NPR logo PC Whiners Aside, Downey Jr. Deserves His Oscar Nod

PC Whiners Aside, Downey Jr. Deserves His Oscar Nod

Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman and Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. Merie Weismiller Wallace/DreamWorks hide caption

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Merie Weismiller Wallace/DreamWorks

On the heels of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announcing the nominees for its 81st shindig, there were the usual nontroversies over who was named and who was ignored. Among all that, Hollywood trade paper Variety noted Robert Downey Jr.'s nod for Best Supporting Actor in Tropic Thunder "marks the first time since Laurence Olivier's 1965 Othello that an actor has been nommed for playing a role in blackface."

Not quite true. Forrest Whitaker darkened his skin to play Idi Amin for his Oscar-winning performance in The Last King of Scotland.

Slightly different circumstances, yes. But...

What Variety alludes to in its piece is that the Downey Jr. role is offensive. Mincing no words, Scott Feinberg over at the L.A. Times just comes out and says as much. Apparently bucking for a nomination for Best Performance by a White Guy Who Takes it Upon Himself to be Offended For Black People, Feinberg writes:

I guess I just can't imagine any circumstance under which a blackface performance would be acceptable, any more than I can imagine any circumstance under which the use of the N-word would be acceptable.

Really? Can't imagine any circumstance to use the word Nigger? You mean, like in a Ralph Ellison novel?

Trustees of the Liberal Plantation aside, Downey Jr.'s performance is sharp, smart satire. Clever, but aimed squarely for the gut, in the way The New Yorker's Barack/Michelle-as-radicals cover was aimed at some other Brahmin organ that giggles with delight when it's self-manipulated. My takeaway from the Kirk Lazarus/Lincoln Osiris character is a comedic finger given a hard wag at Hollywood; an industry that has no problem writing big checks for Barack Obama, but then can do no better than spend tens of millions of dollars offending minorities.

I can't speak as to whether or not the Simple Jack story line or the Les Grossman character were offensive to their intended targets. But I can say that while I'll be putting what little energy I can muster for the Oscars into good wishes for Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson, I'll have no problem if "Kirk Lazarus" gets the award he deserves.