Funny or offensive? Robert Downey Jr.’s controversial ‘Tropic Thunder’ performance turns 15.

2008 really was a Hot Robert Downey Jr. summer. After laying the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the original Iron Man in May, the once-unemployable actor completed his career comeback with an Oscar-nominated role in Ben Stiller’s take-no-prisoners Hollywood satire, Tropic Thunder.

But that movie also plunged Downey into a maelstrom of controversy that persists to this day. Fifteen years after its release, Tropic Thunder is frequently cited on social media platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, as an example of a recent movie that could never be made now, while new and returning viewers still find it wild what Downey was specifically asked to do. Here’s a rundown on the tempest that Tropic Thunder continues to kick up.

The Backstory

Ben Stiller and Downey in a scene from Tropic Thunder. (Photo: ©DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Ben Stiller and Downey in a scene from Tropic Thunder. (Photo: ©DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection)

After years of leading rom-coms like Along Came Polly and family-friendly fare like Night at the Museum, Stiller came into Tropic Thunder with all guns blazing in an effort to get back to his Ben Stiller Show sketch comedy roots. A send-up of self-important Oscar bait, the film follows the making and unmaking of a Platoon-esque Vietnam War movie. Besides serving as co-writer, director and star, Stiller assembled an absurdly A-list cast — including Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise — who were tasked with playing heightened versions of themselves and other Hollywood types, from the screaming studio exec to the respect-hungry actor coming off an ill-advised bomb.

Stiller entrusted Downey with the role of Kirk Lazarus, Australia’s answer to seriously Method actors like Daniel Day-Lewis or Jeremy Strong. Lazarus is so committed to his latest role as a Black sergeant that he darkens his skin via a cutting-edge “pigment alteration” procedure. That means that Downey spends much of the movie performing in blackface — a now-taboo practice that has its roots in racist 19th century minstrel shows. Lazarus also adopts the voice and mannerisms of ’70s-era Black actors for much of his screentime to further demonstrate his level of immersion in the part. “I don’t drop character until I’ve done the DVD commentary,” he says at one point.

It should be noted that Tropic Thunder goes out of its way to emphasize that Downey is satirizing the kind self-absorbed actor who assumes its acceptable to employ hurtful techniques — like blackface — in the name of art. And Lazarus’s own performative excesses are regularly ridiculed by the rest of the cast, most notably Brandon T. Jackson, who plays rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino. “They had one part for one Black man, and they gave it to Crocodile Dundee,” he tells Lazarus at one point, and also calls him out on appropriating the term “you people.”

But speaking with this writer for an interview published in Giant magazine in 2008, Jackson described the mixed feelings he experienced acting opposite Downey while he was in blackface. “I’m the only real Black dude in the movie, so I tried to express the situation as much as I could,” Jackson said at the time. “I think Robert felt my frustration and egged me on to make it more real. There’s a scene where he goes ‘Are we cool?’ and I say, ‘Not really!’ That was all improv. I wanted to let the audience know Robert knows that this movie is just playing around, and we’re going to laugh together. But it ain’t cool.”

The Crisis Point

From left to right: Brandon T. Jackson, Stiller and Downey in Tropic Thunder. (Photo: DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection)

From left to right: Brandon T. Jackson, Stiller and Downey in Tropic Thunder. (Photo: DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Downey’s use of blackface was a talking point that the actor made sure to address prior to Tropic Thunder‘s release on Aug. 13, 2008. “I felt like, I want to work with Ben and Jack [Black], but my way into the movie is I’ve got to be tarred and feathered for three months and maybe have my reputation destroyed,” the actor told Entertainment Weekly at the time. “That was my fear.” In that same interview, Stiller credited Jackson with providing a gut check for certain moments, like a scene where Downey’s character uses the “N” word that ended up being cut.

“We got to that scene and I said to him, ‘What do you think of this?'” Stiller recalled. “Brandon said, ‘This feels wrong.’ It was definitely a constant process of feeling it out. But [in general] what Robert was doing was so genuine and funny, it felt OK. I didn’t know if it would feel OK when we saw the movie, but it felt like he was in a groove, and this character was just really likable and enjoyable.”

