Saturday, August 16, 2008

Listening for "Tropic Thunder"

Jerry Stiller's son, Ben, has a new movie hitting the screens, Tropic Thunder, which is a send-up of the movie game itself.

Folks from ARC and other disability rights organizations are upset, not because Stiller sometimes makes a bad movie and this is one of them, but because Stiller's character uses the "r-word" -- retard.

Film critics stand firm against 'Tropic Thunder' protests by advocates for the disabled says The Los Angeles Times ...
"Never go full retard," Lazarus tells Speedman. Actors who win critical acclaim, including Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" and Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," Lazarus adds, play partially disabled. Those who go "full retard," such as Sean Penn in "I Am Sam," get shut out during awards season.

Advocates for the mentally disabled seized on the scene in their protests against the new comedy and launched a national film boycott. "Name calling is a subtle but malicious practice that only serves to perpetuate stigma, fear, intolerance and more," Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, said at a protest at the "Tropic Thunder" premiere Monday.
Following the saga as it's discussed by a few disability rights advocates has been interesting. It was also discussed briefly on a local radio morning program -- "What's the harm?" was the gist of the conversations.

Frankly, since disability rights ranks relatively low on the activism totem pole, I'm surprised there hasn't been more flak about Robert Downey, Jr.'s appearance in blackface for his role in Tropic Thunder.

The same Los Angeles Times that downplays the retard label headlines a news story regarding that issue with ...

'Tropic Thunder' brings issues about cinema and race back to the fore ...

On the other hand, there is Downey in "Tropic Thunder," who rubs the audience's face in the fact that we are not remotely "over" race -- or, to be precise, racism. Paradoxically, the zeitgeist that accounts for the ascendancy of Smith also makes Downey's performance possible. This is because the political correctness quotient tends to dip in less-straitened times. Instead of being grossly offensive, Downey's Lazarus comes across as a daring racial jest. (The jest would have been even more daring if he had been American.)

(Stiller's caricature, which has already drawn protests from more than half a dozen disabilities organizations, lacks the cutting edge of Downey's racial whammy. It's closer to goony, Farrelly brothers-style bad taste).

The idea seems to be that the actor's skill nullifies the denigration. Perhaps that's so.

All I know is that one of the more intelligent comments about the issue came from a professor at American University as quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Celine-Marie Pascale, an American University sociologist who analyzes language and representation, said: "There's probably nothing more fundamental to civil rights than the ability to name oneself. You wouldn't call someone a 'Negro' today, and we use 'Asian' instead of 'Oriental.'

"Retard is a slur that opens up wounds," she said. "Even if the movie is spectacular, it imbeds that speech in society. You can't legislate against it, but you can advocate about the damage that gets done."


Bob Sanchez said...

This morning as we watched a Today Show feature on Chinese culture, I thought back to some of the obnoxious sayings from my childhood--"Chinese home run" for a foul ball hit into the backstop. "Retard" was certainly in my pre-teen vocabulary, as were probably most of the other insulting phrases so common in the day.

We can't stop people from talking like that, unless they're our own children, but we can speak out. I used the n-word as a child, but was shamed out of it early. The world needs to know if we find public speech obnoxious, and if they want to mock it as being politically correct, so be it.

movie junkie said...

Ben Stiller has a track record of doing anything for a laugh