LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When Robert Downey Jr. put on dark make-up for film comedy “Tropic Thunder,” the actor ventured into the racially charged territory of blackface, an old showbiz convention that is no laughing matter.
Downey said he initially worried that his portrayal of a white actor playing a black man could hurt his career, and he bristled at being given what he thought would be the most controversial role in the film directed by Ben Stiller.
But so far, “Tropic Thunder,” which opens on Wednesday, has generated no backlash against the 43-year-old star of “Iron Man.”
Hollywood’s history with blackface, a style of wearing wigs and makeup to caricature slaves or ex-slaves in the 19th and early 20th centuries, dates to the start of the movie industry but has largely stopped except in cases of satire and comedy.
Downey told reporters in recent interviews that his role was a satirical send-up of actor narcissism, and different from older uses of blackface that reinforced harmful stereotypes.
“It’s entertainment that’s set up by people who are high-minded enough to not be racist or offensive,” he said.
“The whole film is based on the idea that what we (actors) do at some level is offensive and who we are, at some level, is despicable and pathetic, which is the truth and not the truth. But the part of it that is the truth, is entertaining.”
Downey portrays an Australian actor named Kirk Lazarus who is playing a black army sergeant in a war movie being filmed in the jungle. When one of the characters is kidnapped by drug dealers, his buddies must rescue him by acting, in real life, the way their characters were acting in the movie.
In the case of Lazarus, he continues playing the sergeant even after filming stops, and his overzealousness earns him mockery from a real black actor played by Brandon T. Jackson.
In Hollywood, many stars appeared in blackface until it fell out of favor during the 1950s civil rights movement.
Comic icons the Marx Brothers put on blackface in the 1937 movie “A Day at the Races,” as did actors Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in the 1941 movie “Babes on Broadway.”
A hundred years ago, immigrant audiences from countries such as Italy and Ireland -- who often were not considered “white” by native-born Americans -- went to blackface shows to laugh at outsiders and feel white, said Mark Golub, an expert on blackface who teaches at Scripps College in California.
But blackface was not only popular with immigrants, it also played into widespread racist sentiments, experts said.
“By the supremacy of whiteness, blackness had to, by necessity, be its foil, be its opposite,” said Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Najee Ali, president of the Los Angeles-based civil rights group Project Islamic HOPE, said he saw “Tropic Thunder” in a screening and that Downey avoided being offensive by rising above buffoonery. But Ali, who is black, said he worries it could lead to more offensive portrayals.
“Blackface is still blackface, and I think it’s important that we have to stop allowing ourselves to be perceived as clowns to the rest of the world,” he said.
Director Stiller, 42, said he thought about casting a black actor playing a white man for the role, but changed his mind.
“A white guy playing this black role to challenge himself the most in a way that’s wrong-headed and going too far, to me that was the funnier idea,” Stiller said.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)