Upon release, the praise for Downey’s portrayal largely outweighed the criticisms, as evidenced by the fact that he received a rare Best Supporting Actor nomination for a comedic performance. (He lost to the late Heath Ledger, who was awarded the statue posthumously for his performance in The Dark Knight.) Former category winner, Cuba Gooding Jr., saluted Downey at the ceremony, while also calling out the elephant in the room. “To be a white actor playing a white Australian actor playing a Black man in blackface. I’ll say it: Are you out of your mind?”

More people started asking that question around the time of Tropic Thunder‘s 10th anniversary in 2018, when social media “re-discovered” Downey’s appearance in blackface — as well as Stiller’s equally divisive jokes about mental disabilities — and added it to the list of evidence for why the movie could never be made in the present climate. Two years later, Downey himself fueled a fresh round of controversy during an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast where he made it clear he had no regrets.

“Ninety percent of my black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great,'” the actor said in that interview. Those remarks generated backlash online, especially amidst the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and put a renewed spotlight on Hollywood’s handling of race. Jimmy Kimmel, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon were among those performers who apologized for using blackface in their previous material.

Stiller, on the other hand, won’t be saying “Sorry” anytime soon. In February, the Tropic Thunder director stated in a tweet that he makes “no apologies” for the film. “It’s always been a controversial movie since when we opened,” Stiller wrote. “Proud of it and the work everyone did on it.”

Hot Takes

The cast of Tropic Thunder in the 2008 comedy. (Photo: DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection)

The cast of Tropic Thunder in the 2008 comedy. (Photo: DreamWorks/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Downey’s performance in Tropic Thunder has generated 15 years’ worth of commentary. Here’s a sampling of some of the reactions that were written when the film was first released, as well as after it grew further back in the rearview.

Downey’s performance is certainly bold

“Whatever political spin people will want to put on it, the audacity of Downey’s performance reps the best reason to see the film. Always a brilliant mimic and quicksilver vocalist, Downey dons matted hair, beard, ghetto-spiked rasp and nearly Olivier-as-Othello makeup to play a grandly self-confident thesp who will take no crap from anyone about his impersonation.” — Todd McCarthy, writing in Variety in 2008

But bold isn’t enough

“If Mr. Downey — who at this point in his career apparently can do no wrong even in blackface — can’t make this bait work, it’s because the bit is unworkable. Though Mr. Downey’s character has been cut from moldy Fred Williamson cloth, he’s also the most recognizably human character in a lampoon rife with caricatures. One of those is played by an actual Black man, Brandon T. Jackson, who … is mainly around to mock Kirk’s impersonation, which is the filmmakers’ way of having their chocolate cake and eating it too.” — Mahnola Dargis, writing in the The New York Times in 2008

The ugly history of blackface can’t be laughed away

“You can sugarcoat it all you want, but blackface is blackface. The fact of the matter is that top actors, like Downey, have given performances in blackface in successful films since the birth of filmmaking. Many of them have gotten laughs. Many of them have been done rather skillfully. And all of them have been justified by their practitioners as acceptable for one reason or another. The passage of time and the growth of understanding in this country have helped us to recognize that the vast majority were not.” — Scott Feinberg, writing for The Feinberg Files in 2009

There’s also historical precedent for Downey’s performance

“I was more receptive to the [blackface] joke at the time, because firstly, it was parodying Hollywood’s obsession with a certain stereotype of Blackness, and two, because Robert Downey’s father was one of the great patrons of Black filmmakers and actors in his heyday as the director of Putney Swope. It felt like a well-considered bit of satire.” — Davie Schilling speaking to Mel Magazine in 2021

Tropic Thunder is ultimately about Hollywood, not race

“It’s clear on viewing that Tropic Thunder is making a firm statement against how Black characters are both portrayed and overlooked in mainstream action movies of the era. The brilliance of Tropic Thunder is that nothing is sacred. This includes holding up a mirror to the lengths some actors will go to land that career-defining role — and the ethical considerations some will readily put to the side in taking it.” — Yenny Coll writing for Screen Rant in 2023.

But it’s still better to leave it in the past

“The movie shows in its narrative that it does have good intentions with the criticism it makes towards Hollywood and how it helped perpetuate racism with blackface and token characters. Despite its good intentions, though, Tropic Thunder is a movie that wouldn’t, couldn’t, and shouldn’t be made nowadays … Comedy reaches its limit the moment it begins to offend anyone, and that happened with Tropic Thunder, unfortunately.” — Julio Bardini writing for Collider in 2023

Tropic Thunder is available to rent or purchase on most VOD services, including Prime Video.

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