Friday, August 15, 2008

movie review from a mom of a child with special needs...

the outside looking in:
Dreamworks’ Tropic Thunder is one big inside joke. An inside joke that Ben Stiller is letting all the rest of us in on. At least that’s what he’d like to think.

The truth of the matter is that the joke runs deeper than even Ben realizes, so deep that the line between “inside” and “outside” isn’t as clear as at first it seems.

Tropic Thunder follows the misadventures of a motley crew of actors, shooting on location a movie based on the fraudulent story of a false Vietnam War hero. Before the movie is halfway through, it’s made clear that no one in Ben’s Hollywood understands the meaning of truth, or cares to. Along the way he attempts to point out and tear down a stereotypical Hollywood’s stereotypical stereotypes.

In his attempt, there is one group in particular where he simply fails to achieve this goal and instead only reveals his own prejudices; sadly, those are prejudices shared by many of his viewers and though they may not realize it, prejudices that Stiller’s film serves to substantiate and solidify.

The beauty of “satire,” as is often the name given to comedy that pushes past mere humor into offensiveness, is that the victim in the joke can be an active participant. He or she can choose to counter the truth of the portrayal or laugh along at themselves.

But for this one group, while some are capable of making that choice there are also many who are not. For the intellectually disabled, they are not given an active role in the joke; because of that, it loses its funny.
“Retard” is not just a word. It is part of an official diagnosis found in the medical files of hundreds of thousands of Americans that has been transformed by society into a negative slur. Although Stiller did use the word in an effort to illustrate a different point, which in the end illustrated something else entirely, it’s important to point out that no other medical diagnosis is seen as acceptable material for a comedic tagline. If Stiller’s inspiration had been drawn from Tom Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia instead of that in Forrest Gump, would he have dared to release the catchphrase, “Never go full AIDS”? One finds it hard to imagine. There is something unique about the diagnosis of “mental retardation,” something that encourages a suspension of decency.

It’s interesting to see how careful Stiller is in his illustration of Hollywood’s treatment of African-Americans. He does push the envelope with Robert Downey Jr.’s “blackface” character – a white man taking on the role of a black man – but he holds back just enough to prevent the satire from transforming into a more viscous lampoon. By including a true African-American character in the cast, he is effectively taking someone from the outside and placing them on the inside, where they can serve as our conscience – a challenge to his offense. And Brandon T. Jackson does just that when he calls out Downey Jr. on his stereotypical characterization. This removes the slight discomfort that the audience feels – or at least thinks it should feel – in laughing at such an edgy portrayal. By having a true African-American there to openly remind us of the offensiveness of Downey Jr.’s character, Stiller gave himself an out with that group.

So, considering that the play on the intellectual disability stereotype is given a much more integral role in the plot, the “r” word is used over a dozen times (so much in one scene I lost count) while the “n” word is only used once, where is our conscience for this group? Where is our character with true intellectual disabilities to challenge the offensive stereotypical portrayal? (And no, it’s not Jack Black.)

The fact is that there is no one to challenge Stiller’s stereotype, no one to speak for the intellectually disabled.

What does this say about Stiller’s underlying feelings toward people with
intellectual disabilities? Either he feels that intellectual disability is fairer game than race, that the “r” word isn’t as offensive as the “n” word, or perhaps he really just doesn’t “get it.” Maybe he really thinks that “full retard” means “true retard” and because he thinks he is not portraying a stereotype, but a truth exploited by Hollywood, he sees no need to allow an outsider in to keep the satire in check. Which of these motivations is worse? To echo Stiller’s advice – you decide.

The truth of this supposed satire is more importantly revealed not in the rampant use of a word that for decades has been employed to marginalize and hold down a group of people but rather in Matthew McConaughey’s conflicted talent agent character.

There were two parts in the film that I found most offensive, most disturbing and most saddening. The first had McConaughey commenting on Stiller’s apparent adoption plans. McConaughey says, “At least you get to choose” while the camera pans to a photograph of him with his son who obviously has intellectual disabilities. At the end of the film, this sad revelation is revisited with McConaughey on a plane leaving the filming location and his son beside him, plastic bib around his neck, slack-jawed, vacant expression directed out the small window.

