Smile Politely

Ask Politely #29

This week, Ask Politely is a special commentary by our resident film critic, Chuck Koplinski. The rest of the piece can be found by clicking “Continue Reading” below. Please join in the discussion.

This is going to be messy.

There is a current controversy raging around Ben Stiller’s new film, “Tropic Thunder.” At its core, it is a vicious satire about vacuous Hollywood movies, the avarice of the bean counters that finance them and the narcissistic film actors who star in them. Method acting, the process through which performers go to great lengths to research and inhabit their roles before the cameras begin to roll, takes a particularly strong beating. In the film, five time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) goes to the nth degree with this method by undergoing a skin pigmentation process that makes him look like an African American in order to play his role.

However, this modern take on blackface isn’t causing the firestorm. Actually, I haven’t read a single derogatory thing about it. Nope, the controversy is about the film’s frequent use of the “R word.”

No, it’s not “rim job,” either.

It’s “retard.”

In an effort to save his flagging career, action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) has made a film called “Simple Jack,” in which he plays a mentally challenged innocent along the lines of Lennie from “Of Mice and Men.” It’s an unmitigated disaster and when the topic of his performance comes up between the actor and Lazarus, the latter advises that in taking on a role, “You never go full retard.” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” and Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” were fine, according to the master thespian, because they each possessed some sort of other talent (playing ping pong and counting cards, respectively.) However, Sean Penn made the mistake of going “full retard” in “I Am Sam,” which according to Lazarus, was a big mistake.

The offensive word is used about a half dozen times during this exchange and, while I’m not doing the material justice, the intent of the scene is to demonstrate how ignorant, out of touch and insensitive these actors are. They are in the movie business for two reasons and two reasons only; to make money and achieve fame. And they will do anything to get it, as well as step on and use anyone that can help them gain their self serving goals.

Protests have sprung up at theaters around the country concerning the use of this word, claiming that the film is insensitive in the way it uses the term, conveys that its usage is acceptable and that it demeans those who are mentally challenged. (I am, of course, not sure if this is an acceptable term now either and am fearful of offending anyone by using it or any other declarative terminology.)

As an area middle school teacher, I cover Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men each year and I discuss his use of offensive language in the novel, in particularly his use of the “N word.” I point out that simply because the author used the word, does not make him a racist. Quite the contrary, as evidenced by his portrayal of Crooks, the only African American character in the book, whose tragic sense of low self esteem is a product of the racism he’s had to endure his entire life. When the characters in the novel use this offensive term, it portrays them as ignorant, crass, and, in certain instances, racist.

The same principle applies to Stiller and “Thunder.” In using the word repeatedly, the actor/writer effectively underscores simply how misguided these actors are. There’s nothing cool or endearing in the way they use “retard.” The characters come off as uninformed and insensitive and the more they utter this term, the more powerfully this point is driven home.

While I, other critics, and the makers of the film can defend it until we’re blue in the face, it does nothing to assuage those who have been offended by it. I am not the father of an autistic son, I do not have to care for a daughter with Downs Syndrome and I do not have any first hand experience in dealing with anyone who has a mental disability. I do not know of the daily challenges they face or the struggles they are forced to endure regarding other’s perceptions of their children. While it would be easy of me to tell these heroic people to see the other side of this issue or to simply loosen up, I would not be justified in doing so as I have not walked in their shoes or dealt with their trials.

That being said, the thing that bothers me most about this controversy is that it seems as though more than a few people are raising a stink without having seen “Tropic Thunder.” Some are basing their activism on samples of the script they have read, which does not reflect how the material is presented on the screen, or are protesting simply because other organizations are, much like Jennifer Schrad who set up a table in the lobby of the Savoy 16 to raise viewer’s awareness of the issue. (She and others will be at the theater this weekend to distribute information. Kudos to the manager of the theater, Jeremy Curtis for facilitating this open forum.) Similar to those who protested “The Last Temptation of Christ,” sight unseen, during its release and those who join efforts to ban books without having read them, taking this sort of position without examining the source material is a dangerous stance to take and undercuts the credibility of their argument.

OK, there’s my two cents (I know, reads more like 50 cents worth).

Now it’s your turn. Is the use of the word “retard” ever acceptable? Does “Tropic Thunder” use this term in an exploitive manner or in an effort to underscore ignorant behavior? Is this controversy a valid one or a tempest in a teapot?

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