Aug 27, 2008

Tropic Thunder: Appropriation Revisited

Tropic Thunder's much reported take on blackface (and Ben Stiller's dismal record in movies) kept us from seeing the film until this past weekend. We were hoping to see Wall-E, but in yet another cruel twist of this bar summer, it wasn't playing anywhere near us. So Tropic Thunder was the best thing that fit into our schedule. I had read enough to know that Robert Downey, Jr.'s take on blackface would either make me want to leave the theater, or get me to think about what it means and where we are now that a film not made by people of color can actually address some of the interesting aspects of representation and appropriation that we find ourselves confronting nowadays. I'm happy to report that it was more of the latter than I expected.

Without ruining too much, the whole film is a satire on the industry, and Downey plays a five-time Oscar winning Australian actor who is such a method actor that he decides to undergo a medical procedure to "look black." Downey plays his role to perfection - making fun of extreme method actors (Day-Lewis, anyone?), cultural appropriation, and the seeming paradox of actors with huge egos and overwhelming insecurity. There was also a black actor on the team calling him out each step of the way ("there's only one role for a black man in this film, and you get it!").

Stiller surprised me: I was expecting nothing but slapstick and bathroom humor (they make fun of some of that as well). I know there are criticisms of the film regarding its approach towards the mentally disabled, but I have a feeling that some of that was also tongue-in-cheek (saying to the viewer, we're so clever about race that we have multiple levels about that, but Hollywood doesn't get everything). Maybe that's giving them too much credit, but some of the "retard" comments were so over the top that I feel like they knew what they were doing.

But this also makes me think about representation and appropriation, particularly in light of some of the weird Mickey Rooney denial of the racism inherent in his much reviled Asian caricature in the otherwise classic Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Is there a space where this kind of caricature is acceptable? And does it matter who is doing it and for what reason? The film features Asian actors playing members of an Asian drug ring, and it begs the question: we get pissed off when white people play our people, even in "sympathetic" roles, but then our people play our people in crazy terrorist/trafficker/bad driver/whatever roles, and we're okay with it? Because an Asian/POC actor has to live and "Hollywood's fucked up - you have to play the game so you can get to where you don't have to play the game"? I'm not feeling that. But I guess I'm not an actor, either.


Anyway - if you want to see two octogenarian actors/movie people talk about this film (it's not perfect because they get caught up in the whole "PC" discussion) check this review out. But it's kind of funny to hear them talk to each other and about this film. Woah - just watched their review of the Dark Knight. Not cool.


thecheddarbox said...

Interesting. I've been boycotting the film, but maybe I'll give it a shot. I was gonna catch it as a rental anyways.

Yo, Wall-E is the shiiiit. I think you'd totally dig it, the politics are on point. I bet it'll already be out on dvd soon.


Rage said...

I think it's worth a (Netflix) rental, just to see what you think. I may be out on a limb on this one, though, so I want to read commentary from folks who are approaching this from a much more critical lens. But it is definitely not a Mickey Rooney performance. There's more going on at the heart of it.

And yeah, man. I wish there were more second-run theaters around here so I could catch Wall-E on the big screen. I'm so damn bummed that I missed it.