The most disheartening part of this tale…during the latter scene as soon as the boy entered the frame the audience around me burst into laughter. It was not the loudest laughter heard during the film, but it ranked highly. I allowed myself a moment, just a moment, to look at the faces around me. This is what prejudice looks like. This is what hatred looks like. Perhaps this is what you look like.

This scenario is interesting since McConaughey’s character is probably the most hopeful. Despite the fact that he takes a bribe in exchange for silence, in the end he remains true to Stiller’s character. Perhaps Stiller wrote in McConaughey’s disabled son for the purpose of showing his character development. In the first scene, disdain from afar; in the second scene, he has his son with him, maybe an indication of a new appreciation. But even if this was truly his intention, the fact is that Stiller could have accomplished this possible message without turning the boy into a drooling caricature. Like most of the movie, the audience laughs not at a possible deeper interpretation but at the surface humor. McConaughey’s son is seen as no more than a gag, an easy laugh.

Maybe this reality is something that can only be changed through experience. Perhaps you need to hold a child with intellectual disabilities in your arms, a child like my son, to feel him soft, warm, heart beating with the persistence of life. To befriend, to love a person with intellectual disabilities brings out the best in you because it forces you to first confront the worst. It is a gift that few of us possess and one that should be treasured, not disrespected with subtlety and context.

I do not believe that Ben Stiller intended to disparage any certain group in the making of this film, other than perhaps his fellow thespians, a subject of contention in its own right and one beyond the context of this piece.
But I do believe that Stiller’s creation, much like his response to the cry that has gone up from the disability community, reveals a great deal of apathy, ignorance and prejudice.

He set out attempting to briefly pull back the curtains on what he believes is his Hollywood, to let us stand on tiptoe and see the ridiculousness of cruelty, vanity and greed. But what Stiller achieved instead was to allow us the rare opportunity to see those things in a different house, to be on the outside looking in – at ourselves.

Tropic Thunder is a $100 million wake-up call. And for that realization and the change it has the power to bring, it was worth my seven bucks. I hope it was worth yours.
Posted by Christina at 9:38 AM

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Please take a look at this amazing video for a beautiful example of how words can hurt! If you haven't seen this video, it is worth taking the ten minutes to view it as it if highly applicable to changing your own perceptions...

Friday, August 8, 2008

Changing perceptions starts here...

My wife just sent out an email to everyone she knew regarding this new movie, and I told her she needed to start a blog about her opionions and help voice the frustrations that people with disabilities face on a day to day basis. Here is a begininning to that... please subscribe and refer your friends and family as we are hoping to help change the perceptions of as many people as possible...

(Written by Kathleen Teal)
Dear friends and family,
I am at a loss today with the knowledge that acceptance is further away than I had hoped. I hopefully read and hear stories about kids with different abilities being voted prom king or homecoming queen or about a boy with autism scoring the most points in one basketball game in the history of that school. I am hopeful when I see that very boy being raised into the air by the entire school and cheering for him. I am hopeful when I hear about schools banning the use of the word "retard" as a form of offensive language. I am hopeful when I look into my daughter Avery's beautiful deep blue almond shaped eyes and she smiles at me because she understands how deeply I love her (she has Down syndrome). I am hopeful when I see her big sister, Mackenzie, stand up for her when she sees another child, or sadly an adult, making fun of her. However, today, I am saddened and heart broke when I hear about the future release of a movie that propagates stereotypes and discriminates against people with intellectual disabilities. The movie named Tropic Thunder was written by, and stars, Ben Stiller, in which one of his characters is a man with a cognitive delay named, "Simple Jack". On the very poster that advertises this movie the words are written "Once upon a time, there was a Retard..." My heart aches at the thought of so many young people, impressionable people watching and enjoying a movie that is so full of hatred. My heart aches at the thought of the reviews that are advocating for this atrocious movie. My heart aches over the fact that because of all the controversy that this has stirred up, Hollywood will see this as a success. My heart aches when I see a great movie with my favorite actor throw around the word "r-word" as though it were funny. My heart aches when I hear teenagers and adults alike using the word "r-word" as a joke or as a put down. My heart aches at the thought of all the work it takes to make a change and all the work it takes to undo an atrocity such as this movie. With these thoughts in mind I urge you all to make a choice to stand up for Avery and other children, teens, and adults like her that do not have the voices for themselves and, please, boycott this movie. I am not asking any of you to fight for anyone or anything. I am prepared and more than willing to do that. I simply ask that you keep your money in your pockets when this movie is released. Thank you all for your consideration of my fight. If you have made it this far, I sincerely appreciate your time.Sincerely, Kathleen Teal

