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.