Thursday, October 20, 2016
October 20, 2016: Black Panther Posts: Forrest Gump
[On October 15th, 1966, the Black Panthers were founded in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and stories connected to the Panthers, leading up to a special weekend post on an unfolding contemporary history that echoes the group’s activism and legacy.]
On what’s bad, and what’s even worse, about the party’s appearance in a popular historical film.
Somehow I’ve managed to get almost six years into this blog’s existence without writing at length (other than a brief reference in this post on Nathan Bedford Forrest) about Forrest Gump (1994), a film that I find one of the most propagandistic and problematic American historical dramas since Gone with the Wind. Tom Hanks’s Oscar-winning performance is unquestionably unique and brilliant, and the film’s central love story is moving; but that love story, like every other aspect of the movie, is built directly on a profoundly troubling depiction of the 1960s social and counter-culture movements as the source of a great deal that is wrong with late 20th century America, including but not at all limited to the AIDS epidemic that (without ever being overtly named) kills Forrest’s lifelong love interest Jenny (Robin Wright). Among the many such 60s movements to which Jenny’s self-destructive arc connects is, in one particularly frustrating scene (available in full at that hyperlink), the Black Panther Party.
What stands out most clearly in the scene is of course the violence: the domestic violence directed at Jenny by her (white) asshole activist boyfriend in the background; but also and even more centrally the violent rhetoric and tone employed by the Black Panther activist in his diatribe to Forrest in the foreground. While those two respective violent elements aren’t explicitly interconnected, it’s impossible to watch the scene and not feel that they are linked: partly because what we’re hearing is the Black Panther’s angry rant while we’re watching Jenny being abused; and partly because the abusive boyfriend is dressed in the same garb as the Panthers and clearly is a close associate of theirs (Forrest has introduced them all collectively as “her friends”). Indeed, through these choices director Robert Zemeckis is able to portray symbolically both a blond white woman and the audience themselves as being violently beaten by an angry and threatening black male just as much as by his white associate, an image that comes quite literally out of the racist tradition of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. That such an image could appear without much controversy in an Oscar-winning film released more than fifty years after Gone is, to say the least, troubling.
That’s not the only nor even the most troubling aspect of this scene, however. It also represents the film’s only explicit engagement, despite its overall emphasis on the 1960s and their aftermaths, with the Civil Rights Movement and African American activists. Despite Forrest finding his way to connect to numerous historical assassinations, neither he nor the film mention the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, two of the period’s three most prominent assassinations (alongside that of John F. Kennedy). (There was a King scene filmed that ended up being cut, although I don’t know if it mentioned his assassination as Forrest does with so many historical figures.) In the absence of such 60s figures and histories, the film features two main African American characters—Bubba, the simple-minded Vietnam comrade who is only interested in shrimp and who dies in the war (leaving Forrest to carry on his legacy by starting the Bubba Gump shrimp company); and the angry, ranting Black Panther character. Every historical drama has to make choices about what histories to include and then how to portray them—but reducing African American activism to this one glimpse of the Panthers, and then tying that glimpse to Jenny’s abuse so fully, is perhaps the most problematic historical move in a film full of them.
Last post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Panther histories or connections you’d highlight?