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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Robert Downey Jr. says his Tropic Thunder role "blasted the cap on the issue" of blackface

Illustration for article titled Robert Downey Jr. says his iTropic Thunder/i role blasted the cap on the issue of blackface
Photo: Frazer Harrison (Getty Images)

Now that Robert Downey Jr. has been released from the publicity-friendly constraints of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the former Iron Man is free to say and do whatever he wants—like star in a $175 million CGI nightmare with talking animals which culminates in his befriending a dragon by removing an object from its rectum. Or, as is the case in his recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast, revisiting the subject of his donning blackface for the 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder. Ben Stiller’s Hollywood satire starred Downey Jr. as an Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus, who undergoes a cosmetic procedure to darken his skin so he can portray a Black soldier in a war film. According to Indiewire, Downey Jr. reflected on the controversial choice while speaking with Rogan during a promotional tour for another questionable project—Dolittle:

My mother was horrified. ‘Bobby, I’m telling ya, I have a bad feeling about this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah me too, mom.’ When Ben called and said, ‘Hey I’m doing this thing’ – you know I think Sean Penn had passed on it or something. Possibly wisely. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that and I’ll do that after Iron Man.’ Then I started thinking, ‘This is a terrible idea, wait a minute.’ Then I thought, ‘Well hold on dude, get real here, where is your heart?’ My heart is…I get to be Black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me. The other thing is, I get to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion, just my opinion.


It kind of reads like an instance of the snake eating its own tail; in addressing the decision to don blackface in an effort to exemplify the “insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists,” Downey Jr. essentially sounds like his Tropic Thunder character. Though the film takes a critical, satirical view of method actors and the occasionally severe lengths to which they go for their art, Downey Jr.’s thoughts on the subject are weirdly convoluted and, frankly, somewhat ignorant and myopic—particularly when he recalls thinking, “I get to be Black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me,” as if race is a viable costume.

Further confusing his opinion on the matter, Downey Jr. went on to concede that, although his heart was in the right place, “it’s never an excuse to do something that’s out of place and out of its time.” Still, he feels like the satirical and critical intent of Tropic Thunder excused the choice to wear blackface. Downey Jr. takes it one step further by claiming that, at least in his mind, his role in the film brought to light the offensive nature of blackface:

[Ben] knew exactly what the vision for this was, he executed it, it was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie. And 90 per cent of my black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great.’ I can’t disagree with [the other 10 per cent], but I know where my heart lies. I think that it’s never an excuse to do something that’s out of place and out of its time, but to me it blasted the cap on [the issue]. I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, ‘Yeah I effed up.’ In my defense, Tropic Thunder is about how wrong [blackface] is, so I take exception.


That’s certainly some kind of take.

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