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Disabled Group Calls For 'Tropic Thunder' Boycott


A coalition of disability rights groups has called for a boycott of the new movie "Tropic Thunder." Yesterday, protesters gathered outside the premiere in Los Angeles, holding signs that said, Ban the Movie, Ban the Word, and the R Word is Hate Speech. They're talking about the word retard.

"Tropic Thunder" is a satirical spoof on the excesses of Hollywood. Ben Stiller plays a struggling action star. In hopes of winning an Oscar, he took on a different sort of role, a mentally disabled character called Simple Jack.

In this scene, Ben Stiller talks about that role with co-star Robert Downey Jr.

(Soundbite of movie "Tropic Thunder")

Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): (As Tugg Speedman) There were times, when I was doing Jack that I actually felt retarded, like really retarded.

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR. (Actor): (As Kirk Lazarus) Oh, yeah. Damn.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb.

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) To be a moron.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) To be moronical.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) Exactly.

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) An imbecile.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) Yeah. When I was playing the character…

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) When you was the character.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) Yeah, I mean, as Jack. Definitely.

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) Yeah. It's like working with mercury. It's high science, man, it's art form.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) You an artist.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) Hmm. It's what we do, right?

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) Yeah.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY JR.: (As Kirk Lazarus) Everybody knows you never go full retard.

BLOCK: Well, Timothy Shriver calls that hate speech. Shriver is chairman of the Special Olympics. He says the movie is an affront to dignity, hope and respect. And he is calling for a boycott.

Timothy Shriver, welcome to the program.

Mr. TIMOTHY SHRIVER (Chairman, Special Olympics): Thank you. Nice to be with you.

BLOCK: Help us understand why you think the word retard qualifies as hate speech?

Mr. SHRIVER: Well, look, for generations, in fact, throughout history, people with intellectual disabilities have been excluded from communities, from family life, from religious institutions, from schools. The ways in which they're excluded, the reasons for that exclusion, stems from the attitude that most people feel they're worthless, that they don't have value, that they can't contribute. This word has come to mean all those things. It's not any longer funny to perpetuate that stigma because it leads to enormous suffering, exclusion and really, injustice.

BLOCK: You have spoken with executives at DreamWorks, telling them about your objections. What did they tell you?

Mr. SHRIVER: Well, they, I think, said first of all that they didn't understand. That - and I think in good faith, they pulled down the Web site and eliminated some of the offensive material and the marketing materials like, you know, Never Go Full Retard or Once Upon a Time, There was a Retard. I think they have the capability - I know they have the capability, and I think they have the intent of trying to overturn the ill that's being perpetrated by this film in the future. But for now, we are on different sides of the opinion ledger on this one.

BLOCK: A spokesman for DreamWorks, which is putting out the movie, says, look, it's an R-rated comedy. It's by nature that comedies like this push boundaries. And this is a satire; they're mocking actors and the lengths they'll go for a role. It's the actors themselves who are being mocked, not the group in question, not the mentally disabled.

Mr. SHRIVER: If you look at the sequences that use the word retard, if you substituted the N-word, none of them would've made it, you know? Humor is great, but it's not funny when people are subjected to hate crimes, when people are institutionalized, when people are unemployed, when people are made fun of in school. Bullying is not funny. Intolerance is not funny. Misunderstanding and fear of difference is not funny. So humor is great, but when it crosses the line and runs the risk of producing hate and exclusion and loneliness and real human suffering, it crosses the line. This one went too far.

BLOCK: You mentioned the N-word. But, you know, in that scene that we just played a clip from, Robert Downey Jr. is playing an actor who surgically dyes his skin black for a role. Isn't that just as offensive or maybe more so?

Mr. SHRIVER: You know, I haven't seen those sequences in the film, so I don't know. But I do know that people who are sensitive to these issues from an African-American perspective have seen it. And my understanding is changes were made. The N-word is used once in this film. The word retard is used 17 to 20 times. It's just disproportionate. This is the most vulnerable population struggling every day for inclusion, for respect and dignity. The primary obstacle they face is the misunderstanding and mockery of society. If you want to pick on somebody, there's other people that you could pick on.

BLOCK: You mentioned that you haven't seen the movie "Tropic Thunder." Do you plan to see it so that you can be fully informed?

Mr. SHRIVER: I don't. You know, I very much wanted to see it in the last 10 days. And just the studio was not able to make a connection with me that would enable me to see it. Many of our coalition did see it. I've seen enough on the Internet. I've seen enough of the scenes. I recognize that some people will hear in that, well, if you don't see the movie, how can you judge? But I've seen enough and the - I don't think anyone from our community who's seen it has been anything other than disgusted. And so, I really don't feel any special need to see it myself.

BLOCK: Well, Timothy Shriver, thanks for being with us.

Mr. SHRIVER: Thank you for listening.

BLOCK: Timothy Shriver is chairman of the Special Olympics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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