Robert Downey Jr.'s risky role in "Tropic Thunder"

Mon Aug 11, 2008 3:24pm EDT
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By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When Robert Downey Jr. put on dark make-up for film comedy "Tropic Thunder," the actor ventured into the racially charged territory of blackface, an old showbiz convention that is no laughing matter.

Downey said he initially worried that his portrayal of a white actor playing a black man could hurt his career, and he bristled at being given what he thought would be the most controversial role in the film directed by Ben Stiller.

But so far, "Tropic Thunder," which opens on Wednesday, has generated no backlash against the 43-year-old star of "Iron Man."

Hollywood's history with blackface, a style of wearing wigs and makeup to caricature slaves or ex-slaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries, dates to the start of the movie industry but has largely stopped except in cases of satire and comedy.

Downey told reporters in recent interviews that his role was a satirical send-up of actor narcissism, and different from older uses of blackface that reinforced harmful stereotypes.

"It's entertainment that's set up by people who are high-minded enough to not be racist or offensive," he said.

"The whole film is based on the idea that what we (actors) do at some level is offensive and who we are, at some level, is despicable and pathetic, which is the truth and not the truth. But the part of it that is the truth, is entertaining."

Downey portrays an Australian actor named Kirk Lazarus who is playing a black army sergeant in a war movie being filmed in the jungle. When one of the characters is kidnapped by drug dealers, his buddies must rescue him by acting, in real life, the way their characters were acting in the movie.   Continued...

<p>Robert Downey Jr. is introduced on stage at the 2008 MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles in this file photo from June 1, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni</p>