It’s ironic, you see, because these days nobody’s racist so we can all titter and go “oh, the quaintness of racism! Thank goodness we live in a world where black men aren’t overrepresented in prison due to the War on Drugs and immigrant women aren’t handcuffed to their beds while giving birth because of ICE!”
I think the problem is that the black character is serving as more of the excuse for the blackface than the reason for it. In other words, the emphasis is still on Downey Jr. pretending he’s a black guy, and that behavior is what’s going to get the laughs; the only difference is that the audience will know to wait until the black character gets mad before they laugh out loud.
If our standard is going to be that race and racism are inappropriate as topics of humor as long as the outrages Brown Shoes mentions are present, then the film is going to be offensive no matter how it plays the joke. Personally, though, I think it’s possible to use blackface in a joke against blackface and minstrelsy (as seen in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, apparently). In the trailer for Tropic Thunder, Downey isn’t speaking in hyperbolic minstrel speech, or stereotypically “black” slang–as long as this remains true in the film, then the only joke is on the white character’s cluelessness in thinking that he can accurately and benignly portray a black person. The (actually) black character helps make this joke unambiguous, focusing our attention on the inappropriateness of Downey’s character’s portrayal.
…the only joke is on the white character’s cluelessness in thinking that he can accurately and benignly portray a black person.
But does that joke warrant the amount of laughter we were hearing in the theater? I don’t see how it can be that funny on its own. I really think the audience was laughing at Downey Jr.’s impression of a black person – not the fact that he was impersonating a black person, but the actual impersonation – and I think that’s what the filmmakers intended. Otherwise the joke falls flat.
He wasn’t talking in stereotypically black slang, but he was definitely doing an exaggeratedly gruff voice that I presume was meant to parody the super-tough black character action-movie stereotype. That said, we should probably wait until the movie comes out before we go to outrage code red.
GD: Yeah, there’s the rub, and it’s a big problem with mass entertainment. It was clear to me that the “America—Fuck Yeah!” song from Team America was meant to be laughed at, but in reality you have soldiers in Iraq playing it as genuine pump-up music (though probably with some awareness of the irony, because that’s how we roll in the 21st century). So, back to the trailer: while I personally found the critique of blackface very funny on its own, you’re probably right that the filmmakers are, at least, hedging their bets and figuring that some if not most viewers are going to laugh at the blackface straight up. If only they would screen these movies for just me and other sophisticates…