Ben Stiller’s satirical comedy Tropic Thunder follows the story of actors involved in the making of a fictional Vietnam War film. The self-involved nature of the three main actors Tugg Speedman, (Ben Stiller) Jeff Portnoy, (Jack Black) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) drive the film’s production into chaos. In an effort to straighten the situation out, the film’s inexperienced director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) flies the actors out to the middle of nowhere in the South Vietnam jungle, where they are supposed to learn how to rely on each other and be a unit. However, they soon find themselves in actual danger, having to use their acting skills to survive confrontations with Flaming Dragon, a heroin producing gang.
This week’s Fun Fact:
While some people may regard Tropic Thunder as a harmless comedy, it received a good deal of pushback from the disability community for its use of the word “retard” in one particular sequence. In this sequence of 3 minutes and 16 seconds, Lazarus and Speedman are discussing Speedman’s attempt to portray a developmentally disabled character in his previous film Happy Jack. The words retard/retarded are used 20 times in the sequence, with Lazarus advising Speedman to “never go full retard,” referencing how actors have won Academy Awards (or not) by playing characters with developmental disabilities (Stiller). The use of “the R word” (it is known as a slur in the disability community and referred to this way) caught the attention of disability rights organizations, parents, legislators, and the Special Olympics, causing protests surrounding the film and letter-writing campaigns (Haller 181-2). Interestingly, a spoof website for Happy Jack connected to the marketing of Tropic Thunder was also pulled from the web due to pressure before the film’s premiere (Carter-Long). (I actually tried to access the Simple Jack through archive.org. Sorry if this disappoints people. To my knowledge, it is unavailable.)
When considering the amount of attention this film received because of this particular sequence, I am glad that it brought attention to the disability slur and how it is hurtful to people. However, I do not like how the entire situation was reduced to talking about political correctness or censorship. Lawrence Carter-Long writes about how there were efforts to get feedback from veterans and people of color with screenings before the film was released. They wanted to make sure that people didn’t think they were making fun of veterans. Since Lazarus is Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, this was also a sensitive subject to be tackling. The African American character Alpha Chino (Brandon T Jackson) is used to “[call] Lazarus on every possible point of politically correct contention” (Carter-Long). While I appreciate the efforts to make the satire work, I still connect to Carter-Long’s point that the use of disability in the film is “satirization without representation” (Carter-Long). The disability community was not consulted as other groups were for the film. Furthermore, the film does not have a character who can “call out” the problematic nature of Speedman acting as Jack in the film. It feels as though Jack is something simply to be laughed at. For me, this overshadows the point that Stiller was trying to make about actors playing people with disabilities to get an award (Carter-Long). In a way, reducing the complaints about the film to political correctness and failing to include input from the disability community almost completely ruined the film for me. It just indicates to me the lack of importance given to people with disabilities by society. Carter-Long makes the point that even though there are 54 million people with disabilities in the United States, “disability is still considered a distant threat, something that happens to people segregated to telephones and fundraising campaigns” (Carter-Long). Even nine years after the film’s release, I still feel as though there is a great deal of progress that needs to be made. I feel that it is both distressing and exhilarating at the same time.
– Jonathan Bartholomy, RAFF Chicago Planning Committee Member
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Carter-Long, Lawrence. “’Tropic Thunder’ – Hollywood Still Doesn’t Get It.” archive,
ic-thunder-hollywood-still-doesnt-get-it/. Accessed 9 August 2017.
Haller, Beth A. Representing Disability in an Ableist World: Essays on Mass Media. Louisville:
The Avocado Press, 2010.
Tropic Thunder. Dir. Ben Stiller. Perf. Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.. DVD. Dreamworks
Home Entertainment, 2008.