Tropic Thunder? Offense Taken!

Two very different movie premieres raise the curtain on disabilities, stereotypes

The call to action was an offensive play title. The response was a movie. Now the call comes again—an offensive movie.

In the spring of 2007, when the Minneapolis theater company Brave New Workshop put on a show titled “The Rise of the Celebretards,” people with disabilities and their allies took action. They later made a documentary that shows their organized response to the play title and to the public use of the “R-word.” Ironically, just when that film, “Offense Taken”, was set to premiere, a similar thing happened —this time with the national release of a movie full of “retard” slurs.

The two August movie premieres reveal America’s deep chasm on the issue of respect for people with disabilities. On the one hand, popular culture can’t seem to let go of using demeaning disability words as “funny” put-downs. On the other hand, the disability rights movement is now at a place where the power of language is crashing up against the advancement of dignity and human rights. People with developmental disabilities want to be regular people and are tired of old hate speech that keeps them in a subhuman place.

On August 13th, Kelly Lee and Brad Duncan of St. Paul-based Advocating Change Together (ACT) were among hundreds of disability rights activists participating in public awareness or protests across the country at opening night of the movie “Tropic Thunder” (released by DreamWorks). A coalition of groups, including Special Olympics and Arc, organized a national boycott of the comedy, which features dialogue drenched in ridiculing use of the R-word.

Lee and Duncan, along with ACT staff Rick Cardenas and Mary Kay Kennedy, handed out fliers to moviegoers at the Highland Theater in St. Paul, telling about the issue of disrespectful language and inviting people to the premiere of “Offense Taken”. Lee and Duncan told moviegoers that they have personally experienced name calling, and that the word “retard” is especially hurtful. “I got teased and called retard when I was a kid,” said Lee. “It hurt. My mom tells me now that names can’t hurt me. I kind of agree, but deep inside I know names do hurt.”

Many of the moviegoers were teenage boys or young men. One young man commented, “I use language worse than anything I’ll see in this movie,” and said he was not offended by the language. Duncan observed, however, that “almost everyone wanted to hear what we had to say.”

About 100 people turned out to Interact Theater for the August 21 premiere of “Offense Taken”. Interact was the site of the first community meeting that led to the film’s creation. The documentary was the result of 16 months of organizing by a coalition of local disability groups in response to a similar situation, when Brave New Workshop used “celebretard” in a show title. The documentary follows local self-advocates and allies through a year of planning and taking action, as they interview self-advocates, people on the street and family members, host a public forum, take part in a training, speak in classrooms, and set up a shredder at the state capitol for a rally where advocates brought in hate words and ran them through the machine to cheers and applause.

The film was produced by Self-Advocates Minnesota (SAM) and filmed and directed by Jerry Smith of the Institute on Community Integration. “What struck me about this project was how quickly and effectively individuals and groups came together,” said Sherry Gray, one of the many volunteers who worked to make the film a reality. A number of organizations were involved, including Advocating Change Together, the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota, Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, Arc Greater Twin Cities.

The film was proposed in the summer of 2007 as a way to extend the issues to the wider community, to help spread the word that this isn’t merely an issue of “politically correct” language. Rather, it is an issue that goes to the heart of whether persons with disabilities are fully credited – and honored – as part of their communities. And one cannot be a full member of a community when one comes with a derogatory, demeaning or distancing label.

After the premiere, a large group stayed to discuss the video and how to use it to launch a local public awareness and human rights campaign—in schools, churches and community groups. Wilbur Frank, of Arc Southwest, spoke about how she plans to use the video as a part of the play being produced by United We Stand players, a group of self-advocates from Mankato. Frank noted that her theater troupe, composed of self-advocates and allies, has been inspired by the year-long campaign already mounted by the coalition whose actions are documented in ”Offense Taken.” An excerpt of the movie will close out the group’s play, which will be performed at the statewide Arc convention, October 11 and 12 in Mankato.

The brainstorming extended to other media forms as well. Audience member Sally Koenecke from the Lake Minnetonka Communications Commission, urged folks to call their local community access station to get the film shown locally around the state. In the two weeks since the screening, several people have already begun to contact cable access to schedule the show in their area. Another audience member, Alexanda Bornstein, was motivated to start a Facebook group, “Offense Taken: Shredding the ‘R’ Word.” 

For more information, visit www.offensetaken.org

Bret Hesla is a former Access Press assistant editor. He was involved through ACT in the production of “Offense Taken.”