I wanted to add a quick yet very cool inspirational story that helps me out on days like today. I read this on another website <> and would like to share it with you...

I was thirty-seven years old when my husband and I decided it was time to have a baby. We had been married nine years, together for sixteen. We had put it off for all this time in order to focus on careers, travel, fun, ourselves. My job was pretty glamorous: vice-president of a big publishing company in New York City. My life was filled with interesting writers, fascinating trips, sparkling conversation, fine wine, speaking engagements. I saw having a baby as something to "check off a list." Something to do. And besides, a baby would go so well with my new black suit. So I signed up for the Gwyneth Paltrow version of motherhood. The Kelly Ripa woman-on-the-go scenario. The version of motherhood that gets glamorized in People magazine. But in my heart of hearts, I was scared. Terrified. I didn't want my life to change that much. Still, I had the anticipation of regret and I thought having a baby would be "good for me." So picture this: parenthood, to me, was like a giant swimming pool. I saw other people in the pool and they looked okay. But I was hesitant to even stick a toe in. I didn't want to get wet. Other parents said to me, "going into the pool can be really scary. But it's all worth it." I thought to myself, "if they can do it, so can I." And, tentatively, I put my foot in the water. Suddenly someone grabbed me from behind and threw me in the deep end. In the deep end! How unfair! You don't take the person most frightened of the water and throw them in the deep end! Throw another person in the deep end, someone who's used to the pool! Someone who knows how to swim! "I'm going to die," I thought. I railed against the unfairness of it all, the shock of the cold water. But instinct kicked in and clumsily I moved my arms and legs. And I did not drown. Gagging and coughing and choking and sputtering I had a question: "Who did this to me," I wanted to know. "How did this happen?!" My head went under and panic set in. I moved my arms and legs more and I did not drown. Now I was treading water. I noticed there were other people in the deep end with me, and they were offering to help. But I didn't want to be in their Deep End Club. And besides, I didn't think I even belonged here, it was only a matter of time before someone told me it was all a mistake and I'd be pulled out of the pool to safety. "I should have left well enough alone. I should never have tried to go into the pool," I thought. And as I continued to tread water I noticed something else: I did not drown. Soon I started to float. I felt pretty much alone but the panic had subsided and I knew I could survive although it wouldn't be pleasant. And I did not drown. But then I noticed there was a little boy in the deep end with me, a little boy named Nicholas with eyes that crinkle up like half moons when he smiles. A little boy named Nicholas who loves Bruce Springsteen and Puccini's "La Boheme" and 1940s Big Band Music. And Nicholas could swim. Looking at him, I began to realize that I might be able to do more than float someday. I might be able to swim. And I might even enjoy it. Perhaps I'd even love it. I realized that the deep end allows for underwater somersaults and in the deep end, it's possible to dive. You can't do that in the shallow end. And perhaps someday, with Nicholas at my side, we'd both wave to the parents at the shallow end of the pool and say, "you don't know what you're missing, here in the deep end."

-- Story by JenEndyB mother to Nicholas (3/31/05)

-- Thank you for your support!
Brian Teal - Avery's Daddy