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Terri Mauro

Tropic Thunder Blasted by Disability-Rights Groups

By August 11, 2008

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Tropic Thunder, the Ben Stiller comedy opening Wednesday, is being sold as an equal-opportunity offender, the kind of film that has Jack Black making fart jokes and Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. You don't expect a lot of sensitivity from a rowdy R-rated satire on the excesses of Hollywood actors and war movies. But advocates for people with developmental disabilities are accusing the filmmakers of crossing the line between good dirty fun and hate speech.

Disability-rights groups including The Arc, Special Olympics, and the National Down Syndrome Congress are not amused by a subplot involving Stiller's character, an action-movie star who made an unsuccessful stab at Oscar respectability by playing a man with intellectual disabilities in a movie called Simple Jack. Well, we'd say "a man with intellectual disabilities." The film says "retard." A lot. Journalist Patricia E. Bauer, who has been covering the brewing controversy in her Disability News blog, shared this approximate tally after an advance viewing:

Number of repetitions of the word "retard" or its variations: At least 16 in the "full retard" scene alone, not counting the uses of words like "idiot," "moron," "moronical," "imbecile," "stupid," "dumb" and "the dumbest M*****F***** that ever lived." All are used to describe the character of Simple Jack, who is described in an introductory segment as a "mentally impaired farm hand who can talk to animals."
That "full retard" scene (see a video on the About.com Movies site) involves Stiller and Downey discussing the perils of getting too far into a role like "Simple Jack," with Downey's more accomplished actor character advising Stiller's to "never go full retard." That phrase already landed on a t-shirt, and the Simple Jack movie had its own website for a while featuring the tagline, "Once Upon a Time ... There Was a Retard."

The film has its Los Angeles premiere today; also today, screenings are scheduled for disability-rights groups in the hope of heading off protests. Based on Bauer's observations from her early screening, it seems as though the offensive material is pervasive enough that it would be difficult to excise quickly. DreamWorks, the studio behind the film, has already indicated that no such cuts will be made. Perhaps they're hoping that advocates will decide it's no big deal once the material is viewed in context.

Or, more likely, they don't care. I have an unhappy suspicion that the target audience for a movie like this is one that will be more eager to see it if they think it's drawing protests. When you're trying to cultivate an air of outrageousness, picketers and boycotts kind of do your selling for you, don't they? Especially when you're offending a group that the public at large doesn't exactly bend over backwards to be respectful toward. In a way, I'm more worried about my daughter's English teacher who thought "Mongoloid" was a perfectly good word to put on a vocabulary test than I am about a deliberately offensive comedy using an offensive word offensively.

Except ... does this comedy really mean to be as heedlessly offensive as it claims? They had me going for a while, until I read this exchange in an interview with the stars in this week's Entertainment Weekly about the potential for problems with Downey's skin-darkening character:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The challenge with that character was to find the right line. You want to make fun of this pompous actor, but if you play it wrong, it verges on being minstrel-like. Your costar Brandon T. Jackson told me there was a scene in the script where Osiris uses the N-word and that he said it went over the line.

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: Brandon might have saved the movie that day.

BEN STILLER: For sure. We were rehearsing in Hawaii and we got to that scene and I said to him, ''What do you think of this?'' Brandon said, ''This feels wrong.'' It was definitely a constant process of feeling it out.
Hmm. Feeling it out. Finding the line between rowdy fun and hate speech. How handy it must be to have somebody on set who can let you know when you've gone "over the line." I was reminded of something Bauer wrote early in her coverage of the controversy, in response to that "equal-opportunity offender" excuse:
People of different races surely were involved in the making of this film, and were able to express opinions about which references were humorous and which might have gone too far. So were people with different sexual orientations. How many people with cognitive disabilities were involved in the making of this film? Were any people with cognitive disabilities involved in focus groups for this film? How many are employed by Dreamworks, or by parent company Paramount?
I doubt there are any good answers to those questions. I've had respect for this studio and these actors in the past, and it sort of amazes me that it would have occurred to no one to get a reality check on this plot from someone involved with Special Olympics or The Arc. For those who think all this furor is just proof that these organizations can't take a joke, it's instructive to look at the relationship between Special Olympics and another crude comedy that played on stereotypes, the Farrelly Brothers' The Ringer. That film was enthusiastically embraced and promoted by Special Olympics, and not for nothing, employed many actors with intellectual disabilities who were in a position to provide a counterpoint to those stereotypes.

No such counterpoint is offered in Tropic Thunder, and not much creative thought seems to have gone into this particular storyline. And that's too bad, because I don't think actors who take on disability roles as awards-bait are a bad target for satire. I've read interviews with actors who seem to believe that they understand everything there is to know about living with a disability because they played a disabled character, and I'd be willing to laugh at that. Using self-consciously politically correct language, certainly a valid target in liberal Hollywood, might actually have made the satire sharper. It ought to have been possible to make this about mocking self-absorbed and condescending actors, as the filmmakers claim was their aim, and not about mocking people with disabilities.

Falling back on an offensive word to get laughs is lazy comedy, and if the film's potential fans aren't bothered by the language, they should be bothered by that.

