The Minstrel Man from Malibu


Reuters reports the perhaps unsurprising news that actor Robert Downey, Jr. is not yet in trouble for appearing in blackface in the new comedy Tropic Thunder, which opens in theatres this week. His character, a white actor named Kirk Lazarus, corks up for a war movie that suddenly turns all too real. High jinks ensue. From the story:

Downey told reporters 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."

I'm not sure I followed that last bit, but with Spike Lee apparently more outraged by Clint Eastwood's failure to include any African American soldiers at the Battle of Iwo Jima, Iron Man looks like he's in the clear.

Full story here. Back in 2002, I took a look at country music's tangled roots in blackface minstrelsy. Read about that here.

NEXT: I Am the Law

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  1. Well he’s just trying to cover all his “I’m not racsist” bases. Can’t blame a guy for trying. Also, I’m going to see this movie simply because of the scene where he moves left and says “Hot Damn!”. Frickin’ hilarious.

  2. There’s protesting of the movie, just not for that.

    Onion headline: “Retards Protest Use of the Word ‘Retard'”

  3. Text. Authorial intent. Cultural context. Audience reaction. All of these go into establishing the meaning of a work.

    Blackface is just the text.

  4. Downey is beyond any kind of trouble because he just doesn’t give a shit. He’s made an amazing comeback with Iron Man, and he’s been through shit like “waking up in a pool of my own blood” in prison (his words). I have a feeling PC shenanigans just don’t make his radar.

  5. I think I saw this movie when it was called 3 Amigos

  6. Ballon Maker,

    Did one them shimmie to the left and say “Hot Damn!”?

  7. C. Thomas Howell’s career took off after Soul Man. Robert Downey, Jr is just following his example.

  8. Downey, meanwhile, seems more worked-up about that other superhero movie:

    A few seconds later when probed about his feelings on the Christopher Nolan film [The Dark Knight], he responded with the now, in my mind, immortal line: “Well you know what, fuck DC Comics.” He then clarified that he’s a fan of Marvel.

  9. Read some of the comments about the Lee/Eastwood bs at Huffington Post. What a bunch of clods.

  10. I was gonna wait for this one to come out on Netflix, but y’know what? The retard-protesters have convinced me to throw down some dough for a matinee!

  11. No comparison of him to Olivier’s Othello or does that come next week?

  12. Read some of the comments about the Lee/Eastwood bs at Huffington Post. What a bunch of clods.

    You take that back before I shoot you and a bunch of other people with a S&W model 29 and then point it at you while you lie wounded on the ground, daring you to find out if there’s a round left in the cylinder or not.

    I can only dream of being as surly as Clint someday.

  13. Warty,

    Try less wordy. Goes a long way toward surly.

  14. Saw a coming attraction for this before dark knight, in a Los Angeles theater with a lot of black people in the audience. Downey got big laughs.

  15. Best modern era (’70s anyway) blackface performance?

    Gene Wilder in The Silver Streak.

    Downey looks like he could surpass.

    “Never go full retard.”

  16. It’s a Kennedy behind what’s now being bandied about as (groan) retard-gate. The demon-spawn of Eunice, calling for congress to condemn (whatever that even means) the film, seems to me – similar to the Special Olympics – another way for that family to atone for lobotomizing Rosemary.

  17. Guy,



    *flip up poncho*

  18. Warty,

    Excellent without a visual!

  19. I like you, Guy. That’s why I’m going to kill you last.

  20. Warty, now you are just talking crazy. And you need an Austrian accent for that one.

  21. Matt J,

    I’m not worried about the police. I just hope we don’t run into any Muslims.

    Man, that sounded different back then, huh?

  22. Where was all the outcry when Eddie Murphy was in white face (as a stereotypical old New York Jew) in Coming to America?

    Come to think about it, where was all the outcry when the studio actually chose to release Coming to America? What a crapfest.

  23. Regarding the word “retard.”

    Since the term for the disability that used to be called “retarded” is now “Intellectually Disabled/Handicapped,” the use of the word “retard” does not refer to the handicapped, just as the word “idiot” no longer indicates someone with a handicap.

  24. Gaunt Man, you must be a fucking retard.

  25. Regarding the word “retard.”

    Every time someone complains about “retard” I accuse them of hating Italians. And Catholics.

    And Catholic Italians.

  26. I, myself, prefer the term “in-law.”

  27. As far as I can determine from following the development of this film at AICN, Robert Downey plays a white actor who’s an idiot and who thinks that getting his skin surgically darkened for a role gives him instant access to the entire “black experience”. And Ben Stiller plays a white actor who’s an idiot and who attempted to get an Oscar nomination by playing a handicapped person, but performed the role so badly that now everyone hates him. It sounds to me like the movie is making fun of white people who are stupid, and not either black people OR retards.

  28. early, interesting review here:

    Looks like the film is guilty of not being funny.

  29. But Neu, I still see “mental retardation” used all the time. Was it ever considered right or proper to refer to someone as a “retard?” (I’m aware of the history of terms like idiot, etc.)

    “It is a journal of policy, practices, and perspectives for professionals and families interested in mental retardation and related developmental disabilities.”

  30. I’m gonna assume that any movie starring Robert Downey or Ben Stiller will be really bad, and that if both are in there it will be unwatchable, unless some lavish critical reviews indicate otherwise.

  31. Vanessa,

    Believe it or not, “Mentally retarded” was originally the politically correct way to refer to someone who was an imbecile or idiot.

  32. The whole problem with accusing Robert Downey Jr of using blackface is, of course, the fact he is NOT using blackface. The CHARACTER is. He is playing an actor who uses it for a role.

    If there should be any outrage over this, then I guess Edward Norton ( or any of the thousands of actors who have played racists and assholes)should be condemned as a racist because he played a racist character in American History X.

    There is just no basis for any outrage. If this movie had an actual black character being played in blackface then the response might be different.

  33. Where was the outrage when The Rock wore blackface in “Be Cool?” Oh, wait. No one saw that movie. Never mind.

  34. Matthew, sure I believe it.

    Anyhow, I recall reading that Neu has a degree in developmental disabilities, and no doubt a large contingent of professionals in the field wish to do away with the term “mental retardation.” Which is fine with me.

    I have no training but have worked peripherally and directly in services for the developmentally disabled and see no evidence that the term has been eradicated. I do think there is a tendency to say “people with mental retardation” rather than “the mentally retarded,” which is akin to “AIDS victims” being re-defined as “people with AIDS.” I have no problem with that either.

  35. Believe it or not, “Mentally retarded” was originally the politically correct way to refer to someone who was an imbecile or idiot.

    Reminds me of Bill Veeck, writing in “Veeck As In Wreck” that he hated being called handicapped. He said he was just crippled, he didn’t need any special accomodations from anyone.

    Call someone a cripple now and you get the evil eye.

  36. What does “Blackface” mean? Does it just mean a white person who wears makeup to appear black?

    Why would that be inherently offensive? People seem to be using the term “blackface”, like it is in and of itself something derogatory. Noone seems to care when Dave Chappelle appears in “Whiteface” makeup.

  37. 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.

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