Protestors aim anger at war farce

August 14, 2008|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

On the day the highly anticipated comedy Tropic Thunder opened nationwide, Matthew Plantz showed up at a Howard County theater, but he wasn't lined up to buy a ticket.

The 26-year-old president of an advocacy group for people with disabilities came out to urge moviegoers to boycott the film that he called "demeaning."

"We've worked so hard the past couple of decades," said Plantz, who heads the group called People Power. "This movie kind of turns back the clock."

Plantz was among a handful of people stationed on the parking lot at United Artists Snowden Square Stadium 14 theaters in Columbia yesterday morning to protest the opening of the DreamWorks film. They weren't alone in their concern. Advocates and family members of people with mental disabilities across the nation have spoken out against the movie in recent days for its portrayal of people with disabilities and the derogatory language used to describe them.

The group, which also included members of the longtime advocacy group The Arc of Howard County, stood outside the theater with picket signs for about 15 minutes before being asked by management to leave the property.

"We are not picking on United Artists," said Jean Moon, spokeswoman for The Arc. "This particular theater employs a person with disabilities. It's not about the theater. It's about the movie."

Christine Towne, a disabled person who works as an administrative assistant for The Arc, held a sign that read: It hurts to be called the "R-Word."

She joined the call for a boycott.

"I thought it was disrespectful," the 20-year-old Ellicott City resident said of the movie trailer. "It is so rude to show it in the theaters."

Advocates for people with disabilities have been especially critical of the film's writer, director and star, Ben Stiller, and his portrayal of a character with disabilities named Simple Jack. The word "retard" is used excessively throughout the movie, protesters have said.

"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," said Plantz, who lives in Columbia.

Joseph Murray, president of the board of directors for The Arc, briefly spoke during the protest. He said the movie is "satirical in intention" but depicts people with mental disabilities in a "derogatory and demeaning manner."

"No matter the intention, it is unacceptable and extremely hurtful for a majority group to freely make jokes about a minority group, reinforcing the prejudice and discrimination that people with developmental disabilities have been fighting for generations," he said.

Elsewhere, Patricia Fegan, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland, is organizing a "Ban the R-Word" campaign.

"It's a united front," she said. "Our people are out there as well."

Fegan said her organization has launched a letter-writing campaign and is attempting to contact participants in its major fundraiser, the annual Polar Bear Plunge, to urge them to boycott the movie.

"It's horrendous," Fegan said of the film. "It's downright mean and dehumanizing. It's horrific. They don't deserve to be treated that way."

Murray concurred.

"People with cognitive and developmental disabilities are our family members, our friends, our neighbors and our co-workers," he said. "They do not deserve to be ridiculed to get a laugh in a movie."

Other groups are parodied in the film. Actor Robert Downey Jr. plays a white actor who darkens his skin in hopes of landing roles intended for blacks.

Murray, who is African-American, found that offensive, as well.

"If I saw that depiction, I would leave the movie," he said. "I don't watch any movies like that. It's disrespectful."

Only a couple of moviegoers were present for the protest. Elizabeth Renfro, a 20-year-old from California, Pa., who went to see another film, stopped to ask the group about its effort.

"I personally think it looks funny," she said of the movie's trailer. "Every person has different [taste]."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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