Tropic Thunder and the problem of actors in blackface

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.


  1. says

    I pretty much agree. I didn’t find the portrayal offensive at the time, nor do I now. I think Stiller and RDJr are correct in their assessments that this portrayal was making fun of actors who will do anything, no matter how questionable, to get an award.
    But I also agree that it would probably be a bad idea to do such a character now, given the current climate.

  2. John Morales says


    … what I think of it is irrelevant because I’m not Black.

    I’ll doubt I shall ever understand that mindset, I merely accept it exists.

    I do note that you think it’s relevant (sufficiently so to publicly state the claim) that what you think about it is irrelevant. 🙂

  3. anat says

    John Morales @3: I don’t think it is hard to understand Tabby’s position: If one understands that an action is likely to be hurtful to members of group X, then the opinion of group X members about said action is the relevant one. Tabby is acknowledging that their not being black might be dulling the effect of the actors’ choices.

  4. John Morales says

    anat, I do get what Tabby claims, and its implications; one of which, incidentally, being that what Stiller and Downey think about it is irrelevant, since they’re not Black.

    It’s the pattern of thinking that leads to such a conclusion that I don’t get.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    Since the role was that of a white actor playing a black man, did that make it appropriate to cast Downey in blackface?

    To slightly rephrase the question: since the role was that of a white actor, was it appropriate to cast a white actor? To which the only possible answer is “duh”. You can argue about whether what the character does is appropriate, but the casting is correct.

    since he is always seen on screen as black, should that role have been played by a black actor

    He isn’t always seen on screen as black. The entire point is that he is always seen on screen as a very obviously WHITE man ludicrously inappropriately and unconvincingly blacked up. I mean, good luck finding a black actor who’d even be prepared to take on the role of a white man blacked up BADLY, but even if you could, it wouldn’t work. Example: there’s a line in the movie where Ben Stiller has a go at RDJ, and uses the phrase “you people”. And RDJ immediately jumps on him and says “what do you mean ‘you people’???”, calling out the implicit racism. Which is funny. Not as funny as what happens next, which is that the actually black actor present chimes in to RDJ with “what do YOU mean, ‘you people’?” Which is brilliant, because not for the first time it’s explicitly calling out the unavoidable racism inherent in what the blacked-up white man is doing, however well-meaning he may think he’s being in doing it.

    Ben Stiller said:

    does that mean that necessarily now I would do it today? I probably wouldn’t

    Right there, that’s the chilling effect of the current everyone-offended-all-the-time climate. It’s a perfect example of creative people explicitly self-censoring. Ben Stiller thought those things were worth saying in 2007 or whenever. And he clearly stands by his decision to have done it, for the reasons he stated. But he also doesn’t think it would be worth it now. Thanks, thought police, good job.

    All that said: there’s a transaction here. The change in the climate has positive and negative effects. Don’t, please, try to tell me that this isn’t a negative effect. Meanwhile, the positives massively outweigh the negatives. Personally I think Tropic Thunder walks a very fine line on race (it completely fucking drops the ball on disability, mind you), and that the world would be a slightly poorer place without that movie. But it’s just a movie. Overall, SJW effects on creative output like this make people more aware of and better educated about the historic offensiveness of blackface, and the main effect is to call out and remove things that are actually offensive. The occasional collateral casualty like this IS, I think, worth it.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    What they say about the Academy is true.
    Also, TT was perhaps Tom Cruise’s finest performance.

  7. anat says

    John Morales, the white actors that did this can testify for the intents of their actions, but only black people can testify for those actions’ effects.

  8. flex says

    It’s a perfect example of creative people explicitly self-censoring. Ben Stiller thought those things were worth saying in 2007 or whenever.

    I’m not so certain that is what Stiller is saying here. Yes, I can see where you would take it this way, but it also could be taken to say that the message from the scene was important, and funny, in 2008. But that today it wouldn’t be as funny, and certainly wouldn’t be as important. So Stiller was possibly not thinking that if he made the movie today he would have to stifle his creativity, but that he wouldn’t even consider the scene because of the increased awareness in society of the historical offensiveness of blackface.

    I considered replying to this thread earlier with two other movie examples; The Silver Streak and Trading Places. Even at the time I found the blackface Gene Wilder temporarily adopts in The Silver Streak to be demeaning and unfunny. However, while researching a reply to this thread yesterday, I found that Richard Pryor insisted that Gene Wilder play an unconvincing, cringe-worthy, blackface in order to draw attention to the problem of blackface. It was originally meant to be funny, and Gene Wilder probably could have carried it off that way. But Richard Pryor didn’t think it was funny. Pryor was willing to walk off the set rather than create another ‘funny’, but derogatory, depiction of people of his skin tone, regardless of what the script called for. Today that scene makes the movie almost unwatchable.