What do you make of all this? Will you boycott the film? Would you have seen it in the first place? Do you think protests will hurt the film or help it? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Read more: Special Needs News | Video Responses to "Tropic Thunder" | Satire Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Comments
August 11, 2008 at 1:11 am
(1) Mary (MPJ) says:

I was actually quite excited about going to see this movie, so I’m disappointed at what’s come out about it.

August 11, 2008 at 7:47 am
(2) Nancy says:

I just saw a trailer for this film last night and it looked pretty offensive…and that was before I read your informative blog post. I have a disabled relative – I couldn’t possibly support a film that continually stereotypes people with disabilities. But, then, I don’t enjoy films that poke fun at various groups of people anyway.

I think the target audience isn’t interested in protests, either…teenage boys and young men will just go for the laughs. Such as they are.

August 11, 2008 at 12:29 pm
(3) Kimball says:

I too was looking forward to seeing the movie until I read about and saw the trailer regarding the way they disparaged my friends with disabilities. I don’t think they’ll care if its boycotted but I also believe that being silent makes a stonger statement that it’s “okay.”

August 11, 2008 at 3:37 pm
(4) Leah says:

I can’t stand Stiller’s humor in the first place, so it’s not a movie I would have seen. However, I do own, “The Ringer”, which was produced with on-site support of the Special Olympics association and the LA Down Syndrome association. Seems Stiller didn’t learn a THING while producing the Ringer, and so I’ll be sending it, and any other stiller movie I own, right back to him. So what if he got my money years ago. Let him have a few thousand used videos show up in his office and let HIM dispose of his own trash! You can send any stiller videos to

Ben Stiller, Writer/Director/Producer
Read Hour Films, 629 N. La Brea, Los Angeles, CA 90036

August 11, 2008 at 5:06 pm
(5) jojo says:

I have a son with slight autism, but I’m not going to let people infer what is right and what is wrong. That’s the whole problem pointing these things out, and making huge issues. Do you really think boycotting is going to cure bigotry? I wonder if this coalition and the NAACP got together and did one potatoe two potatoe, for the right to protest. Yes, people need to learn that “retard” is not a nice word, but hopefuly they learn that at home. Movies are for entertainment. Why, and how people think they have this huge influence is beyond me.

August 11, 2008 at 5:37 pm
(6) Leah says:

Quote:Yes, people need to learn that “retard” is not a nice word, but hopefuly they learn that at home

Yes, you hoped they do, but they DON’T! Go stand in the hallway of your child’s school and LISTEN to what is said. My child hears the word “retard” every day at school. And yes, kids are reprimanded, but they hear it at home, so how are they supposed to know it’s wrong? But, those same kids who hear the word “retard” most likely don’t hear the “n” word that was long ago banned from movies and became taboo. How did that happen? I’m sure you’ve heard of Rosa Parks, right? One person who refused to accept how she was treated and today is celebrated as a hero in the black community. How do the word “n***er” become a taboo word in our society? By people standing up and saying it’s just not ok and they won’t stand for it anymore! But people of color and other races HAVE a voice. My child and others in her community don’t. **I** am her only voice, and you’re darned right I’m going to stand up and defend my child.

August 11, 2008 at 6:30 pm
(7) Jason says:

Another movie that was bad was “the rginer”. Quick synopsis.

A guy trying to do the right thing ends up taking part in one of the most morally dubious con games in history in this comedy. Steve Barker (Johnny Knoxville) is an office drone who wants to move up the corporate ladder, but when he asks his boss for a promotion, it comes with a condition — Steve has to fire Stavi (Luis Avalos), who has been the firm’s janitor for years. Steve decides to soften the blow by hiring Stavi to do his lawn and garden work. However, an accident robs Stavi of several of his fingers, and since he doesn’t have medical insurance, Steve needs to find a way to pay for his surgery. Steve’s uncle Gary (Brian Cox), a sleazy type who will bet on anything, also needs some fast cash, and comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme — Steve was a track star in high school, and with the Special Olympics Championships coming up, all Steve has to do is pretend to be mentally challenged, enter the competition, and win the running events against six-time medalist Jimmy (Leonard Flowers).

The good part was at least it made the “speacial needs” olympians look smarter than the guy who was faking it. This new movie doesn’t respect “special needs” at all. 2 thumbs down.

August 11, 2008 at 9:50 pm
(8) nicole says:

Thank you for posting this. Awareness is everything! I am a mom of an amazing five year old boy with disabilities. I emailed your posting to my entire email list and I hope people don’t see the movie. If nothing else, perhaps it will send a message to the actors and Dreamworks. And Leah– I couldn’t have said it better myself.

And Jojo– it’s absolutely not okay. not in a movie, in a school, not at home, nowhere. It’s never okay to say the “r” word. It’s hurtful. Maybe not to you, but to many kids with disabilities that have no voice. And the only reason we are even having this conversation is because people like you still selfishly think it’s “okay.”

