Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Facing Fears: The R-Word in Tropic Thunder

First, a confession: I did not watch Tropic Thunder until February 7th, 2016.

It took me EIGHT YEARS to get enough courage up to watch it.

Here's some related background on my relationship with Ben Stiller, the R-word, and 'comedies': When I saw There's Something About Mary, it was so unnecessarily offensive and malicious that I had to leave the room halfway through.

I was eleven.

I don't even remember what the specific moment of mockery was that triggered me to leave, if there even was one, though regardless of the specific instance of derision it was a cumulative effect from the first half of the movie (and I did subsequently go back and watch the rest of it just to be able to form a fully-fledged opinion about it - which, as it turned out, was that it was callously, unapologetically, and maliciously offensive), but, regardless, I had had enough of that movie disparaging people with disabilities to watch any more of it on that particular night.

So when Tropic Thunder hit and the controversy raged, I boycotted the thing without seeing it. Because I didn't need to. I didn't want any more hate and rage and venom in my life.

But now? I think a little rage might be exactly what's needed. Tropic Thunder was part of the catalyst that brought the Spread The Word To End The Word campaign to life, so it seems as appropriate a catalyst for me to use this year as any.

Let's all be clear about something: it is ridiculous the way that this country, our "artists," our politicians (although - props to Obama on Rosa's Law), and the people with ALL THE MONEY treat those in our community who have the least-supported voice of all.

Hey, I know! Let's play a fun Tropic Thunder game!

Below you will find a transcript of the several-minute long scene that sparked the controversy (not even taking into account the t-shirt line and film-within-the-film website {which was wisely taken down by the studio executives} promoting "You Never Go Full Retard" and "Once upon a time there was a retard...").

Here's the game:

1) Read the scene with the understanding that every time you see [_____], the script of Tropic Thunder used a derivative of the word "retard" or "retarded" as a derogatory slang word, blatantly belittling people with intellectual disabilities and demeaning this whole community of people by directly stating that they are "stupid," "moronic," "dumb," and "imbecilic" (to quote the movie, itself).
2) Next, pick your personal pejorative trigger word.
The N-word. The C-word. Fa**ot (please excuse the excess on that example - writing "the F-word" does not evoke the label I intend to call to mind). The K-word. Whichever word is the one that sets your blood boiling and makes you want to go throw up, punch something, and/or cry. Pick that one.
3) Finally, re-read the scene with that trigger word substituted when you see [_____], adapting your word to the proper grammatical structure to complete the sentence (i.e. If you're using the N-word, "Watched a lot of [_____] people" may need to become "watched a lot of N-word's" rather than "watched a lot of N-word people." Or "I brushed my teeth [___]" may need to be "I brushed my teeth like a N-word." etc. You're smart. You understand.

And...... GO!

Watched a lot of [_____] people.
Spent time with them. Observed them.
Watched all the [_____] stuff they did.

Then again,
I always found mere observation
in and of itself is a tad rudimentary.
Sometimes, we gotta dig deeper
to mine the true emotional pay dirt.
Thus, we can diagram the source
of the pain and then live it, you know.

Yeah, yeah, live it. Yeah, exactly.
You know, there were times
when I was doing Jack
that I actually felt [_____],

like really [_____].
Oh, yeah.
I mean, I brushed my teeth [_____],
I rode the bus [_____].

In a weird way,
I had to sort of just free myself up
to believe that it was okay
to be stupid or dumb.

To be a moron.

To be moronical.
Exactly, to be a moron.

An imbecile.

Like the dumbest motherfucker
that ever lived.

When I was playing the character.

When you was the character.
Yeah, as Jack, definitely.

Jack, stupid ass Jack.

Trying to come back from that.
In a weird way it was almost like
I had to sort of fool my mind
into believing that it wasn't [_____],
and by the end of the whole thing,
I was like,
"Wait a minute, I flushed so much out,
how am I gonna jumpstart it up again?"
It's just like... Right?


You was farting in bathtubs
and laughing your ass off.


But Simple Jack thought he was smart,
or rather, didn't think he was [_____],
so you can't afford to play [_____],
being a smart actor.
Playing a guy who ain't smart
but thinks he is,
that's tricky.

It's like working with mercury.
It's high science, man. It's an art form.

You an artist.

That's what we do, right? Yeah.

Hats off for going there,
especially knowing how
the Academy is about that shit.

About what?
You're serious? You don't know?

Everybody knows
you never go full [_____].

What do you mean?
Check it out.

Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, looked
[_____], act [_____], not [_____].
Count toothpicks, cheat at cards.
Autistic, sure. Not [_____].
Then you got Tom Hanks,
Forrest Gump.
Slow, yes, [_____], maybe,
braces on his legs.
But he charmed the pants off Nixon,
and he won a Ping-Pong competition.
That ain't [_____].
And he was a goddamn war hero.
You know any [_____] war heroes?
You went full [_____], man.
Never go full [_____].
You don't buy that?
Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam.
Remember? Went full [_____]?
Went home empty-handed.

