[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. Leading up to a special weekend post on one of the best comedies, and films, from 2019!]
On what the time travel blockbuster comedy gets wrong, and what it gets right.
Since the future moment to which Doc, Marty McFly, and Jennifer travel at the end of Back to the Future (1985)—and in which most of Back to the Future Part II (1989) is set—is 2015, there were a number of pieces published in the course of that year assessing what the film series got right about the future that’s now and what it didn’t. It’s a fun premise, and one that can certainly help us think about how we’ve perceived the future at different moments in our past (although the truth, as revealed by 2001: A Space Odyssey , Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles , and many other cultural texts, is that we’re almost always wrong when we imagine specific future moments). But since the first Back to the Future is set instead in the past—1955, to be exact—it offers a different and equally valuable lesson: how a mid-80s blockbuster film imagined American history.
I generally agree with the piece hyperlinked at “1955, to be exact”: filmmaker Robert Zemeckis and his crew got a good deal about 1955 right, from the music and teenage life and community to the clothes and settings. But when it comes to one of the deeper social issues with which the film (briefly) attempts to engage, race, I’d argue that it gets things very wrong. In two different, seemingly throwaway moments, young white Marty McFly is shown contributing to—if not, indeed, directly causing—sweeping social changes for African Americans: he launches the town’s Civil Rights revolution by convincing a young African American janitor that he could run for mayor someday (which we know from the film’s 1985 opening that he later did); and he kicks off the rock and roll revolution as well, when an African American musician calls his friend Chuck Berry to share McFly’s futuristic guitar stylings. Both moments are intended as gags, of course—but the nature of comic blockbusters is that their jokes and other entertainment-driven choices can and do connect to and influence more serious conversations, and the film’s portrayal of 1950s era racial progress and change is frustratingly wrong.
Fortunately, we now have other cinematic options if we want a more accurate portrayal of race, America, and the Civil Rights movement. And in a different way—and one admittedly much more central to its story—Back to the Future gets something very right about our relationship to the past, and more exactly to our parents’ pasts. Granted, it does so through a pseudo-incestuous storyline that requires a definite suspension of disbelief (if not of ethics, morality, or squeamishness). But nonetheless, I think Back to the Future captures a profound truth: the difficulty, but also the importance, of trying to connect to our parents not just as our parents (although of course we can never escape that relationship entirely, nor in most cases would we want to), but as the individual people they are, with lives and histories and stories all their own. Most of us (well, all of us) will never have the opportunity that Marty McFly does, to go back in time and meet our parents as young people, just starting to figure out who they are and where they’re headed. But it’s pretty important that we try to imagine them there, for their own sake and because (as Marty learns) it has a great deal to tell us about our own identities and lives as well.
Next comedy tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 80s comedies (or other comic films) you’d highlight?
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