Monday, Aug. 18, 2008

Boycotting Tropic Thunder?

By David Luhrssen
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After a month long reign at the top of the box office charts, The Dark Knight was finally eased off its throne by a new contender. Tropic Thunder took in $26 million this weekend, a paltry sum compared to DarkKnight’s near $472 million purse since its release on July 18. It’s unlikely that the R-rated Ben Stiller comedy will stay on top for long. The Dark Knight struck a chord with many moviegoers while Tropic Thunder is a diversion, an excuse to get out of the house for a couple of hours.

It’s also an opportunity to assess the negligible impact of highly publicized boycotts by lobbying groups and special interests. I have not seen Tropic Thunder, am not especially interested in seeing it, can’t weigh in on it and can only hope it wasn’t mean spirited to any disadvantaged group. I can, however, say a few things.

First of all, making fun of people who poke fun at a minority isn’t the same thing as poking fun at a minority. It’s sad that some advocates of the intellectually disabled are so intellectually dim that they can’t make that distinction. (I especially direct my comments to the dull professor of “disabilities studies” heard last week on NPR). If Tropic Thunder is actually being cruel to the mentally disabled (rather than its stated intention of satirizing Hollywood), I will join in condemning it. But like me, most of the people squawking about the movie haven’t seen it. I suggest they reserve judgment until they do.

Secondly, ballyhooed boycotts almost always fail. For years the Roman Catholic Church boosted the revenues of films it disliked by calling on the faithful to boycott them. If everyone ignored Mel Gibson, ThePassion of the Christ might not have been as big a hit.

Finally, a democratic society is based on the premise that ideas should be exchanged and debated. You can’t debate the merits of a movie you have chosen ahead of time not to see. Boycotting a film isn’t the same thing as boycotting wine from South Africa during Apartheid or lettuce from non-union farms. Movies are commodities but they are also the conveyers of ideas and messages—good, bad and mixed. If the message is abhorrent, treating the public like three-year olds and telling them to avert their eyes may not be the best way to combat them.

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