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The protests about "Tropic Thunder"

The author, a C-5/6 quadriplegic since 1979, is a freelance journalist and film reviewer who frequently writes about disability issues and is an active first-term member of the Washington Governor's Committee on Disability Issues and Employment. He lives near Seattle.

From Jeff Shannon:

All I can say about "Tropic Thunder" (which I have seen and mostly enjoyed) is this:

(1) The disability community is diverse, multi-faceted, and by no
means united on every issue. But as an advocate for the rights of ALL people with disabilities, I have to keep my perspective wide open to appreciate these kinds of protests and do my utmost to understand why they occur and what, precisely, is the source of offense. One of the fascinating aspects of my recent education as an advocate is the ongoing effort to understand and represent all disabilities, not just my own.

(2) Having said that, I have an obligation to be as sensitive and understanding as possible regarding the protests and the reasoning of the protestors. The same thing applied to "Million Dollar Baby," when I was personally offended by Chicago disability and right-to-life advocates who held signs saying Roger Ebert "approved of murdering the disabled." That struck me as radical opportunism, and I was personally offended and angered by those over-the-top protests, but as a disabled person I had an obligation to examine the reasoning behind them carefully.

(3) Having said that -- and having grown up with a cousin with Down Syndrome -- I think this "Tropic" protest is balanced on a two-edged sword, and the edge I favor as a film reviewer (in this case) is that the protestors have entirely missed the point regarding the target of the satire, which is the silliness of Hollywood. But while the protests may seem misguided to some filmgoers and critics, we ALL must allow for the fact that they have merit and must be taken seriously.

(4) There's great danger in the fact that the vast majority of
filmgoers are misunderstanding the protests and writing them off as knee-jerk, reactionary, and insubstantial. It's dangerous and potentially tragic, because advocates in this arena of disability (one which I'm not heavily involved with and cannot personally relate to) have worked for decades to dispel and eliminate the kind of messages that "Tropic Thunder" unintentionally perpetuates. In this regard, I am deeply sympathetic toward those who are feeling deeply hurt and politically violated by the film. The protestors may seem misguided to those of us who appreciate the film's humor and (seemingly) obvious intentions,
but we MUST lend credence to them and listen to them carefully in order to fully understand the nature and reasons for their concern. This gets down to the issue of language and how it's interpreted, mininterpreted, endorsed or rejected...and the simple fact is that the vast majority of people in this country think it's perfectly OK to use the word "retard" for humorous effect, not realizing (or caring) that it's the equivalent of "nigger" in some circles. THAT is the issue that must be addressed and understood.

5) Another thing that's happening with "Tropic" is that the protests are largely based on the volume and magnitude of the content that some are finding offensive. I think this is where Manohla Dargis got it right -- that "retard" is used so often that it causes us to squirm, not laugh. She writes:

That’s how he ends up blowing what might have been the film’s sharpest scene, involving Kirk’s explanation for why Tugg’s performance as a retarded man in “Simple Jack” doomed his chances for an Oscar, an elucidation that includes a clever taxonomy of all the ways it’s permissible to play intellectually challenged in Hollywood (“Forrest Gump” is statuette-worthy, though not “I Am Sam”) and a grindingly unfunny repetition of the word retard. If Mr. Downey — who at this point in his career apparently can do no wrong, even in blackface — can’t make this bit work, it’s because the bit is unworkable. The pomposity of the Oscars is the hook, but it’s the word retard that provides the squirm.

(back to Shannon): I would like to say that everyone in the U.S. comprehends these fine distinctions, but they don't. They'll hear the "R" word repeatedly and it will subtly sink in that it's acceptable terminology. I mean hell, I used it myself throughout grade school and I DO in fact have a cousin with Down Syndrome. So I think that many people will understand and appreciate the REAL target of the film's satire, but when you're pummeled by the "R" word, the unavoidable conclusion is that it's OK to use it. This is a case where the argument of "No harm no foul" simply cannot and does not apply.

And trust me, nobody appreciates the humor of "Tropic" more than I do. I thought the movie was hilarious, for the most part. After the first mention of "Simple Jack" I thought, "Is that it? That's what all the fuss is about?" -- but when the "full retard" scene came on, all I could think of is "Uh-oh...this really is dangerous." And that's coming from someone who TOTALLY appreciates where that scene is coming from.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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