Tropic Thunder: From Insult to Injury

In today’s Washington Post, Tim Shriver joined the growing chorus of voices asking for a boycott of Dream Works anticipated blockbuster Tropic Thunder, “I hope others will join me in shutting this movie out of our lives and our pocketbooks. We don’t live in times when labeling and humiliating others is funny. And we should send that message far and wide.”Shriver’s willingness to criticize the film industry is more telling considering that he has close ties to the business including being co-producer of another Dreamworks film Armistad.

The controversy is simple, on August 13, 2008 DreamWorks will release what is expected to be a huge blockbuster action-comedy film that satirizes hollywood. The film cost in excess of $100 million to produce. This movie, however, is considered by advocates for people with intellectual disabilities to be laced with hate speech and images. After widespread protest, DreamWorks altered the advertising campaign but not the film itself.

Dreamworks defends the film saying the attitudes expressed are not the values of the writers or actors but of the characters, who are being portrayed as ridiculous parodies. They prefer to see the film as “irreverent” rather than a vehicle for hate propaganda. Of course, the possibility that some people who see the film might view it differently , the grim reality that some people will use the device of the the over-the-top characters to allow them to laugh at vulnerable people without facing their own prejudices, and the likelihood that a few people will respond by bullying people with disabilities or committing hate crimes is not their responsibility.

According to the New York Times,

Mr. Shriver said that he had spoken with Ms. Snider and others at DreamWorks about “Tropic Thunder” and came away convinced that they had no plans for mitigating measures.

Their response, he said, convinced him that the time had come for his group and others to strike a far more aggressive public posture on behalf of the disabled. “The movement needs to enter the public eye and not just be talking among ourselves,” he said.

Early Reviews of the film are generally quite positive. Reviewers have sometimes acknowledged a sense of guilt in laughing at some the “humor,” but not so much as to be critical of its presence. For example, from Ryan Keefer’s Cinema Verdict Review.

Much of the film’s jokes and dialogue are on the guilty laugh / cringeworthy side. When discussing Speedman’s failure with the film Simple Jack, Lazarus says that the failure of the role was because he didn’t temper his character’s mental deficiencies, using a funny yet oddly logical argument that puts Rain Man and I Am Sam in some context.

In some people’s minds this will be viewed as just a little irreverent fun and anyone who complains will be branded as an enemy of free speech and advocate for political correctness. After all, why should a little more pain and suffering brought to vulnerable people stand in the way of big stars like Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, and Katie Holmes having a little good fun and making a lot more money.

It will be interesting to see the backlash created for the call for a boycott. Of course, I don’t think that the promoters of the film will say much because they are such strong advocates for free expression and enemies of political correctness. Why would they want to silence anyone else’s free expression?

For more information see:

The Arc on Tropic Thunder

New York Times, Nationwide ‘Thunder’ Boycott in the Works

8 thoughts on “Tropic Thunder: From Insult to Injury

  1. I think that disability activists are in a double-bind here, and while it’s cynical to paint the following picture, I don’t think it’s THAT cynical that it is further from the truth than falsity. Two options: sit tight and stomach the stereotypes, offense, etc., or protest and make a big deal about it only to have that fuel attendance largely through the subsequent attention this will generate. I’m not saying that the latter is not the path of least evil, but this is a shitty position to be in.

  2. I agree that it is a dilemma. I am not a fan of censorship and I believe in freedom of speech. People have a right to free speech and a right to good laugh. The fact that a few vulnerable people are hurt by it doesn’t take away that right. What I would like most is for them to be more honest. I wish that they would say we are sorry to the pain this inflicts on some people, but frankly we don’t think it is important enough to stand in the way of what we think is a good laugh and big profit.

  3. That is such BS. In todays day and age, whether you are making a movie, television show, comedy routine, etc… you have the right to make fun of whom ever you want. It is activist like you who help paint a picture that its not right to make fun of handicapped or crippled’s, when really it should be the exact opposite. People like me are trying to spread the word that we disabled people are just like everyone else and shouldn’t be treated differently, and than people like you come along asking to sugar coat the media. My guess is that you have a kid or father with some cognitive brain tweak, its ok, they are going to point and laugh regardless, don’t make it uncomfortable for the people they are laughing at by making a scene.

  4. People do have that right, for sure, just as people have the right to resist or not be complicit in what they–disabled or not–regard as behavior that reinforces negative stereotypes, hurts people, and marginalizes the same or others.

    And people have the right to point and laugh at whomever they want. Again, it’s just whether you want to be part of that scene or work in ways to make it only a way of the past. Like blackfacing and golliwogs in connection with race.

  5. I find the notion that people have a “right” to make fun of other people very problematic. It’s akin to saying that people have a “right” to bully other people. What could such a “right” be based on? I have CP; I refer to myself as a Crip all the time. But that doesn’t give me the “right” to go around calling people with intellectual disabilities “retards.” To do so would be to reinforce, rather than resist, ableist attitudes.

  6. NPR
    Day to Day,
    Title: Is Ben Stiller A ‘Tropic’ Blunder?
    August 12, 2008

    Description: The Dreamworks movie Tropic Thunder is getting a lot of attention — not all of it is positive. In the film, Ben Stiller portrays a movie star who plays a cognitively disabled character. Stiller plays the part for laughs, but some Lennard J. Davis, a professor of disability studies at the University if Illinois, isn’t amused by the use of the word “retard.”


  7. Go Lenny Go! Lots of thoughtful stuff in this podcast. One sad irony: you can LISTEN to the podcast by clicking on the link there, but you have to pay $3.95 to get a transcript of those 3 minutes. Why isn’t captioning provided by NPR to those in the Deaf community?

  8. Pingback: More 10 Goodness! « What Sorts of People

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