Having white people put on blackface makeup to perform is now viewed as highly offensive and many people who have done so have apologized for it. In a post on the problem of cultural appropriation, I discussed the other factors in the problem of white actors darkening their skin to play roles that could have been played by actors of color.
But the problem can get meta, as in the case of the 2008 action comedy Tropic Thunder. That film is about a a group of actors making a Vietnam war film on location in a jungle in Asia. Robert Downey, Jr. plays a white actor who is so committed to the ‘method’ school of acting, where one completely immerses oneself in the character 24/7 before and during the entire shooting of the film, that he puts on blackface and never removes it until after the film is completed. Since the role was that of a white actor playing a black man, did that make it appropriate to cast Downey in blackface? Or, since he is always seen on screen as black, should that role have been played by a black actor, which would have resulted in a black actor playing a white actor who is playing a black character? Some of the jokes in the film involve other actors who are black reacting to Downey knowing he is a white actor playing a black man. Would the jokes have landed as well, if we (the audience) did not know that Downey was white?
Here is a famous scene from the film featuring the characters played by Downey and Ben Stiller discussing method acting and how far you can go with it. The multiple uses of slurs of people with perceived mental disabilities adds a further layer of controversy.
As this Wikipedia article states:
Downey acknowledged the potential controversy over his role: “At the end of the day, it’s always about how well you commit to the character. If I didn’t feel it was morally sound, or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I’m just C. Thomas Howell [in Soul Man], I would’ve stayed home.” Co-star Brandon T. Jackson stated: “When I first read the script, I was like: What? Blackface? But when I saw him [act] he, like, became a black man … It was just good acting. It was weird on the set because he would keep going with the character. He’s a method actor.” Stiller commented on Downey’s portrayal of a white actor playing a black man: “When people see the movie – in the context of the film, he’s playing a method actor who’s gone to great lengths to play a black guy. The movie is skewering actors and how they take themselves so seriously.” Stiller previewed the film before the NAACP, and several black journalists reacted positively to the character.
To see how much things have changed in the last decade, in a recent interview Ben Stiller, who directed, co-wrote the screenplay, and acted in the film, said that making such a film now would be problematic.
Stiller elaborated, “Because the atmosphere, that would just feel wrong. It would be tone deaf right now to make it. But the time we made it was very clear, in terms of for us, the idea behind that character was an actor, it was making fun of an who would actor go to any lengths to win an award. For me that was always the very clear idea behind it.”
He continued, “Now, does that mean that necessarily now I would do it today? I probably wouldn’t because I would know that the atmosphere today would be like that would feel wrong. But at the time it was very clear that was what we are doing and felt okay to do it.”
Stiller then added, “Now, I’m not saying that that’s okay to do…That doesn’t mean blackface is okay. Blackface is not okay. But it’s probably never okay. So, I have no leg to stand up and say that character is doing that.”
He then reiterated his thought process behind Downey’s Kirk Lazarus, “But for us it was really clear that this is making fun of an actor who would take on any character just so he could win an award because actors are so self-involved. And I think when we were casting it, it was really clear to me that there are only a few actors who I think an audience would buy doing that and not find it offensive.”
Downey also recently discussed his initial apprehensions about doing the role and why he eventually did it.
The climate has definitely changed. The highly popular comedy film Airplane (1980) had bits that would have not made it into the script today, as in the scenes below.