The comedy Tropic Thunder came out over a decade ago in 2008, which makes me feel old because I distinctly remember seeing in theatres like it was last week. By any reasonable measure, it was a decent success. It wasn’t a box office smash, but, it made a profit. The critical consensus wasn’t glowing, but it was positive, with an overall Metacritic score of 71 and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 82.
The movie is a rough-edged, over-the-top, wild, R-rated comedy. It wasn’t HUGE, but it did have enough of an influence to spawn little catchphrases and conversation pieces that continue to this day. One of those topics? RDJ blackface. Because oh, did I mention? Robert Downey Jr spends almost the entire movie in blackface. And there are a bunch of people who are just now realizing that.
— . (@blckshan1975) October 25, 2019
There’s a lot to unpack here. Today, most of us know RDJ primarily as Iron Man. And in fact, the first Iron Man installment came out the same year as Tropic Thunder, long before anybody could have anticipated what a cultural phenomenon the MCU would end up becoming. And it seems like some are feeling betrayed that their beloved Mr. Stark would have done something as heinous as a full-on blackface performance, and still have a career.
robert downey jr did blackface for an entire film but this app been so silent about it that i only just found out?? https://t.co/9aYlPLILFJ
— anisa⁷ (@IydimpIe) November 6, 2019
Over the decades, the practice of blackface has come under greater and greater cultural scrutiny with many public figures having their careers derailed over it. This has occurred as more people recognize and take seriously its horribly racist roots and implications, which is a whole article of its own.
I was today years old when I realized Robert Downey Jr. did blackface for a film. pic.twitter.com/KdZGCpY0Pl
— Historian Blair Imani (@BlairImani) November 12, 2019
So, what’s the deal with Tropic Thunder? How was this considered OK? Well … it’s a little complicated.
Teenagers: Robert Downey Jr wore blackface and got away with it & didn’t apologize. And you people defend him ?!?!
Robert Downey Jr: pic.twitter.com/nRkiRa7OJ8
— Jade Lupinacci (@LupyMagic) April 30, 2020
The thing is (and anyone who has actually seen the movie will know this), it’s not as simple as RDJ doing a typical blackface performance. Blackface has its roots in appropriating/mocking African American culture, where a racial minority is essentially the target of the joke. Tropic Thunder takes aim at a very different target: Hollywood, albeit through a route that was pretty startling, even in 2008.
Did…no one notice that Robert Downey Jr. did blackface in Tropic Thunder or something? I feel like people don't talk about that enough.
— Olé Joè (@JoeBidien) May 16, 2020
Without getting into the nitty gritty of the plot, suffice it to say that the script is a satire of the greed, foolishness, insensitivity, shallowness, and unrestrained ego of the Hollywood system. In this context, Roberty Downey Jr plays an actor named Kirk Lazurus, who, in a wildly-misguided and insensitive attempt to show off his acting chops, plays a rather cartoonish black soldier in the movie within the movie. Or as he puts it in one scene where his sense of self is challenged, “I know who I am. I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!”
So in answer to the question, “Didn’t anyone notice?” the response is “Of course they did.” It got brought up in just about every single review at the time. Like in this one from African American film critic Jeffrey Lyles (who rated the movie 8/10):
“Kirk’s decision to make his character a black man complete with dark makeup would have been more than a tad controversial if not for Chino continually calling Kirk out for trying to act “black.”
While Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson won’t be leading Thunder boycotts, the film has garnered a significant backlash from mental disability advocates”
Wait till they find out he got OSCAR NOMINATED for it pic.twitter.com/zXnXZ9i8R5
— kinomozg (@kinomozg) April 30, 2020
And yes, he got nominated for an Oscar in this role.
And as the previous review quote notes, his character is far from the only one some found problematic. Director Ben Stiller also performs in Tropic Thunder, playing actor Tugg Speedman, who is known in-universe for playing a character named “Simple Jack,” an absolutely insulting caricature of a man with a mental disorder. It’s pretty clear from the context of the movie that the goal is to mock the gross Oscar-bating Hollywood tendency to exploit adversity and disability in an attempt to seem important. Again, the target of the joke is Hollywood, but the execution nevertheless left a bad taste in the mouths of many.
Robert Downey Jr played Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor who was playing the role of Sgt. Lincoln Osiris, an African American Non-Commissioned Officer.
He did not play a character in blackface. He played a white guy who was ridiculously committed to being in character always. https://t.co/SSixi7dSN7
— Zima Guy aka Johnny Rock Page (@ChapGebassi) April 30, 2020
The long and short of it is, context is important, and art ages quickly, especially comedy. Many have said that Tropic Thunder simply wouldn’t fly if it were made today, and that’s probably true. Personally, I gave it a rewatch this year and found myself cringing more and laughing less than I had all those years ago in the theater. And maybe that’s not inherently a good or a bad thing, it’s just the reality of how culture has continued to evolve. As another African American film critic, Wesley Morris (who rated it 3/4), put it when the movie premiered:
“In some future time we may look back on ‘Tropic Thunder’ and ask, ‘What were we thinking?’ But a movie that asks Cruise to slap the air as part of a horse-riding dance popularized by the R&B singer Ginuwine takes some time to recover from. So does one in which Downey appears to be playing Jude Law playing Kirk Douglas playing the late Bernie Mac. “
Have you seen Tropic Thunder? Do you think it holds up at all today?
Tell us in the comments.