Don’t Believe The Hype


I just came home from watching Tropic Thunder with Ashraf and spent the last hour frantically researching newspaper articles, editorials, blogs, interviews, youtubes (ANYTHING) to figure out what exactly folks are saying about that acid trip of a movie! Unfortunately, I found absolutely nothing compelling. It appears as though people have a tendency to say something without actually saying anything: “Robert Downey Jr. adopts risky role in Tropic Thunder!” “Tropic Thunder touches on sensitive subject” “Tropic Thunder: Blackface vs. Black Faces”. At least Ashraf put me on to the New York magazine article “Robert Downey Jr. in Blackface?” that unabashedly bigs up Robert Downey Jr. for pulling off a supposedly show-stopping, revolutionary performance. According to David Edelstein:

“Downey Jr. 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“.

WAIT, ARE YOU READING THIS?! Edelstein goes as far as to argue that “it’s worth enduring the botched gags, formula and potting, and even the racism to marvel at the genius of Robert Downey Jr.” Let me get this straight: It’s worth enduring the racism to marvel at the racism…Are you kidding me? The VERY SAME issue of New York magazine features three articles (filed under “RACE: THE IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATION”) that explore the racial politics of the Obama campaign in the hopes of explaining his “stubbornly stalled” support in the national polls. On one hand, these writers take serious issue with Americans fear of “getting real” and talking openly and honestly about race/racism. On the other hand, they expect Obama to diplomatically approach (read: avoid/side-step) “the race issue” in the name of increasing his approval ratings among white voters. How can we “get real” and “get fake” (or “politically strategic”) at the same time? Vanessa Grigoriadis suggests that Obama should simply “find a way of talking not directly about race or racial politics but about his identity that at once elevates and grounds the conversation”. Is that really her brilliant advice on how to address “the elephant in the living room”? Alas, “the impossible conversation” remains “impossible”. Meanwhile, Patricia Williams in “Talking About Not Talking About Race” subtly pokes fun at white liberal’s tokenizing attempts to justify their prejudices with defensive statements like “I have a black roommate and we get along”. Fast forward 20 pages, Edlestein explicitly tokenizes Downey Jr.’s co-star Brandon T. Jackson when writing:

“Putting blackface on Downey Jr. has raised some hackles, but black co-star Brandon T. Jackson told People he wasn’t offended: “To be honest, he played a black dude better than anybody I’ve seen“.

SO, WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US? Edelstein inevitably relies on Brandon T. Jackson to authenticate Downey Jr.’s performance as if Jackson were some expert or authority on blackface and when it’s appropriate/successful (how convenient?). ARE YOU SERIOUS? The truth is, we’re all intimately familiar with this argument as it falls along the same tragic line as “Bill Clinton was the first black president”. With all this bullshit talk about “post-modern” blackface and “post-racial” politics, I find myself completely bewildered, confused and (oh yeah) angry! To NO surprise, the critics are LOVING it! According to Hollywood (leftists included), Tropic Thunder marks the arrival of some (fictive) glorious progressive moment in which nothing means anything (officially) and blackface is, well, entertainment!!! Downey Jr. would have you believe exactly that:

“Downey said in recent interviews that his role was a satirical send-up of actor narcissism, and different from older uses of blackface that reinforced harmful stereotypes. “It’s entertainment that’s set up by people who are high-minded enough to not be racist or offensive,” he said. “The whole film is based on the idea that what we (actors) do at some level is offensive and who we are, at some level, is despicable and pathetic, which is the truth and not the truth. But the part of it that is the truth, is entertaining.” So far Tropic Thunder, which opens in the US tomorrow, has generated no backlash against the 43-year-old star of Iron Man.

But OF COURSE, it all comes down to high-minded liberals whose moral uprightness immediately disqualifies them from being “racist or offensive”. (And people wonder why I can’t stand liberalism?!) It’s as if these critics assume we’re all hungry for the same utopian colorblindness in which blackface can finally be funny! ONLY there’s no universal “we” here! Believe it or not, not everyone is as eager as Ben Stiller to indulge in bullshit satire that rehashes/reinforces the very archetype it seeks to retire. Don’t believe the hype, Tropic Thunder is as far from revolutionary as a Che Guevara totebag. End. of. story.

***I just came across this smart and very funny review. Take a look.

One Response to “Don’t Believe The Hype”
  1. movie buff says:

    Robert Downey Jr. cracks me up… he’s got a knack for not taking himself too seriously

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