I’ve always enjoyed your work. Your career has been commendable. I am without question, one of your fans. It has always been a goal to someday interview you; dialogue with you about the many vicissitudes of your life which have made you the person and professional you are today.
The reason I mention that is because you should know this is coming from a sincere, supportive place. If we were personal acquaintances I would have called you and talked to you as a friend would. I would have called you because people you respect, deserve the privacy of conversation, not a public lecture or shaming. My goal here is not to slam or slander you, criticize or somehow “cancel” you. The goal is to offer a different perspective to add to your inventory of ideas as to why, even today “Kirk Lazarus” of Tropic Thunder is very problematic for many people, not just in the African-American community. You can put this in your pocket for the next time you’re asked.
I’ve worked long enough in this entertainment game to know how it works, to some degree. Your publicist and/or manager likely collects all of your clippings and mentions, as most gatekeepers are known to do. They will find this and send it to you, or you may stumble upon it all by yourself. Either way, you’ll see this. Hence, this open letter.
In your recent conversation with fellow actor Rob Lowe, you mentioned (paraphrasing) that the point of Tropic Thunder, its sum total and individual parts was to provide a critique of Hollywood, its penchant for lazy and formulaic storytelling in the name of blockbuster entertainment. Trust me, I got the point and message of the movie. Now quoting you, the character of Kirk Lazarus was one of the “tropes” of Hollywood.
Blackface itself, during the 19th century minstrel shows and 20th century television wasn’t a “trope,” which speaks to a characteristic of a character. A “trope” is the “trusty sidekick” or the “brave hero.” Blackface was instead the insidious delivery vehicle for the tropes. The tropes were “lazy and shiftless,” “cowardly,” or “uneducated/ignorant.”
In your Norman Lear comparison, you pointed to All in the Family, not only one of the greatest shows in the history of television but one of my favorites of all time. It was a searing, insightful and unflattering mirror held up to America’s face. There was no metaphorical makeup to disguise any wart, blemish or wrinkle. And yes, even today, a lot of people still didn’t realize Norman Lear was making a larger and more serious point. But the beauty of Lear (in this particular show) was not reaching for dehumanizing byproducts of slavery and segregation in which to achieve his goal. Satire? Yes. Funny? Absolutely. It is a distinction with a difference.
Conversely, Lear was also guilty of using negative Black tropes, too. He was no saint or savior. His show, Good Times trafficked in the very worst of Black tropes and stereotypes; with the backdrop of the Evans family living in abject poverty in the nationally infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects. It featured a father and mother who wielded 6th and 10th grade educations respectively and a clownish son who dropped out of high school in 11th grade and couldn’t ever keep a job. The Evans family barely had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out, but did have Jesus. There was that. “Ain’t we lucky we got ‘em? Good Times.”
Or Sanford and Son, about a poor junk dealer, living in Watts with his 30-year-old son Lamont, who never lived on his own in his life for any length of time. Lamont’s Black friend was named “Rollo,” who was a somewhat reformed criminal who had done time in prison. Lamont’s Puerto Rican friend “Julio” had a goat. A GOAT.
THOSE were “tropes.”
Lear cut both ways. The Blackxploitation era…tropes. But Blackface has ALWAYS been in a wholly different category due to its goal to dehumanize and historical use as a tool to provide social justification for the existence of legalized second-class citizenship. That’s a big reason why “Kirk Lazarus” is often perceived and received differently, even today. It’s just not the same. Blackface always carries the weight of an anchor wherever it shows up, in a way that the lazy Hollywood writing of a “trusty sidekick” does not and can not. You said the movie was “railing against tropes” in Hollywood but Al Jolson died in 1950. I never got the sense that Tropic Thunder had anything to do with WWII-era Hollywood. Context is key.
Again, I wish this were a zoom conversation or a phone call, because I’d rather skip over the history if I knew you readily understood this distinction, but your conversation with Rob Lowe seemed to suggest otherwise. Conversations which say we “didn’t get the joke” about Kirk Lazarus or Tropic Thunder probably wouldn’t be as distasteful if the conversations weren’t always between people who never carried that proverbial anchor. Ben Stiller never carried that anchor either. In the way I would never attempt to write a satire using tools connected to some of the worst periods of Jewish mistreatment and then do a podcast with another Black man, intimating the inevitable pushback (again paraphrasing) had to do with Jewish people (like Stiller) and other like-minded people, who just didn’t “get it.” I know, you didn’t use those exact words, but the sentiment was still that we who bristled, simply missed the point. That’s just not true.
The optics and the phonics matter.
To be fair, I agreed with your view that today’s world of comedy and satire is muddied. Blazing Saddles absolutely could not be made today. That too was a satire on Hollywood. Not because we’re necessarily more enlightened in 2024 but because we’re exactly not. We are more coarse, ignorant and hateful as a society than ever before. Comedy is the victim of that, not the culprit behind it. Ben Stiller is not Mel Brooks or Norman Lear and we shouldn’t liken them or their satirical goals, eras notwithstanding.
Some jokes don’t land as intended. It happens. The world will keep on spinning. I would never allege malice on the part of Stiller or you in 2008 or now in 2024. You were asked a question and you were kind enough to respond; doing so honestly and candidly. No need to tear you down for that. This is a rebuttal to that answer, not a rebuke. But again, my hope is that my words are considered or included while formulating your next answer, the next time you are asked.
cc: Rob Lowe