The first time I saw a preview of Tropic Thunder featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface, images of Al Jolson, dancing minstrels and C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man invaded my mind. I immediately filed the movie away into my “not wasting time and money on this” category. However, after favorable word-of-mouth from friends and my growing curiosity, I went to see Tropic Thunder and was pleasantly surprised. It was not the updated minstrel show that I feared. Instead it was a humorous and insightful portrayal of masculinity and the appropriation of race and power in American culture. In other words, who’s the man?
“Veni, vidi, vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.) – Julius Caesar, 47 BC
“I came. I saw. I hit him right dead in the jaw.” – Ludacris, 2004 AD
Though the contexts of their quotes differ – Julius Caesar boasted of a military victory while Ludacris battled in the men’s bathroom (as depicted in his music video for Get Back) – the underlying message is the same: The victorious warrior epitomizes the masculine ideal. It was this sense of triumph that Ludacris borrowed when he paraphrased Julius Caesar. Like Ludacris, three of the characters in Tropic Thunder – Alpa Chino, Kirk Lazarus and Les Grossman – appropriate aspects of race and power to enhance their respective ideas of manhood.
“I love the p***y. Hell yeah!” – Alpa Chino
Alpa Chino, the rapper, seems to care only about sex and self-promotion. Like his real life counterparts, Al Kapone, Irv Gotti, and the Academy Award-winning Three 6 Mafia of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” fame, Alpa emulates gangsters. His name – an homage to Al Pacino – was no doubt selected to add a layer of toughness to his persona by evoking Scarface and The Godfather. I would be remiss if I did not pause here to note the difference between “gangster” and “gangsta.” A gangster is a member of a crime syndicate, while gangsta is more of an attitude. According to the urban dictionary, gangsta is “one who willfully promotes and participates in destructive and self-serving culture in an effort to project a particular image of toughness or to make oneself intimidating.” Alpa is not at all like the gangsta image he feels necessary to project in order to succeed as a rapper. He is neither self-serving, dangerous nor a misogynist. Proceeds from Alpa’s energy drink, “Booty Sweat,” benefit the community and he hides his homosexuality.
“I know who I am! I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” – Kirk Lazarus
Kirk Lazarus, striving for greater recognition as an actor, puts on blackness for the novelty of it and to advance his career. He mistakenly assumes that darkening his skin and effecting what he believes to be black mannerisms complete the transformation. However, Kirk’s perception of black culture goes no deeper than the theme song from The Jeffersons. How long could Kirk endure what black men face on a daily basis – passing taxis, DWBs, the assumption of criminality, and having to tone down expressions of assertiveness so as not to seem threatening? Well, if Justin Timberlake is any indication, not long at all. Justin, who greatly benefits from appropriating black culture in his music and manner, was quick to disassociate himself after the wardrobe faux pas at the Super Bowl in 2004. He left Janet Jackson hanging, both literally and figuratively, while he scrambled to reclaim his privilege of whiteness in time to perform at the Grammy Awards. For Justin and Kirk, blackness is a role to slip in and out of based on convenience.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” – Les Grossman
Hegemony meets gangsta in the character of Les Grossman who takes the braggadocio of hip hop and backs it up with power, money and white male privilege. One could easily imagine Les as someone who was bullied and teased once upon a time. Perhaps that is why, even with all his clout, Les mimics the intimidating posture of rappers to strengthen his sense of authority. He equates masculinity with physical toughness and is driven to do whatever it takes to avoid any and all appearances of vulnerability. Les has much in common with some heads of state and corporate leaders who disregard the lives and needs of others in their quest for dominance. While Les appears to be in control outwardly, deep down he is insecure. Unfortunately, Les’s bravado and sense of entitlement do not encourage introspection, so the charade continues.
Kirk Lazarus: “But are we cool?” Alpa Chino: “Not really.”
Alpa and Kirk are challenged about their manufactured personas, while Les is not. Alpa knows very little about the man whose name and image he appropriates. When Alpa’s authenticity is tested by a man wearing a dress, ironically, he is unaware of Pacino’s other roles in Sea of Love and Devil’s Advocate. Alpa is all talk when it comes to being a tough guy and vehemently denies being gay. Meanwhile, Kirk is confronted about his lack of self awareness and accused of stereotyping. He is so immersed in the process of creating characters that he has lost himself. Or maybe Kirk loses himself in different identities because he is unsure of his own. On the other hand, Les is treated with reverence because of his status. Surely, there are those who feel Les is ridiculous and full of himself, but being mindful of retribution, they keep those thoughts to themselves. Disagreeing with Les could result in the loss of one’s livelihood which is why people around him behave obsequiously.
Alpa and Kirk benefit from their respective critiques by daring to be their true selves – Alpa comes out of the closet and Kirk returns to his Australian roots. Les not only remains unenlightened, he is celebrated. Les appeared at the MTV Movie Awards this year dancing with Jennifer Lopez, and talks are underway for a Tropic Thunder spin-off. His popularity reveals much about the “survival of the fittest” values embraced by many in this culture as illustrated by predatory lenders, home foreclosures and tax cuts for the wealthy. Les’s uncompromising, domineering demeanor also provides insight on how America is perceived by the rest of the world. After all, what is more gangsta than invading other countries, interfering with governance and taking over resources?
“Get back muhf***er! You don’t know me like that!” – Ludacris
From Julius Caesar to Ludacris to Les Grossman, the most enduring image of manhood is the victorious warrior – whether the battle occurs in war, the men’s room or the boardroom. By popular culture’s standards, the Les Grossman character is the man. However, Alpa and Kirk demonstrate more integrity by dropping their respective acts and accepting themselves. Fortunately, we are free to define the masculine ideal for ourselves. By my standards, “the man” respects the rights and points of view of others, offers and accepts constructive criticism, and is confident enough to show vulnerability and uncertainty. Most importantly, he is honest with others and himself whether it benefits him or not. Take a moment and consider what qualities epitomize manhood at its best. So again I ask, who’s the man?