I would classify myself as an intensely proud black man. And I feel completely comfortable saying that Robert Downey Jr. deserves his Oscar nod.
Denying Tropic Thunder’s smart satire simply because the artists involved are white is simplistic and short-sighted. Frankly, I find Tyler Perry’s use of trite black American archetypes equally as problematic as blackface. But Perry is black, and Downey Jr. is white. Well, usually.
I probably should be outraged at the fact Ben Stiller conceived the role, Downey Jr. accepted it and a production company opted to continue the film with such a character in script. But I am not.
There are a few reasons for this. First, I found the role and performance so outlandishly absurd that my black sensitivity button just couldn’t get pushed. I’m much more offended when old women at the grocery store assume I work there. Before the film was released, I was outraged. The idea of such a character offended me because I wasn’t confident such a volatile cultural topic could be satirized well by a couple of white guys. Plain and simple. We’ve all seen it go horribly wrong in the past.
People enjoy laughing at subjects in poor taste. The fine line between satire and offense is found in awareness and responsibility. Al Jolson’s performances lacked this. The same can be said for C. Thomas Howell. Both these blackface performances obviously sprung from this initial thought: “Let’s act like (we wrongly think) black people act. It’ll be a riot!” Neither actor—nor the people supporting their performances—took it any further than that or accepted the responsibility for stepping into the briar patch.
But Downey Jr.—and Stiller—were always in on the joke they were telling. Downey Jr.’s character, a pompous method actor who has the audacity to think he can slip into black skin, falls pathetically short. And that is funny. Robert Downey Jr. nailed his performance in his complete commitment to being utterly over-the-top. Had he slipped out of the role of Australian method actor for a second, this probably would have been a disaster. But he stayed 1000% committed. I can't speak to his personal feeling on playing the role; whether or not he felt like he was safely taking pot shots at black people. I'm not sure anyone can. But I can say that he’s a gifted actor, and he successfully navigated the waters of the satire admirably enough that he deserves recognition for it.
There’s an assumption that neither Downey Jr. nor Stiller thought about what they were stepping into. Come on. While I’m not exactly ready to call either the next Mark Twain, I find it hard to believe that a good degree of thought did not go into this decision. Robert Downey Jr. is just now picking his career up off the cutting room floor. To think he’d go into a blackface routine without much thought is unlikely. And Stiller is not the idiot he typically portrays.
Still, for satire to be effective, the audience must also take some responsibility. I find those who would take such a performance at face value more worthy of scrutiny and critique than those who would do the satirizing. Satire requires that everyone, from actor to audience, remain in on the joke; in on the sad but hilarious absurdity.
Robert Downey Jr.’s character—the method actor—is hilarious because he is utterly pitiful. I find his character entirely less problematic than that of Jack Black, who played a drug addict in withdrawal. Black replaced Owen Wilson—a friend of Stiller’s—who had to leave the movie due to a drug problem that led to a suicide attempt. Yuck. If Stiller lacked sensitivity, it was more toward his good friend than toward black people.
I get the backdrop to the outrage over Tropic Thunder’s bold turn at blackface. This is understandable given a tattered history of poorly done satire meant only to humiliate and dehumanize a group of people, but such history does not foreclose the possibility of a good in-poor-taste jest. Tropic Thunder pulled it off. Robert Downey Jr. pulled it off. Do I think he should win? No. Heath Ledger should take the Oscar for his tour-de-force performance in The Dark Knight. Not because he is dead. Because his performance was superb.
Still, I’m not mad at Downey Jr. for getting nominated. The actor hilariously and skillfully played an actor trying—poorly—to play a black man. In the end, his performance did not amount to blackface. It was far too smart for that.
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley is a writer based in New York.