur of GeekTyrant has more on this. The sad part of this however is that it’s ACTING. Blackface back in the day was absolutely horrible, there was no excuse for it and there was no way to justify it since the general attitude towards the black community was one that sparked controversy in a big way and was bound to create dissension among the people if such an act was to be performed. In this day and age though actors have been seen to take on controversial roles almost as a challenge and possibly as a means of sending a message that performing such acts can possibly take the overall venom out of the performance that many think is still incredibly potent. Seriously, when other races are represented in a manner that is similar to what happened in Tropic Thunder many people don’t tend to have this big of an issue. Mickey Rooney’s version of an Asian gentleman was of course horrible, as were many other representations throughout cinematic history, but RDJ’s satirical look at an insecure actor attempting to convince people of his sincerity for a role is downright silly and should have been treated at such. In a big way this is the problem with our nation today, we’ve grown so over-sensitive to every little thing we hear or see that it takes very little to set some people off and ignite whatever passions they have for injustices that were far worse and more pervasive in the past than they are now.
Does anyone care if people of color play the roles of white people and use whiteface? Nope, not really because it’s seen as a form satirical revenge or just something silly that doesn’t mean anything. Did anyone blow up at the manner in which the Irish were treated in Gangs of New York, especially given that Anti-Irish sentiments were rampant in the 19th century? Nope, not so much. It’s very true that black folks have had a massive struggle throughout American history and that appropriating their look is not in good taste, but if we’re going to fly off the hook at blackface and accept everything else we’re basically telling ourselves and all those around us that black people are still victims and need to be treated with kid gloves when the truth is that many among the black community would bristle at this and claim that there’s no need for such careful handling as they don’t ascribe to the victim mentality. Dressing up in blackface for Tropic Thunder might be a regret that RDJ harbors but it was about as malicious as Marlon and Shawn Wayans dressing up as two white heiresses in White Chicks, it was for comedy, it was an act, and there was no malice aforethought. James Hannaham of New York might be able to offer more on that front. Those claiming that it couldn’t happen today are correct since the over-sensitive among society would descend on said project like a murder of crows looking to pick the project apart.
It’s become rather tiresome to hear ‘this couldn’t happen’ or ‘that couldn’t happen in the movies today’ since it’s become a matter of censorship even if some of the subject matter from older movies is in some ways disturbing. That’s cinema folks, it’s a reflection of life that’s not always pretty, but if you’re going to pick and choose what’s acceptable, then you’re just another part of the massive bucket of issues that continues to overflow.