Robert Downey Jr. is a fine actor by every conceivable perspective on the art. A critique of his appearance as Kirk Lazarus in the 2008 hit comedy Tropic Thunder is not a criticism of his talent.
But what makes things a bit more bizarre for us looking back is wondering how RDJ got away with wearing blackface for his role.
Even if those times were prior to these times of hypersensitive and tensed interactions on identity, the film was considered provocative.
Downey played a fictional Australian actor, Kirk Lazarus, who has to play a black army sergeant in a war movie set in the jungle.
While filming in the jungle, Lazarus and his fellows must rescue one of the actors who was kidnapped. The plan for rescue was for these actors to play their fictional selves in a real rescue mission.
However, Lazarus continues to play the black sergeant even after filming stops. His over-the-top commitment to playing a black man infuriated and amused an actual black man, the actor Brandon T. Jackson, who was in Tropic Thunder as well.
The film is, therefore, a meta-narrative. But that does provide an excuse for the picture?
Alex Dobuzinskis, writing for Reuters shortly after the film’s release, described the situation as venturing “into the racially charged territory of blackface, an old showbiz convention that is no laughing matter.”
There was some pushback from the viewing public but it did not amount to much. And anyone who expected social justice activism from RDJ’s fellow stars in Hollywood overestimated, if not misdiagnosed, how much these celebrities felt about Tropic Thunder.
All of these do not quite answer how RDJ got away with making up with black polish to play a black man.
There were no consequences even if he admits fearing for the end of his career. He was actually nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal.
The man who would gain everlasting fame as Iron Man knew what he was getting into when he agreed to play a black man but he strongly defended himself.
RDJ said back at the time, “It’s entertainment that’s set up by people who are high-minded enough to not be racist or offensive.”
“The whole film is based on the idea that what we (actors) do at some level is offensive and who we are, at some level, is despicable and pathetic, which is the truth and not the truth. But the part of it that is the truth, is entertaining.”
The question for theorists and the public alike then becomes: What do we do about a film that is mocking blackface but actually requires a white actor committed to playing blackface?
What the movie did was to dig up an offensive practice for the sole purpose of ridiculing it. The justification for putting black polish on RDJ’s face is supposed to be realized by the viewer in the buffoonery of RDJ’s character.
Lazarus was an idiot and the film’s director Ben Stiller made sure of that.
But that was where the trick laid. If we can see that Lazarus was an idiot, we can laugh off his zealous identification as a black man.
This sort of experimentation, however well-intentioned, borders on a certain level of apathy or disconnectedness from the weight of the history of blackface.
Did the movie need to dress a white man up as a black man so as to show us it is stupid to do that? The problem of drawing lines of respectability in art is difficult.
Having said that, what Tropic Thunder also did was to take the kind of artistic liberty only white people could. This is not about white privilege as much as it is the effrontery to laugh at something that was never weaponized against you.
The film was a critical success and that is something a lot of black people can agree with. Its didactic value cannot be missed nor overlooked.
But RDJ and Tropic Thunder also went a scary length to teach their lessons.