This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. Last night in Los Angeles, picketers gathered outside the premier of the movie "Tropic Thunder." Disabilities rights groups are calling for a boycott.

CHADWICK: The movie is a comedy about making movies. Ben Stiller plays a fading action star who, in a previous role, tried to win an Oscar by playing a mentally disabled person named Simple Jack. Ben Stiller directed and co-wrote the film. He said last night that the humor is quote, "at the expense of actors in the movie. It was not meant to offend anybody."

BRAND: Lennard J. Davis is not amused at the movie's premise. He's a professor of disabilities studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Dr. LENNARD J. DAVIS (Disabilities Studies, University of Illinois, Chicago): "Tropic Thunder" is a spoof on Hollywood, including its penchants for touching five hanky movies about developmentally impaired people. In it, Robert Downy Jr. tells Ben Stiller that it's OK for him to play a retard, but he shouldn't go too far. Everybody knows you never do a full retard. You went full retard, man. Never go a full retard. An accompanying website offered the tag line, once upon a time, there was a retard. Dreamworks is claiming that the film is just more of its usual good, clean fun. But is it?

The more controversial issue of Downy portraying a white actor in black face was carefully managed by studio executives with focus groups and consultants. But clearly, the producers did not work closely with disability groups. Did they just think that using the concept retard was business as usual for the summer gross-out movie fest?

Cognitive disabilities flew well below Dreamworks' radar because disability has been for too long the minority group that wasn't. Not until the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 was this group seen as one that had rights on par with those of other minorities. It's easy to pass laws about employment, but it's harder to change attitudes.

The word retard or retarded is openly used by many people who still don't realize that an entire community is deeply offended by it. The R-word carries the same sense of rejection and abjection as the N-word. And if anyone takes offense at a joke using it, the usual rejoinder is just kidding, don't you have a sense of humor? That's what Chip Sullivan of Dreamworks says. The film is just a satire featuring inappropriate and over the top characters in ridiculous situations. What's the fuss?

But David Tolsen (ph), executive director of the Down Syndrome Group, says, I came out of the film feeling like I've been assaulted. Things are only funny if everyone laughs. If one group laughs at the expense of another, we don't call that humor. We call that humiliation.

There was a time when you could make offensive jokes about minorities. That's largely over. But with disability, it isn't. Words like spaz, idiot, moron, imbecile, all trailing their legacy from the time of eugenics, still get a laugh. "Tropic Thunder" needs to be taken to task, not because people with disabilities don't have a sense of humor, but because they do. They have too much respect for humor to let it cheapen itself as mere insult.

CHADWICK: Lennard Davis is a professor of disabilities studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Tropic Thunder" opens nationally tomorrow.

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