The week that Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first black president, the talented Robert Downey Jr. received an Oscar nomination for his role in the late-summer flick Tropic Thunder. The honored performance involved a character in blackface and an Afro wig; the role, a brilliant showcase for the actor’s “Ebonics vocal training.”
A century after D.W. Griffith's "classic" The Birth of A Nation, some white folks still think it's OK to parade around in blackface. Hell, many feel empowered in the march to the post-racial America. Whoa Nellie! It's not OK! It’s obnoxious, easy and pathetic. This is not what the Academy should be celebrating, especially in a year when there is worthy competition.
When the film was released, producer/director/writer/star Ben Stiller faced a firestorm of protest, but not for Downey Jr.'s pigment overhaul. Complaints about the racial/racist insensitivities of the film were overshadowed by a larger offense: belittling people with “intellectual disabilities,” through the constant use of the R-word (retard). The director’s cut DVD actually includes a public service announcement that seeks to discourage the use of the R-word.
There was no PSA, though, about the historical and cultural freight that blackface still represents. From Al Jolson (The Jazz Singer) to C. Thomas Howell (Soul Man), white performers have used blackface as a cover to appropriate and experience black culture, not necessarily to celebrate or pay respect. Far from being a "black thang," in a weird, twisted way, blackface is definitely, undeniably and disturbingly a “white thang.”
The defense, in the Tropic Thunder case, is that the film-within-a-film is a spoof, a sendup of Hollywood's overused tropes and stereotypes; it is an equal-opportunity offender. While the film was profitable—it made over $180 million worldwide before its release on DVD last November—several critics were not amused. Chief among them was Scott Feinberg, founder of And The Winner Is, a blog on the award season. “I just can’t imagine any circumstance under which a blackface performance would be acceptable,” wrote Feinberg. “Any more than I can imagine any circumstance under which the use of the N-word would be acceptable.”
It’s not that Downey is particularly bad in the role; it’s that he and the rest of the artists involved thought it was a clever move. “I disliked the idea of Downey Jr. in blackface more than I disliked seeing him do the role,” said Dwight Brown, a film critic for NNPA Syndication/BlackPressUSA.com. “However, if you are asking me if I think less of Downey Jr. for taking the role, less of Ben Stiller for creating it and less of the Academy for nominating it, my answer would be yes.”
OK, I chuckled at some points in the movie, and I know some black folk who think it’s hellafied funny and don’t see anything wrong with Downey Jr.'s portrayal. And there are at least two other performances in the film, which were even more outlandish. An unrecognizable Tom Cruise does a turn as Jewish movie mogul Les Grossman, and Nick Nolte basically lampoons himself as a broken-down vet, whose Vietnam experiences serve as the basis for the film-within-a-film.
Perhaps the biggest slight this Oscar season is that the Academy ignored many strong contributions from black artists. Perhaps the most egregious snub was the blanket rejection of Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s World War II drama based on James McBride’s book of the same name.
Is the irony in all of this lost on Academy voters? After all, this is liberal Hollywood we’re talking about. They rooted for Barack Obama, contributed to his war chest and celebrated hard when he won. Yet, their expansive sensibilities didn’t extend to the ways in which black people are portrayed in films. For all its self-congratulatory high-mindedness, Hollywood has just been passing for enlightened.
I guess the best we can hope for is that if Downey Jr. does win, he will not roll up in blackface or utter the words “sho nuff” in his acceptance speech.
Nick Charles is a regular contributor to The Root.