August 11, 2008 at 10:45 pm
(9) LEah says:

Jason, actually the whole point of “The Ringer” was to dispel the misconceptions about those who have intellectual disabilities. The movie was produced by Dreamworks, in conjunction with the Special Olympics and the National Down Syndrome Association. The first 10 minutes or so of the movie is awful to watch as a parent or loved one of someone who is disabled. But that part just sets the stage for the rest of the movie, which is the REAL lesson. Unfortunately the big shirts at Dreamworks didn’t learn all the lessons there were to learn when making that movie, and went ahead and produced this one. I’m sending ALL movies I own that were produced by dreamworks back to them!

August 13, 2008 at 1:05 am
(10) Juan Estremera says:

I was planning on watching this movie because I thought it’d be hilarious, but after reading this review on their comments towards mental retardation, I’m rethinking it. Where I live not even secluded whites will use the “n” word & we can’t stand to hear blacks degrade themselves by using it towards eachother, but to call someone “retarded” is even worse. I’ve worked with special needs for 2 summers & have a cousin with Downs. For me it is offensive to hear others “kid around” by calling others retarded, none the less put it in a movie.
Though I do believe that the protesting will only promote the movie, it will show others our thoughts towards degredations like that. It’s sorry to say that protesting like that would promote the movie, but there are so many people that pay no mind to special needs, or even degrade special needs themselves.

August 14, 2008 at 5:06 pm
(11) Tammy says:

I wouldn’t say I was going to boycott it because I would never go see a stupid movie like this in the first place. It is just said that with all the supposed political correctness being tossed around Hollywood these days, no one seems to really know what simple tolerance and acceptance is about. Being mean to other people, especially those who can’t defend themselves, is far from funny.

August 15, 2008 at 11:22 am
(12) Sandra says:

What strikes me here is that the people who are affected by the use of the “n” word are usually able to take a stand in their own defense. Many of those affected by the bigotry and discrimination surrounding the “r” word cannot do that. My son is a high-functioning Autistic and while he might understand that people are being mean and cruel, he would not know what to do about it. It is my responsibility to help him be the best he can be and part of that is speaking out when things like this happen.
In my opinion comparing the use of the two words is, in some ways, comparing apples to oranges. Someone must stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

August 15, 2008 at 5:28 pm
(13) Aimee Pemberton says:

I am a member of the Arc of Aurora in Colorado and I’m fighting to educate people on the right way to refer to people with disabilites. We should stand up for what we belive including protesting what is wrong. But, people are still going to see this crappy film. All you can do is your best to educate them by being an example and participating in your local advocacy groups like The Arc. There is an Arc in every state and a national one. Search them out and make a difference.

August 17, 2008 at 6:30 pm
(14) A. Robinson-Neal says:

Beyond the concept of this film and what it represents to some and attempts to represent to the public, I find the discussion about the differences in the use of offensive language here very interesting. Leah mentions the banning of the “n” word from movies and that its use has become taboo–I don’t know whether you have cable but the “n” word, while considered taboo by many, is still regularly used on television (even if it is “bleeped” out) and on the streets. So are other culturally and ethnically offensive terms that are not mentioned here. No one is commenting on the Robert Downey character–such “acting” used to be known as minstrel or blackface, which also eventually was considered taboo (anyone remember the backlash behind Ted Danson’s antics regarding Whoopie Goldberg when they roasted her a few years back?). I make these comments as an African American parent of a son with high-order Autism who has experienced most of the types of discrimination–racism, sexism, and issues with ability.

But I digress. I was not aware of the “r” issues with the movie until I saw a news report. I too have not been a Ben Stiller fan, or a Jack Black fan. Can’t say I was ready to rush out and see it. I have to agree with JoJo–will protests end bigotry? No, don’t think so. But those who are concerned about ending it are most likely not the ones who had planned to see the film in the first place.

August 18, 2008 at 1:04 am
(15) Sharon Goodman says:

I think it’s a great idea for everyone to send
their Ben Stiller movies back to him. Unfortunately, I don’t own any ( not a fan ). I think we should boycott all Dreamworks products until they come out with a public apology.

August 21, 2008 at 10:38 pm
(16) Mary Flasche says:

I am the mother of two sons with the autism/MR diagnosis. I am going to see the movie. I believe that this world has become way too politically correct. No matter how much we educate people about the R word or the N word, there always will be the jerk who chooses to pick on the weaker person because the jerk lacks self esteem and the only way they feel better is by picking on the weaker. I took my sons to see “The Ringer” and we all laughed so hard. This movie is not trying to pick on people with special needs. I will see it, but my boys won’t because it is rated “R”.

August 22, 2008 at 5:13 pm
(17) Susan says:

We see a lot of Ben Stiller movies, and rent one movie a week on the average. On our anniversary, we were going to see a movie. When I saw the Stiller movie was playing, we left without purchasing a ticket. I don’t know if we will boycott Stiller movies in the future.
I am very disappointed in Dreamworks, because they have produced some very good movies. You might call this one “Nightmareworks.”

August 26, 2008 at 6:33 pm
(18) movie junkie says:

Ben Stiller has a track record of doing anything for a laugh (i’m thinking Heartbreak Kid, yuck)

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