Ben Stiller and others in Tropic Thunder.

Another ‘Tropic Thunder’ Cast Member Doubles Down in a Disappointing Online Interaction

Thanks, I hate it.

Content Warning: Slurs and Blackface

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When you hear the word “controversial” in reference to the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder, you probably think of Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ) in Blackface. However, at the time of the film’s release, the biggest controversy came from Ben Stiller‘s portrayal of “Simple Jack.” Stiller’s 2008 film starring himself, RDJ, and Jack Black is a multi-pronged satire of the film industry—especially the prestige of war films, method acting, and the concept of the Hollywood machine. Questions of whether or not their portrayals of these characters toed or crossed a line remain part of the film’s legacy.

This discourse of its controversialness comes up every so often. However, it feels like it’s happening at an increasing rate as keyboard contrarians declare, “[Insert anything] couldn’t be made today because we are ‘too sensitive.'” This framing came up again in a recent viral tweet. Tagging Stiller, user @BennySings tweeted a screenshot of his own Facebook post. The post said “liberals” were trying to “cancel” Tropic Thunder, and that Stiller should not apologize. Instead of looking at the context of the tweet or doing any self-reflection, Stiller took the bait and stated he was proud of the film, thus opening up bad faith conversation about the film and his own shortcomings once again.

Why is Tropic Thunder controversial?

In Tropic Thunder, Stiller plays the character Tugg Speedman. Speedman seeks to redirect his nosediving career after playing a character with mental disabilities, Simple Jack. In addition to showing the trailer, Tropic Thunder characters reference Speedman’s actions and use ableist slurs. Additionally, under duress, Speedman reenacts scenes from Simple Jack. Speedman’s decision to play Jack satirized when Hollywood actors play characters with various mental disabilities—often to much acclaim. Examples include Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994), and Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001). This trend never ended; just ask singer/songwriter Sia.

In 2008, over 23 disability groups protested the film’s release citing the slurs and mocking of disability. A Special Olympics spokesperson stated, “We are asking people not to go to the movie and hope to bring a consciousness to people about using derogatory words about this population.” The Special Olympics Chairman told NPR that he understood the N-word was used several times, but was taken out. He expressed frustration that production didn’t treat the r-word the same. Dreamworks stood by the film, but did remove images of Jack from promotional material so the character would not be seen out of context. This included the site SimpleJackMovie.com. According to Variety, the site was aimed at teenage boys and featured a poster with Stiller next to the tagline “Once upon a time … there was a retard.”

MAGA influencer @BennySings later cited that a 2018 tweet from Stiller might have been the source of the apology rumor. @BennySings should know since he’s the person who said Stiller apologized, but that wasn’t the point of the post. It was to complain about “cancel culture.” In the 2018 tweet, Stiller engages with another person downplaying the portrayal of Jack by defending a costume by snowboarder Shaun White. White apologized for the Halloween costume. In this 2018 tweet, Stiller states he apologized in the past but stands by the movie. The statement says a lot but also says nothing at all.

The Blackface in Tropic Thunder

Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (2008).
(DreamWorks Pictures)

The most commonly cited controversy regarding this film is RDJ in Blackface. His character, Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, browns his skin and speaks in AAVE to immerse himself in the role of Lincoln Osiris. The joke wasn’t “Black people are like this,” it’s calling out people who will do the most offensive, extreme sorts of method acting for critical acclaim. According to SFGate, Stiller showed this film to NAACP and some Black journalists before its release. According to Entertainment Weekly, in 2008 RDJ stated, ”I dove in with both feet. If I didn’t feel it was morally sound, or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I’m just C. Thomas Howell in [Soul Man], I would’ve stayed home.”

While I’m in the minority of opinions on this (well, of those that actually matter), many are fine with this choice by RDJ because it was clearly criticizing the practice. RDJ seemed to be aware of the balance, too. At least until he used the “My Black Friends” excuse on an episode of The Joe Rogan Experience. Following his appearance, TMS Assistant Editor Princess Weekes wrote in 2020:

Yes, the film is satirical and making fun of method actors who think they are making a “point” about race as they lean into the most racist aspects of filmmaking. The problem is that the film ended up being a huge comeback for Downey, garnering him a Golden Globe win and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor—that he lost to Heath Ledger, but was considered the forerunner for regardless.

Despite that it was supposed to be calling Hollywood out, it ended up being another way for the industry to commend itself for being “brave” and “funny” enough to “go there.”

Asian representation in Tropic Thunder

Stiller’s Jack and RDJ’s Blackface aren’t the only controversial elements of the film. It’s a ’00s comedy so it features the standard homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and antisemitism (with the “Jewface” of Les Grossman). These were not just hallmarks of “The Frat Pack” film genre. Some of this presented itself through satirical critique, while other times, it’s just played for laughs. This includes the construction of antagonists as these equally ruthless and inept brown people that dwell in the jungle. Despite mocking the post-Vietnam war films, Tropic Thunder paints its South Asian cast as flat caricatures. Unless it was just that subtle, we all missed it, there’s no *wink wink* to attempt to excuse this.

This coincides with how Asian Americans are flattened into a handful of stereotypes on screen across Hollywood. This extends into war films like the kind Tropic Thunder lampoons. While a lead Asian actress has never won an Oscar, Luise Rainer won one in 1938 for yellowface (a practice that continued as late as 2012 with the Wachowski Sister’s Cloud Atlas), playing an Asian stereotype. Aside from Merle Oberon—who passed as a white woman until decades later—it wasn’t until 2021, when Youn Yuh-jung won Best Supporting Actress for Minari, that the number of Asian women in the acting category became equal with white winners who won dawning yellowface.

Based on receptions for work like Severance and other projects, Stiller is obviously not stifled by this past body of work. However, as we saw with the only movie he’s starred in, directed, produced, and written since Tropic Thunder in 2008, Zoolander 2 in 2016, his comedic writing is stunted by the inability to progress past early ’00s comedy.

The initial tweet shows exactly how Tropic Thunder fails

There’s a stand-up bit that stuck with me after I heard it (although I cannot for the life of me find the clip or even remember who the comic was) about how racism and other forms of bigotry ruin dark humor. Paraphrasing here, but the idea was that dark humor only works when both parties understand the end of the joke is something bad. However, online and off, when dark comedy (including satire like Tropic Thunder) is dispersed to a larger audience that doesn’t understand the “in-joke” or just exhibits terrible media literacy, people can take it very differently. This happens when people don’t find the humor in that it’s inappropriate, but because they ascribe to the beliefs. Yes, all of this is assuming that the joke is “good” (which is subjective) and is fitted to the writer.

To what degree the onus is on the artist versus the audience is a mixed bag. However, regardless of Stiller’s intent in writing his and RDJ’s role, many of the defenses of the Blackface—including by the cast as previously stated—are awful. The audience utilizes images from the film in acts of digital Blackface. Additionally, they, including the tweets Stiller engaged with, frame any criticism as “cancel culture.” This wasn’t a random post shared, but a Black MAGA conservative personality sharing his own post from his verified Facebook account. He initiated the conversation for engagement. You didn’t have to look beyond one to two tweets on his profile to see antisemitic, anti-Black, transphobic, and homophobic conspiracy theories.

This “comedy is dead” outrage is its own brand of stand-up and something Todd Phillips made his personality about leading up to Taxi Driv—I mean Joker‘s release. I can’t see Stiller’s shitty reply in a vacuum when Fox News uses the sentiment he engaged to advertise crappy documentaries, and justify bigotry.

(featured image: Dreamworks)


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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.