Is Robert Downey Jr funny as an African American? – 3.5.2008.1

By Michael Vass | March 5, 2008

On March 17th America will have its first chance to decide on what may become one of the largest bets made in the entire year. I don’t mean a Democratic Primary race. But it does cut along similar lines. What is it? Tropical Thunder.

Name doesn’t ring a bell? Me either. Until I saw a post at Slashfilm.com. Then I found out something I’m still not sure how I feel about.

Tropic Thunder is a film, directed and starring Ben Stiller. Generally I don’t like his films. Starsky and Hutch was a flop, Zoolander was ignorant, and so on. He isn’t funny and constantly plays the same dumb character in each film. Perhaps the only film I liked him in was The Royal Tanembaums, which I recommend, and he was the worst actor in the film.

The film is a spoof/satire on Hollywood actors. Specifically the prima dona set. A remake of Apocalypse Now stars several major actors that all have issues. Thus the director and writer place them in a real war scenario that they don’t realize is real. Cue the laugh track.

There are 2 things that may work for the film, and several that work against it. The biggest negative is Ben Stiller, as I mentioned. But on the positives there is the fact that Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. are in the film. Both can be great comedic characters and are quite successful at it. They are entertainers that usually get it right.

But Jack Black is playing a character that

“portrays a comedian known for performing multiple roles in a single film — his latest is called The Fatties: Fart 2.”

Sound familiar? That actor is Eddie Murphy. So we know that Stiller is directly taking on an Oscar nominee, an acclaimed stand-up comedian, and an actor that has more successful films than Stiller has been in. Now the fact they are making fun of Eddie Murphy is not necessarily a bad thing. Given the ability of Jack Black, it may even be a funny and well-done send up. But there is another component to the film that changes the tone of this characterization.

Robert Downey Jr is a great entertainer. He commits well to his roles and is able to play a huge range of roles. He dedicates himself to his character and makes them authentic. That’s the good thing. It makes me pause when I understand that his character is faking being Black. Not Jack Black, but African American.
Photo found at http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20182058,00.html
Look at the photo. The person in the circle is Downey. He is not in black face, but in full make-up. His character in this film

“Kirk Lazarus, a very serious Oscar-winning actor cast in the most expensive Vietnam War film ever. Problem is, Lazarus’s character, Sgt. Osiris, was originally written as black. So Lazarus decides to dye his skin and play Osiris, um, authentically.”

So we have a White man, playing as an African American, in a film making fun of actors. This is the razor’s edge indeed.

Can this be funny? Maybe. Some audiences so far have seen portions of the film and it is testing well, they say. Given the commitment of Downey, I can see the satire in it. But I don’t trust Stiller’s ability to direct or act. I’m not confident in the writing.

Most of all, I’m not sure how I feel about it.

This could be like the absurdity of Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. Or it could be Al Jolson. When you add in the nudge against Eddie Murphy, the undertone is not quite so positive.

On the 17th video clips and trailers will be released. Already Robert Downey Jr. has said

“At the end of the day, it’s always about how well you commit to the character,” he says. “I dove in with both feet. 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.”

So given that we have yet to see more than the above picture, I wonder what you think.

Topics: Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “Is Robert Downey Jr funny as an African American? – 3.5.2008.1”

  1. Mike Belgrove

    One of the other writers on Highbrid Nation wrote about Robert Downy playing a black man in Tropical Thunder. He worries that < HREF="http://highbridnation.com/2008/03/07/robert-downey-jr-plays-a-black-soldier-in-ben-stillers-parody-flick/" REL="nofollow">Al Sharpton might have something to say about it<>, lol. Honestly as a black person I think it’s kinda cool that movie make-up has gotten to the point where you can make someone look like another race and if the pics I’ve seen of Robert Downy in costume are accurate than they did a really good job! Plus Robert is a very capable actor so I’m sure he wont come across as stereo typical or offensive. I could be wrong though.

  2. poscheat

    I’m going to love this as much as I loved Eddie Murphy as Mr. White on SNL…or any other characiture of a Jew, Asian, Woman, Nerd, Fat person, etc. Eddie Murphy was hilarious back in the day.The Waynes brothers have done the same thing imitating White Chicks…although the film wasn’t funny at all.

  3. Anonymous

    If you think the spirit has color, then your as blind as the desert night without stars. People as one under spirit, not the color of the skin. The spirit should represent the shell not the shell representing the spirit. J. Elk.

  4. M. Vass

    J. Elk, I’m not sure you are directing that comment to me, but since you have not been clear I will take it as such.If it is directed at me, then I must say it is one of the better worded insults I have heard in quite some time. So I must thank you first for reading and commenting on my post, and then again for putting some effort into your comment.Now I re-read my post, and I have to ask where it was I mentioned that anyone’s spirit is influenced by their color? In fact I don’t see where I mention color other than its use to convey a message, in this case comedy.The question is will the writing and direction be funny. My opinion is that Ben Stiller is not gifted enough on any level to do so. Thus his use of stereotypes to twist a comedic point on Hollywood is doomed to fail. But I never questioned the spirit of any of the actors, unless I misunderstand your use of the term.I agree that people are people, some good some bad. But at the same time I recognize the fact that entertainment media, and the major news, are geared towards maintaining stereotypes that are negative in nature to people of color. Such is the world.Given the environment of Hollywood, another film that is a caricature of people of color is not beneficial or funny to me. On the other hand an honest and well-done take on old themes is. Which this film turns out to be is a question that now can be answered since it is in movie theaters on August 13th – which was months away when I first wrote the post.I have yet to see the film. I have seen mixed reviews ahead of its release. I have heard of protests from groups for the disabled. So the question at this moment remains – is it funny?No matter how good a person any of the actors in this film might be, that does not make this film positive or good by association. As the saying goes“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”Thus I am left at this moment with my concluding thought“This could be like the absurdity of Gene Wilder in Silver Streak. Or it could be Al Jolson. When you add in the nudge against Eddie Murphy, the undertone is not quite so positive.”It’s not a question of the intentions or the spirit of the actors involved, it’s still a question of the final product.

  5. Anonymous

    “So we have a White man, playing as an African American, in a film making fun of actors. This is the razor’s edge indeed.”No…we have a White Man, Playing a White Man, Playing as an African American.And why no Mention of Stiller in Night at the Museum?

  6. C. Davis

    I’m African american and I just watched this movie last weekend. It was one of the funniest movies I have seen in a long time, and Robert Downey Jr. was so convincing, that all you could do is laugh. I think people are being a little to defensive about the situation. just like poscheat commented, the Wayans brothers did the exact same thing and nobody even tried to stop them. This is just a problem that we as a race have of always thinking that someone wants to reject or otherwise humiliate us.

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