When Ben Stiller was penning his latest film, Tropic Thunder, he probably never imagined the kind of controversy a subplot would create: A call to boycott the film from more than 20 disability advocacy organizations, just days before Tropic Thunder’s August 13th premiere.
The uproar began after Tropic Thunder was screened to advocates for the disabled, already outraged over the film’s marketing. In the film, Stiller’s character, an action star, attempts to win over critics by portraying a mentally disabled character named Simple Jack. The advocacy groups failed to find humor in the situation.
Dawn Marie Fichera, public relations director of special projects at Gregory FCA, says “The film features Ben Stiller’s bigoted depiction of a mentally handicapped individual for the sake of comedy. It dehumanizes people with special needs and hurts their opportunities to lead productive lives as full members of society.”
Representatives of the Special Olympics, the National Down Syndrome Congress and the American Association of Peoples with Disabilities are among the advocacy organizations that said they would picket the movie, beginning with a screening this past Monday in Los Angeles.
In the New York Times, Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of Peoples with Disabilities, said the film “was even worse than the hateful stuff they used to promote it.” One of the controversial marketing materials was a Website for the film that contained the tag line, “Once there was a retard.” DreamWorks has since removed the site and other possibly offensive materials, but has declined to alter the film to appease boycotters.
Executives at DreamWorks and Stiller have claimed that Tropic Thunder, a movie industry spoof, aims its humor not at the disabled but at desperate actors who will do almost anything to further their careers. In a statement, DreamWorks spokesperson Chip Sullivan says, “Tropic Thunder is an R-rated comedy that satirizes Hollywood and its excesses, and makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the-top characters in ridiculous situations. The film is in no way meant to disparage or harm the image of individuals with disabilities.”
For now, the controversy continues to simmer, while moviemakers and movie fans analyze this imperative free speech issue.