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Tropic Thunder

Offensive? Absolutely.
Should it be boycotted or otherwise censored? Absolutely not.

After reading this paragraph about Tropic Thunder in a San Francisco Chronicle review I knew I had to see the film ASAP:

One of the best pieces of satire involves Speedman’s ill-fated starring role in a movie called “Simple Jack.” The jokes are clearly set up to make fun of actors who play mentally disabled characters in an attempt to get Oscars, not the disabled people themselves. Several advocacy groups have asked moviegoers to boycott “Tropic Thunder.” But if anything, it seems as if they should be protesting “Forrest Gump.” –Peter Hartlaub

I have intentionally never seen Forrest Gump: from the trailers I perceived the film to be a disgusting portrayal of a mentally disabled person. I even avoided the Academy Awards that year by going out to see an art film, unable to bear watching Tom Hanks give another weepy acceptance speech, as he did for his role in Philadelphia. Because Gump is so beloved by American movie-goers, it’s become something of an obsession with me, so when I heard  that Tropic Thunder pulverized it, nothing could stop me from going to see TT.

TT wasn’t half as hilarious as promised, though it had its side-splitting moments. As a big fan of both Jack Black and drug jokes, I cracked up over his version of a junkie in withdrawal. Unfortunately, Black is seriously upstaged by Ben Stiller’s gross [fr]antics and Robert Downey Jr’s stunning portrayal of an Australian actor playing an African-American. Not to mention over-the-top special effects and bombs bursting in air. This movie is truly a mixed bag.

The main characters are actors on the set of a war movie, and TT opens with a bunch of fake trailers showing each one’s last film. The Ben Stiller character, Tugg Speedman, starred in Simple Jack, clearly a satire of movies about mental retardation (i.e., FG), not of retardation itself. Satire always carries the risk of coming off as a mirror image of its subject, and I can see why people interpreted it that way in this case. Still, I didn’t think the movie so terribly offensive at this point.

But then Kirk Lazarus, played by Robert Downey Jr., admonishes Speedman for going full retard in his Simple Jack portrayal. He goes on and on, giving examples of actors who played mentally challenged characters without going full retard–Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Hanks in Gump. The point of this little lecture escaped me—whether because it was unclear or because I was cringing so much I don’t know—but it became obvious to me why disability activists went ballistic.

What’s telling is that the moviemakers were concerned enough about putting Downey in blackface that they consulted with African-Americans, yet didn’t bother to do the same with anyone in the disability community about Simple Jack. It never even occurred to them: like most able-bodied people, they’re utterly clueless in this area. People whose lives haven’t been touched by disability have no notion of the lives of people with disabilities and their families. As evidence just read some of the countless commentaries on Tropic Thunder telling disability activists to “lighten up,” or the clever new t-shirt slogan, Don’t go full retard.

Listen up, kids: Retard is not a noun; it’s a verb. When used as a noun it’s an insult. At this point in history, people who gasp with horror over the N word laughingly call each other retard without the least bit of compunction. They can’t imagine why it’s being called offensive. Actually, I’m not offended when I hear or read an insult to a person with a disability; I’m hurt. I first encountered this kind of mean, hurtful talk soon after giving birth to a child with a disability, and I was chided for being too sensitive. Those who don’t live with disability know nothing about this kind of language. I don’t point this out to excuse their ignorance, but rather to explain some of the disgusting discussion passing for dialog on this issue.

But movie boycotts are in general a bad idea. In the late 70s the gay community boycotted Cruising because it portrayed gay men’s culture as violent. To review it for a weekly newspaper, I crossed the picket line in front of the theater. Several of my friends were on that line, and I asked one of them how she could protest a film she hadn’t seen. Her response: “The word of gay and lesbian activists all across the country is good enough for me.” I was appalled—to publicly and vociferously object to a movie based on someone else’s evaluation struck me as utterly mindless. It still does, even if I agree that Tropic Thunder is mean and hurtful. People are always telling me I have no right to trash Forrest Gump if I didn’t see it—but at least I’m basing my opinion on having viewed several scenes from the movie, as well as having read a ton of reviews and criticism.

There’s another riff in Tropic Thunder related to disability that I haven’t heard anyone mention, possibly because it’s so baffling. Matthew McConaughey, who plays Speedman’s agent Rick Peck, seems to have a child who is in some way disabled. In one scene the child stands beside his father, who’s talking on the phone and says, “At least you get to pick him,” referring to adoption. Then, at the end of the film, Peck is flying home when the camera zooms in on the same child sitting across the aisle from him. What to make of this? Were the moviemakers trying, albeit lamely, to atone for all the retard jokes? I doubt they were, but if so, they missed the mark.

If anyone involved here had a shred of consciousness, they might have redeemed Tropic Thunder simply by showing Rick Peck and his child interacting in a loving way, especially since Peck is the only character in the film with half a conscience. But by throwing a disabled child into the mix without rhyme or reason, the moviemakers revealed more of their confusion about disability.

As negative as some of the chatter about Tropic Thunder is, the mere fact that it’s happening is a positive development. Disability and retardation aren’t topics usually discussed by the ill-informed, able-bodied population—in fact, most people assiduously avoid the topic as if they might catch something. The silence that surrounds disability speaks volumes. For this reason at least, calls for a boycott of Tropic Thunder are misguided. The dialog it’s inspired may be rife with insult rather than illumination, but somewhere along the way a few people just might end up becoming enlightened

November 24, 2008: I recently deleted a whole bunch of comments on my blog by mistake. There was a comment on this post questioning my assumption that Rick Peck’s son was supposed to be disabled. I don’t know if he was or not, but I am obviously not the only viewer who thought he might be: tons of visitors got here by searching under “Rick Peck’s son disabled?” or some variation of the phrase. So–I wish someone would comment if they have any knowledge or even just an opinion about it. — MS


One response »

  1. I know you won’t post this and I don’t care. I just wanted you to know I never finished reading your post after the “I’m hurt” crap.
    I thought this was supposed to be a review of the movie, but you wandered off in crap land.
    Get some humour in your life, it will do you good.

    Sure I’ll post it–I’m not even hurt by it! You obviously don’t read or understand the kind of journalism I write, in which I weave in aspects of my personal life as well as topical issues. A review of a movie or book frequently represents, for me, an opportunity for a broader discussion of a subject, rather than a nasty critique, gaga rave, or simple report. It’s my blog, and therefore my right to write what I want to: that’s the beautiful freedom of blogging. You are free to read or not, like it or not, and express your opinion, as you have.–MS

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