Archive for the ‘Academy Awards’ Category

Forrest Gump and the Manufacturing of Innocence

September 7, 2014

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It’s been 20 years since Forrest Gump was released. This anniversary is being celebrated with a week-long IMAX release. I guess this is a good enough excuse to write something that I’ve long been wanting to write.

When Forrest Gump first came out, it mostly received ecstatic reviews (with a few naysayers here and there). I went to see it fully expecting to enjoy it. The early scenes seemed promising. I liked Sally Fields as Forrest Gump’s mother. She quickly disappeared, however. After about half an hour, I started glancing at my watch, wondering how much longer this thing would go on. I was watching stick figure characters who were doing things that were neither believable nor interesting. When the film finally ended, I left the theater feeling numb, as if I had just sat through a really long and really dull lecture.

So, what gives? Why did this mediocre film win such rave reviews? And why was it so hugely popular? (Those Bubbagump Shrimp hats were far and away the most annoying fashion item of the 1990’s.) This is something that I have thought about from time to time. I think that one of the significant things about this film is the fact that Gump is depicted as morally pure. There isn’t a mean-spirited bone in his body. He even manages to make it through the Vietnam War without killing anyone. (Although he somehow wins the Medal of Honor.)

But what’s really striking about this film is its racial angle. Gump is depicted as being not the least bit racist, despite the fact that he grows up in the Deep South during the time of Jim Crow. (We are also explicitly told that he is named after Nathan Bedford-Forrest, the founder of the Klu Klux Klan.) He is nice to almost all the black people he meets. (Interestingly, the only black person Gump doesn’t like is a Black Panther.) When Gump is in the Army, he meets a black soldier named Bubba, who talks non-stop about the different ways to cook shrimp. We’re expected to believe that Gump somehow forms a deep emotional bond with this self-absorbed monomaniac. Bubba is killed in the war, and after Gump leaves the army, he buys a shrimp boat and calls his business “Bubbagump Shrimp”. The film then has one of its moments of “whimsy”. A hurricane destroys all the shrimp boats except for Gump’s. This gives Gump a monopoly on the shrimp business that makes him wealthy. (This film’s makers expect us to see it as a good thing that a whole bunch of people were impoverished so Gump could get rich.) Gump then gives a bunch of money to Bubba’s mother, who works as a maid. She retires and buys a nice house, where she is waited upon by a maid. The film implies that this is a form of justice. (Although not for the woman who has to wait on Bubba’s mother.)

The clear subtext of this film is that Gump absolves us of our sins. (The film critic, Gene Siskel, once called this movie “a healing balm”.) We’ve had 500 years of racism, but it’s OK, because Gump was nice to Bubba’s mom. Two million Vietnamese were killed in the war, but, hey, at least Gump didn’t kill any of them!

Forrest Gump promotes a notion of American “innocence” that helped to create the cultural climate in this country that made the invasion of Iraq possible.

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Crash

April 10, 2013

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I recently learned through the Internet that some people are still seething over the fact that the 2006 Best Picture Oscar went to Crash instead of Brokeback Mountain. (Crash also won for Best Original Screenplay that year.) I missed Crash when it came out, but since I wasn’t all that impressed by Brokeback Mountain, I was curious to know why people though it was better than Crash, so I recently watched the latter film.

Crash is set in current day Los Angeles, and it tells the intertwined stories of a group of characters. These include: a black police detective, a Latina police detective, a racist white cop and his partner, a white district attorney and his wife, a black TV director and his wife, a Mexican locksmith and his daughter, an Iranian shopkeeper and his daughther, an Asian man involved in human trafficking, a black health care worker, and two black carjackers, one of whom spouts black nationalist rhetoric. The racial or ethnic identities of these characters are important, because this film is about the problem of racism.

This film is essentially a series of improbable coincidences that take place over a period of forty-eight hours. To take the most egregious example, the racist white cop and his partner pull over the black TV director and his wife as the latter are driving home. During the stop, the white racist cop sexually molests the wife. The next day, the racist white cop arrives at the scene of an accident. A woman is trapped in an overturned car. The racist white cop goes to rescue her, and – you guessed it – the woman turns out to be the same woman he molested the night before. What makes this scene offensive is that it seems to imply that being a racist and sexist pig doesn’t necessarily make you a bed person.

Coincidences do happen, but when a film presents us with one coincidence after another, it strains credulity. Furthermore, it’s lazy writing. Writers usually only resort to coincidences when they need to find some way to move the story along.

Another problem with this film is ham-handedness. Almost every conversation in it involves race in some way. When, for example, the Latina detective and the black detective have an argument after having had sex, she accuses him of having stereotyped ideas about Hispanics. In the world of Crash, people can’t even have a lovers’ quarrel without prejudice becoming the issue. Yes, racism is a problem in our society, but that doesn’t mean that people talk about it twenty-four hours a day.

There is also a problem of basic honesty. The black detective and the Latina detective are assigned to investigate an incident in which a white cop shot a black cop. The white cop claims that he acted in self-defense. Although it is unclear as to what exactly happened, the white district attorney pressures the black detective into filing a charge of murder against the white cop, because there is an election coming up and the district attorney wants to secure the black vote. Does anyone actually believe that this would happen in real life? District attorneys tend to be protective of the police, and (at least in L.A.) they don’t give a damn about the black vote. This part of the film is clearly inspired by an actual incident in which a white LAPD officer shot and killed a black LAPD officer. The white officer was acquitted of all wrong-doing.

Crash has a 75% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that most critics liked it. It appears that people overpraised Crash because it deals with the issue of racism, just as people overpraised Brokeback Mountain because it deals with the issue of homophobia. There’s an old saying among artists that “good intentions are not enough”. Someone need to explain this to critics.