Y'all having fun yet?

No? What's that? You're offended? That was ignorant, hateful, crass, malicious, unnecessary, and un-funny? Gee, you don't say.

Team America.

Matt Parker. Trey Stone. You know what? Props, homies.

They pan EVERYONE EQUALLY. No one is safe. And none of it is malicious. All of it is tongue in cheek with the understanding that it's meant to be not hurtful, but satirical. To point the finger at the people who actually abuse their fellow human beings. To say "Hey guess what? Y'all are the weak-minded cowards we're mocking here. And we're the ones who are brave enough to show that to you. Now it's on you to internalize that and change your attitude." They leave no room for anyone to walk away from the movie feeling like their offensive and ignorant behavior is acceptable or that it has been validated.

Well done, gentlemen. Seriously. Well done.

But Tropic Thunder? Here's a film whose primary sub-plot is rooted in a bunch of Hollywood icons - role models (albeit not good ones) - verbally assaulting people who live with intellectual disabilities, but drop ONE N-bomb and it's "OOOOHHH NO! WE HAVE TO MAKE A WHOLE THING ABOUT IT! WE HAVE TO MAKE IT MEANINGFUL AND SHOW THAT IT WAS A JOKE AND THAT IT'S NOT OKAY TO USE THAT WORD."

Robert Downy mother-f***ing Junior actually says the words "For 400 years that word has kept us down," regarding the N-word after spending nearly a full 5 minutes earlier in the film dropping the R-word as callously as I've ever heard it used (and, in fact, justified the use of the R-word and the content associated with it to CBS news by saying that it's "any artist's right to say and do whatever they wanna do." (Oh you mean like doing bunches and bunches of drugs, driving under the influence, and breaking into houses? Ooooooo... Too soon?)

Now, I'm all about the whole bit of him being an American who's playing an Australian who's playing a black man. The way they satirize that Russian nesting doll of compounded caricature, the way they have Brandon T. Jackson be the one to call it out, the way they use it to make a point about the imbedded white supremacy in Hollywood and America (shall we talk about the whole Joseph Fiennes / Michael Jackson thing?)... That's a good bit. However...

If you justify his satirically playing a black man precisely by calling attention to the fact that he's a white American playing an Australian playing a black man and then using it as a vehicle to point the finger back on yourself and, in the end, using it to reclaim the N-word and evoke the understanding that the use of that word is offensive... but you DON'T do the same to reclaim the R-word... guess what?

That is what oppression is.

That is what the willingly ignorant social subjugation of one group of people by another is.

That is an act of hate. A malicious attack on an entire community of people. And an ignorant, closed-minded, selfish, arrogant, bigoted, unintelligent affront to the cash-paying, movie-watching, t-shirt-buying public.

"Perez, you sound so angry about this. It was eight years ago, man. Calm down. It's over."

Yeah I am angry!

And yeah - the movie was eight years ago but this derogatory treatment of the entire disabled community in this so-called Greatest Country In The World has not stopped, slowed, or even declined.

Show me a state where there is enough public healthcare for someone in my brother's condition to live a full life without a team of people constantly researching private funding streams to get him the support he needs JUST TO EAT EVERY DAY.

Show me a city where any person - working legs or no - can get into - and can reach any floor in - any building.

Show me a school where ZERO teachers use the R-word to belittle their own students in their classrooms.

(Oh yes, there's a story there alright. After a newspaper article about my brother and me came out an elementary school teacher contacted us, had her students write letters to us about how the article made them feel, and reached out to say (and apologize) that she had spent her entire 20+ year career as a teacher calling her own students 'retards' when they got something wrong. Yeah. That's real.)

So yeah. I'm angry. And yeah. It's still a problem. So yeah. I'm going to say something.

No, I didn't see the movie until this year. But you know what I did do? I took ten seconds to empathize with another human being and changed my attitude about using the R-word when I was SIX.

So let me wrap this up by saying this:

If the squishy little brain of a six-year-old can grasp the fact that using the R-word as a derogatory slang term is offensive because it implies that any person with an intellectual disability is - to quote Mr's Stiller and Downey Jr - "stupid," "dumb," "a moron," "moronical," "an imbecile," "the dumbest motherfucker that ever lived" and incapable of achieving greatness, then what's your excuse, oh wise grown-ass adult person?

Now, I don't presume to assume that you, dear reader who has read this far, uses this word.

Even if you do, I don't presume to assume you intend any malice when you do.

But to quote John Logan's Tony Award-Winning play "Red," "your intention is immaterial." And to quote Rachel Dawes and Batman, "it's not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you."

You wanna be like Batman? Then it's time to take action and change the attitudes of the American people about this word and the people it hurts. And like Ghandi, Michael Jackson, Socrates, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and all great artists and philosophers of all time have said - that change has to start with you.

So let's make the choice to change our attitudes about this word. Today. Now.

And....... Go.

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