In retrospect, it seems surprising that Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface in Tropic Thunder passed without controversy. Released in 2008, the same year that Downey Jr. made his career-defining debut as Tony Stark in Iron Man, the movie sees him playing Kirk Lazarus, who’s the epitome of a method actor, donning blackface to play an African-American soldier named Lincoln Osiris.
The film gets away with this by lampshading how offensive, stupid and racist Lazarus is being. The character is a parody of actors who take themselves too seriously and performances in which actors don dramatic prosthetics to drastically alter their appearance. But even though the film is making fun of those that would do blackface, it’s still blackface. And let’s face it, in 2020, this character would launch a million opinion columns.
Downey Jr. recently appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast where he was asked about the role, and whether you could get away with it today. He revealed his misgivings, as well as his mother’s shock at the part, saying:
“My mother was horrified. [Mimicking his mother’s voice] ‘Bobby I’m telling you, I have a bad feeling about this.’ I was like ‘Yeah me too mom, but uh anyway– how are we?'”
He then went on to talk about how he prepared for the shoot, explaining:
“All the night before… I was like ‘Well, here we go.’ And I think I had six lines that day, but I knew that there was going to be choppers; there was going to be squib fire; there was going to be choreography… it was going to be cacophonous. And the only thing that mattered to me was ‘What’s my action?’ My action as an actor in this movie is to know what I’m doing, even if what I’m doing is insane. So I ran those six or eight lines I had a thousand times lying in bed… And so the next day I was free to enjoy myself and not be struggling to wonder what it was I was supposed to be doing. And then that’s what it is, you know: it was one little mosaic after the next… and it was just a piece of work I was doing. And I cared about doing it as professionally and as honestly as I could.”
A common refrain on Tropic Thunder and Kirk Lazarus is that you simply couldn’t do the character today, but I disagree. Kirk is a blatant satire of unwittingly racist actors who take their craft a little too seriously. On top of that, blackface is more relevant than ever. We have frequent headlines in the news about politicians doing blackface in their past and there are regular stories about roles being whitewashed.
If say, Jordan Peele made a movie about the ludicrousness of an A-list actor putting on blackface for a part as a parable about racism in Hollywood, I think audiences would recognize it for the satire it is. After all, there are racist jokes and there are jokes about racism, and Kirk Lazarus is clearly the latter.