Dana Stevens discusses blackface and "retard" jokes in Tropic Thunder.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 14 2008 2:45 PM

What's So Funny?

Dana Stevens addresses the touchy questions of sensitivity and humor surrounding Tropic Thunder.

Slate movie critic Dana Stevens was online at Washingtpost.com to take readers' questions and comments about the potentially offensive elements of Tropic Thunder, such as blackface and "retard" jokes. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Dana Stevens: Hi, this is Dana Stevens, Slate's movie critic, logging on to discuss Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder and topics related thereto. Anybody out there?

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St. Mary's City, Md.: While I haven't seen Tropic Thunder, I know that Ben Stiller tends to push satire to absurdist extremes. When I first heard about the controversy, I suspected right away that the real target of Stiller's "retard" language was, in Ann Hornaday's words, "overweening, ambitious actors who take roles as physically and mentally challenged characters because they're proven Oscar-bait."

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So do the protesters not understand that they are not Stiller's target? Do they understand the satire, but worry that moviegoers will not? If it's the latter, they may have a point, given that Archie Bunker became a hero to reactionaries who didn't understand that their attitudes were being condemned. Or are the protesters simply reacting emotionally to the words used regardless of the context? Perhaps instead of condemning Stiller, the protesters should instead condemn the moviemakers who exploit disabilities for sentimentality while pretending to promote awareness about them.

Dana Stevens: There are a couple of points I want to address in your question. The first is that, like many of the groups protesting against it, you haven't yet seen the movie—perfectly understandable as it only opened yesterday. You hold the view that the movie's use of what advocacy groups are calling "the R-word" isn't targeting people with disabilities; they hold the view that it is. But if the discussion is to go forward, shouldn't everyone at least be willing to see the movie with an open mind toward the other side?

You also say, rightly I think, that words, even potentially explosive words, can't be understood out of the context in which they occur. Satire is a notoriously difficult thing to police.

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Kansas City, Mo.: Do you find that there is any kind of a generational divide in the use of "retard" as an insult? I have noticed that kids/teens/twentysomethings seem to use it less than older people, although younger people use "gay" in its place—"that's so gay" instead of "that's retarded."

Dana Stevens: I don't know how they're being used by kids now, but unfortunately both these insults sound pretty timeless to me. I remember both of them being tossed around in my 1970s-era schoolyard. And both terms—which function by implying that the object of your scorn is as lowly as someone belonging to one of these categories—are demeaning and hateful things that kids should be taught not to say. But for what it's worth, the movie isn't using the word "retarded" as a simple schoolyard taunt—it's putting it in the mouths of characters who are self-absorbed and despicable to a comic degree. Which is where we get into the question of context again.

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Clinton, Md.: Aside from being offensive, it seems to me that jokes about mental disability or jokes that rely on blackface are just unoriginal. Why aren't filmmakers willing to try harder than that? Is it because they know they don't have to?

Dana Stevens: There are a lot of things you could say about Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of a white man playing a black man in this movie, but "unoriginal" is hardly one of them. On the contrary, I thought the movie took a lot of chances in its willingness to tread into the minefield-ridden territory of race relations and the appropriation of black culture by the white mainstream (which happens not only in Hollywood but in the music industry—look at Elvis.)

The "Simple Jack" question (for the uninitiated, that's the name of a mentally disabled character Ben Stiller plays in a movie within the movie) is a bit more complicated. Apparently the marketers of the movie were very aware of potential offense to black audiences but failed to anticipate the outcry from the disability community. One thing they have now done is pull some material, like a fake trailer for the movie "Simple Jack," from their website. I wasn't personally offended by the Simple Jack subplot—Hollywood's penchant for sentimentalizing the mentally disabled seems more condescending to me—but I can see how the trailer on its own could be offensive.

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Boycott: Do you think that this effort "boycott the film" will backfire and give it more publicity? I agree that the language should not be used in advertising, but boycotts? I'm not so sure.

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