    That set me to thinking, and to delete my half-formed reply to this thread. In Tropic Thunder, a comedy, it was funny at the time to cast a overtly white actor to play blackface and have both a white man and a black man react to it in a way that illustrates the problem with blackface without it being anvilicious. Today that same decision is seen as questionable, to the point that that the writers/producers/directors may not have included it because it would no longer be funny. In another ten years, what will we be thinking about it?

    The point is that comedies do not age well. What is funny in the present may be seen as a problem in the future. I think that’s because comedy always has to reflect current societal norms and make fun of them. At least comedy at a higher level than watching someone get hurt in a stupid fashion (a la The Three Stooges) and even that palls fairly quickly. Some of the lines in older comedy movies become incomprehensible to newer audiences. How many people today know that when Groucho Marx says to Margaret Dumont in Duck Soup; “Oh, I was just thinking of all the years I wasted collecting stamps.” he was referring to masturbation? How that got through the censors I’ll never know, but it was not an uncommon euphemism twenty years earlier.

    Since blackface has almost always been a comedic device it will likely die out very rapidly. It has already changed from a derogatory depiction of African Americans to a device used mainly for disguise without intending to convey the stereotypes found on vaudeville and early movies. Unfortunately, even if the intention is to make an easy disguise in a comedy, the stereotypes are so firmly embedded in American culture, and so much pain is caused by evoking these stereotypes, that blackface just isn’t funny. It wasn’t to Richard Pryor in 1976, and society as a whole has been learning why it’s not funny ever since.

  9. lorn says

    IGK, but it seems to me that blackface, and other portrayals of ethnic groups by actors not of that group, has a scalar of right/ wrong. The worse would seem to be those who use blackface to disparage the group depicted. For a time white men in blackface Uncle Tom and cooning it up were all the rage in nazi Germany. Both pathetic and wrong.

    On the other hand some of the better depictions, within the limits of their understanding, of American Indians through the 60s were Italian Americans. Wrong still, but nowhere near the same level of offense. AFAIK there was, with a few exceptions, no effort to denigrate the group.

    There is still some offense and the simple fact that there were unemployed American Indian actors who could have done the job, and lent a touch of verisimilitude.

    I’m resistant to any call for a ban of depictions of one ethnicity by another. In early English theater women were not depicted because acting was not seen as an honorable profession, particularly not for women. There are also the logistics of acting. If you need a Moor and there are no Moors, either by ethnicity or skill set, you make do.

    There is also the simple matter of empathy. How do we empathize if you are not allowed to consider the other side. Blackface can be an extreme but profound lesson in what it is to be different. There was a MASH episode that explored this concept. It is a recurring theme. A white person living as black for a limited time can, if they are receptive, teach important lessons about discrimination they were previously unaware of. Dealing with people is often a matter of trying to figure out what the other experiences. Cosplay is often part of it.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    @flex, 9:

    it also could be taken to say that the message from the scene was important, and funny, in 2008. But that today it wouldn’t be as funny, and certainly wouldn’t be as important

    Good point, fully agreed.

    The point is that comedies do not age well

    I have a problem with this attitude. Some comedy “doesn’t age well” because it was fucking offensive in the first place (e.g. the notorious UK sitcom “Mind Your Language”, which even as a child I could see was just wrong first time round). Other comedy doesn’t “age well” because people watching it can’t be bothered to make the minimal mental effort necessary to place it in the cultural context within which it was produced, and blame the writers/producers/performers for it because they weren’t bloody clairvoyant enough to predict changes in cultural attitudes over decades and write their topical satire with the feelings of people not yet born in their minds.

    blackface … has already changed from a derogatory depiction of African Americans

    Oh good grief, this gets my goat. Newsflash: not all black people are “African Americans”. There’s a real problem right there with cultural commentators and SJWs and others projecting specifically American cultural expectations on other cultures with other complicated histories. And, btw, defining “blackface” as “a derogatory depiction of African Americans” despite in some cases it blindingly obviously having nothing to do with Africa, Americans or even anything approaching real life (see the BBC’s League of Gentlemen, which has been condemned for the character of Papa Lazarou -- if you can see anything to do with any race on earth in that depiction, you need help. Again, though, I see that as an acceptable if ludicrous casualty in the larger positive of expunging shit like Little Britain from the archive.).

  11. flex says

    not all black people are “African Americans”.

    Fair enough. That’s my mistake and I should have known better.

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