Never go full retard

Sept 19 sees the Irish release of Tropic Thunder, starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr and Matthew McConaughey. Apparently Tom Cruise is in there somewhere too.

I’ll be washing my hair. It’s a pity, because the assembled cast has given me quite a few chuckles over the years. It’s a bridge too far this time however.

The movie is about a bunch of actors who are researching for a Vietnam-era war movie. It’s a send-up of actors and studios and the whole Hollywood pancake in theory, but unfortunately the makers of the movie, DreamWorks and Paramount, have stirred up a hornet’s nest with the US disability lobby.

The actor character played by Ben Stiller, Tugg Speedman, has key scenes in the movie which recreate a character he has played called Simple Jack. Jack is a ‘retard’. This element of the movie gives rise to a slew of objectionable phrases slanted directly at the disabled. Take the following, a conversation between Downey Jr’s character and Stiller’s, revolving around Stiller’s decision to play said ‘retard’:

Stiller: There were times when I was doing Jack when I actually felt retarded. Like really retarded.

Downey: Oh yeah. Damn.

Stiller: In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb.

Downey: To be a moron.

Stiller: Yeah.

Downey: To be moronical.

Stiller: Exactly.

Downey: An imbecile.

Stiller: Yeah. When I was playing a character.

Downey: When you was a character.

Stiller: Yeah, I mean, as Jack. Definitely.

Downey: It’s like working with mercury. It’s how science makes art form.

Stiller: Yeah.

Downey: You an artist.

Stiller: It’s what we do, right?

Downey: Everybody knows you never do a full retard.

Stiller: What do you mean?

Downey: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rainman, look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards. Autistic. Sure. Not retarded.

You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and he won a ping-pong competition? That ain’t retarded.

You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.

You know what I find most interesting (in the I really mean disappointing sense)? That Ben Stiller co-wrote this. He wrote out the word retard or retarded eleven times, just in those few lines quoted (and a whole lot more, believe it), and it never occurred to him that he was training a bazooka on an incredibly large gathering of relatively helpless people? I can’t believe that. He’s a funny guy, he plays to his strengths, he’s not afraid to be unpopular, but I cannot remember him ever going out of his way to deliberately target or hurt people who are already at several disadvantages: physically; mentally; within society at large; financially, and on and on. Taking the piss out of models in Zoolander almost counts, but it doesn’t.

There’s no excuse for it. If you don’t know or aren’t related to someone with a disability you may possibly fail to see the creeping clawback here of gains made by thousands upon thousands of people with disabilities and their advocates over the last few dozen years. But items like this movie, unchallenged, are representing just that: a diminution of the full rights of ordinary people who happen to have enough on their plates already. It’s a pernicious slide, and I don’t think I’m being a stuffy old PC crust for bringing it up. It matters to me at a gut level.

I’ll be back on this topic again. Meanwhile the movie is scheduled to be released in the US this Wednesday 13th August. Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, expects a boycott in Hollywood from a cross-section of disability advocacy groups, which you can read about here. If you want to inform yourself some more on it, Pat Bauer has plenty posted on the subject.

I’m not going to tell you how to live your life. I’m not going to tell you to boycott this movie (made incidentally through the usually most sensitive Steven Spielberg’s production company). I do suggest that you consider what I’ve just said and then make an informed judgement