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Race, on its face, is still a moving target

Special to The Times

WHAT IS going on in the zeitgeist when an African American is poised to become president and Robert Downey Jr. is in blackface? In the new comedy “Tropic Thunder,” Downey plays actor Kirk Lazarus, a Russell Crowe-ish Aussie who is cast as a black soldier in a blood-and-guts Vietnam War epic. Method Man that he is, Lazarus dyes his skin, mats his hair and revamps his voice into a guttural drawl that’s equal parts plantation and blaxploitation. His flared sideburns might have been modeled on Jim Brown’s in “100 Rifles.”

Ben Stiller co-wrote and directed “Tropic Thunder” and stars in it as a would-be war hero. He has said in interviews that Lazarus represents nothing more than a satirical swipe at overly intense actors, so let’s start out by taking him at his word.

Viewed purely as performance, Downey’s boundary-bending turn is an actor’s holiday at the expense of actors -- specifically and self-mockingly Downey himself, whose intensity, like Daniel Day-Lewis’, is notorious. “Tropic Thunder” opens with a faux trailer for an earlier Lazarus movie called “Satan’s Alley,” in which Downey plays a smoldering monk in what looks like a cross between “The Name of the Rose” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Desire has made him molten.

It takes a prodigiously gifted actor to lampoon himself and still wipe everybody else off the screen. Throughout the shoot, on-screen and off, Lazarus never once falls out of character, not even with his scoffing black costar (Brandon T. Jackson), who thinks this white dude is crazy. You can’t help admiring his nut-brain dedication. In the acting biz, absurdity and genius are never far apart. If you doubt it, consider this: Lazarus’ folly and Laurence Olivier’s jet-black Othello inhabit the same play-act continuum. Downey makes Lazarus both the butt and the paragon of his profession.

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Downey -- whose previous Great Moment in Racial Comedy was an improvised scene in James Toback’s “Black and White,” in which he makes a pass at Mike Tyson and nearly gets pulverized for his troubles -- knows how to capture the self-delusions of the anointed. Lazarus is a five-time Oscar winner who doesn’t realize how far out his Method has taken him. (Neither did Dustin Hoffman’s prima donna in “Tootsie.”) But he’s quick to spot the exhibitionism of others.

Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, for example, known for his action roles, is coming off a colossal flop in which he played all too realistically a mentally challenged hayseed named Simple Jack. Lazarus offers up to Speedman the cautionary example of Sean Penn, who went Oscarless with “I Am Sam.” “Never go full retard,” he counsels. Of course, if Lazarus had been cast as Simple Jack, he would have gone full frontal lobotomy. (Stiller’s caricature, which has already drawn protests from more than half a dozen disabilities organizations, lacks the cutting edge of Downey’s racial whammy. It’s closer to goony, Farrelly brothers-style bad taste).

Early in his career, Downey, like Stiller, had a stint on “Saturday Night Live,” and his acting here, while far more sophisticated, is linked to those revue-sketch years. “SNL” has always specialized in skewering the outsize pretensions of the theatrically deluded. Think of Bill Murray’s oleaginous lounge singer bending his voice to the theme from “Star Wars.” Or Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian molding each syllable for the ages. What made the routines so funny is that, on some level, these actors weren’t kidding. Their mockery of ego was balled up inside their own egomania. Downey’s Lazarus, with his free-form riffs on the peacockery of performing, fits right into this company.

So do his riffs on race, which have an even earlier pedigree. Downey’s father, Robert Downey Sr., directed 1969’s funky, acidulous “Putney Swope,” about a Black Power takeover of a lily-white Madison Avenue ad agency. A year later, in Brian De Palma’s “Hi, Mom!,” black militants stage an off-off-Broadway show called “Be Black Baby,” during which, in white face, they force their white patrons to wear blackface and then proceed to terrorize them so they can better “understand” the black experience. The comic kicker comes at the end. Says one brutalized white guy, admiringly, about the evening: “It really makes you stop and think.”

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These underground movies, mostly forgotten now, nevertheless set the template for the scabrous racial vaudeville that morphed into the blaxploitation cycle right on up through rap. For white audiences, especially guilty liberals, the message in these movies was explicit: “We really are your worst nightmare.”

A multitude of masks

HISTORICALLY, white actors in blackface incarnated the cruelest of racial caricatures. (Even when Fred Astaire in “Swing Time” wore blackface in tribute to Bill Robinson, it was implicit that Bojangles could never star in such a film.) But one cannot talk about blackfaced white performers without at the same time summoning up the camouflages worn by black actors -- worn, in many cases, to have any career at all. Throughout all too much of Hollywood’s sorry history, particularly pre-Sidney Poitier, black performers, with no decent roles available to them, wore minstrel masks too. They acted out the demeaning images whites set for them (and still, like Robinson himself, they frequently managed to be more electric than their often starched-white counterparts). By the time the ‘60s counterculture came along, attitudes had shifted. Black minstrelsy became a put-on -- a weapon. Be black, baby.

The weaponry, literally and figuratively, was even more apparent in the blaxploitation films, where the bad-guy white characters were often as demeaned and demonized as blacks once had been. (Typical was Rip Torn in “Slaughter” nattering the N-word as he goes up in flames.) The stoneface stud mask worn by the Shafts and the Superflys emblematized the worst-case fears of whites -- fears of black sexuality, black payback. But selling fear can be lucrative, and fear, right up to the present time, carries its own cachet of cool. Is it any surprise that whites are the largest consumers of gangsta hip-hop? Or that a too-cool-for-school director such as Quentin Tarantino, the filmmaking embodiment of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro,” should act as movieland’s soul brother No. 1 by getting his groove on with “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown”? Despite, or perhaps because of, Obamamania, our so-called post-racial society has rarely been more race-conscious. (The brouhaha over the New Yorker’s Obama bin Laden cover is one example.) How all this will play out in terms of popular culture is anybody’s guess, but the yin-yang is very heady.

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On-again, off-again issue

FOR THE only time in film history, for example, black actors can now be stars without first being “black.” By this I mean, they can, like Will Smith or Denzel Washington, play just about anything without having to be racially typed. (Big exception: They still can’t romance white women -- the last taboo.)

On the other hand, there is Downey in “Tropic Thunder,” who rubs the audience’s face in the fact that we are not remotely “over” race -- or, to be precise, racism. Paradoxically, the zeitgeist that accounts for the ascendancy of Smith also makes Downey’s performance possible. This is because the political correctness quotient tends to dip in less-straitened times. Instead of being grossly offensive, Downey’s Lazarus comes across as a daring racial jest. (The jest would have been even more daring if he had been American.)

Whereas blackface once expressed the most cringe-worthy aspects of white racism, here it reveals the opposite -- Lazarus’ makeover shows up the arrant silliness of white fantasies of “blackness.” The soldier he plays, Lincoln Osiris, is a patchwork derived not from life but from show business, from blaxploitation films and “Benson” and “The Jeffersons.” He’s the freak who results when whites attempt to forge a black identity from the spare parts of pop culture.

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I don’t want to make too great a case for “Tropic Thunder,” which pulls many more punches than it lands. But something new is going on whenever Downey is on-screen. He has the wit to recognize that, in this country right now, where Barack Obama’s public appearances are covered in the press as theater, race is regarded as a species of performance art. He’s the court jester in our national masquerade.

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Rainer is film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and DVD critic for Bloomberg News.


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