Robert Downey Jr. in 'Tropic Thunder'
The Oscar nomination for Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Tropic Thunder should remind us that America is a much better place than many people are wiling to admit, writes Mike D’Virgilio.

I had read a variety of articles about the movie Tropic Thunder when it came out, especially about how controversial it supposedly was because Robert Downey Jr. played most of the film in a fairly realistic version of blackface. After all the controversy, I was a bit surprised that Downey was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for the role.

The nomination is exceedingly well-earned. The movie is incredibly crude and violent, but I just had to see it after hearing of all the controversy. I’m glad I did. I was entranced throughout the movie by Downey’s character. I laugh right now thinking about it.

It was truly a brilliant piece of acting. The man is an acting genius, and he’s not your typical left wing Hollywood egomaniac. His response to the nomination is indicative of this:

"It’s about time narcissistic, accolade-seeking idiotic actors were formally recognized," Downey deadpans about his nomination, speaking from the Brooklyn, N.Y., set of "Sherlock Holmes." "It’s been a long, hard road for us."

Even so, you can see the powerful fear of political correctness police as he continues:

"It was odd," he adds. "I had such trepidation fully trusting [the character] could be represented well enough that it wouldn’t be troublesome. That people would get joke. We were always on some level wondering if people will misunderstand our intention. I feel this award is one for the team. We worked [hard] to give it the right tone."

I am glad the Hollywood elites who vote on such things thought so too.

That brings up a couple of thoughts on blackface.

If you hop about the Web a bit and read what some people have to say about blackface, you will quickly see that there are those who get very worked up about it. From what I gather, great offense is taken regarding the practice because it allegedly perpetuates stereotypes of black inferiority, among other things.

Maybe, but I don’t think that’s what it’s really about. I saw two older Fred Astaire movies over the holidays, Swing Time and Holiday Inn, in which Astaire and Bing Crosby don blackface for a song and dance number.

I first saw Astaire apply the makeup, and my modern sensibilities were a bit shocked. But as I watched the scene play out I was struck by the complete innocence of it and obvious lack of intent to offend. It was quite obvious that Astaire was not doing anything the slightest bit malicious. On the contrary, the scene was clearly a fond tribute to a great black dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, whom Astaire was widely known to have admired greatly.

When I saw Crosby and his girl apply the makeup, I didn’t have the same reaction as when watching Astaire that first time. It seemed immediately evident to me that they were paying tribute to a great tradition of black performers.

Of course we know today we are not allowed such an interpretation. And it could be that blackface is the disgrace and offense its critics say it is. But if your worldview is not one of perpetual grievance against white oppression, I wonder if blackface would be all that big a concern.

I guess we’ve reached the point in American history where a black man can become president, and an actor playing blackface in a movie can get an Oscar nomination. Who ever thought such a deeply flawed country would come so far? Oh, just about everybody who knows that America is not and has never been, deeply flawed.

—Mike D’Virgilio