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‘Thunder’ sparks storm of protest

Kiersten Black  walks with her younger brother Anthony on Wednesday.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
Kiersten Black walks with her younger brother Anthony on Wednesday. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Local advocates for disabled among those boycotting film

Helen Black’s family is accustomed to fighting back when people use the word “retard” to depict people with developmental challenges in an unflattering way.

One daughter successfully lobbied her Mead School District middle school to ban the word; now demerits are issued to students who use it. Another daughter lobbied legislators in Olympia in support of people with disabilities. And when the movie “Tropic Thunder” opened Wednesday, two of the girls made up fliers calling for a boycott due largely to the satiric portrayal of a character called “Simple Jack” by actor Ben Stiller.

Their motivation? Their 5-year-old brother, Anthony, has Down syndrome.

“Ever since my brother was born, I’ve seen all of this in a different light than I would have,” said 18-year-old Kiersten Black, who said her brother always greets people with a smile. “I’ve been willing to tell people ‘You shouldn’t do that.’ Some understand and will listen. Some have become active in speaking out about jokes that put people down.”

In protesting the movie, the Black family joins national and local groups calling for a boycott of the film. Included among them are the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Special Olympics and the National Down Syndrome Congress.

The Arc of Spokane, which advocates for people with developmental disabilities, joined that effort Wednesday by organizing protests of the movie at local theaters. Protests are planned at theaters at River Park Square and Spokane Valley and NorthTown malls through Saturday.

“We want to encourage acceptance and discourage abusive behavior, and this kind of movie encourages abusive behavior,” said Brian Holloway, a spokesman for Arc of Spokane.

DreamWorks executives and actor Stiller, who also directed the movie, said in a New York Times article that the film was a movie-industry spoof satirizing not the disabled but actors who portray them in order to win awards. A DreamWorks spokesman also was quoted as saying the movie “makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the-top characters in ridiculous situations.”

“Tropic Thunder” is a movie within a movie, in which the actors portray actors shooting a Vietnam War film. In one of the movie’s most talked-about scenes, actor Robert Downey Jr.’s character chastises Stiller’s character for “going full retard” in depicting the character Simple Jack in a previous movie. In the movie, Downey Jr.’s Oscar-winning character is renowned for his efforts to get into character, including having his skin dyed black to play an African-American man.

The explanations are little comfort for Helen Black, who dreads her children returning to school and hearing other kids laughing as they repeat catch phrases from the movie containing the word “retard.” Or seeing T-shirts with the expression depicted on it. Black said her 15-year-old daughter Katrina persuaded her principal to ban the word from her middle school when she told him students were playing a game called “punch a retard.”

“My goal is to teach people that my son and many people like him are absolutely amazing,” Helen Black said. “As a parent, I’m taking this to the next level. It’s time for the disability population to wake up and get out there. We need to get out there and teach the public.”

Contact Alison Boggs at or (509) 459-5484.