Robert Downey, Jr.: Say it Loud, He's Black He's Proud!

Rebecca Carroll

In an Entertainment Weekly story earlier this year, Robert Downey Jr. was asked what his thoughts were on playing a white actor playing a black actor (in blackface) in the then upcoming summer film Tropic Thunder. His response: "If it's done right, it could be the type of role you called Peter Sellers to do 35 years ago. If you don’t do it right, we’re going to hell." I'm happy to say, we’re not going to hell. (Even though all the people I like are probably going there.)

As badly as I wanted to see Dark Knight (and still haven't), I wanted to see Tropic Thunder more (I don't get out much) -- for all the obvious reasons, I recently said in conversation with two people; one who knows me, one who does not ... the latter was confused by my reference to "the obvious reasons," while the former said, without missing a beat, chuckling a bit too: "That she is a fan of Ben Stiller, of course."

I do enjoy Ben Stiller, or used to maybe more than I do now, but the obvious reasons here actually refer to my status as a 21st-century Race Woman: a biracial, cosmetically black-culturally white, black identified, chronicler and critic of race in America, backer of Obama, beneficiary of Affirmative Action, victim of the one-drop rule, daughter of a white MacArthur genius, spouse in an interracial marriage, mother of a quadroon (I can use that word because I'm black; but I'll be mighty pissed if some white person uses it), and former W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow at Harvard University. And so, I'm going to want to see a white actor playing a black actor (in blackface) in a Hollywood movie. You can bet your sweet afro on that.

Overall, it's a funny movie. It really is. Not constantly funny, but pretty funny throughout. The writing is smart, the satire is solid, the presentation is light, and Robert Downey Jr. is genius as the overly precious Australian method actor who undergoes a skin pigmentation process to darken his skin for the part of Osiris, a black lieutenant. Sure, there are a few moments when it feels a wee bit unsettling and borderline offensive, but smartly, and luckily, in a save-your-ass kind of way (well done, Stiller), that's when the real black guy calls him out: "That how you think we all talk? 'Yessuh, No suh!' You're Australian! Be Australian!"

The intent, clearly, is to satirize self-important actors, not to offend blacks or to recall the painful history of blackface, which is just, well, a stretch in my opinion. If this movie hurts your feelings, I'm sorry, maybe take a deeper look inside yourself -- ask yourself some of the harder questions about how you feel about race ... do the work.

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