This is post #25 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry.
Without further ado, #76 “Forrest Gump”
“Gump sat alone on a bench in the park
My name is Forrest he’d casually remark
Waitin’ for the bus with his hands in his pockets
He just kept sayin’ life is like a box of chocolates”
-“Weird” Al Yankovic, Gump, 1996
When “Weird” Al makes a reference to something, that’s when you know for certain that that person or work has become part of the Zeitgeist.
In the mid-’90s, “Forrest Gump” was everyone’s favorite movie. To prove it to you, they’d tell you “Life is like a box of chocolates” in their best Gump Voice. An actual Bubba Gump Shrimp Company serves food in coastal states. There may not be a more beloved entity to Gen-Xers than this film.
The first time I saw this movie was probably a year or two after it was released. My family got a copy of the VHS (that’s right) from the library, and it was rare when a movie you actually wanted to see was available off the shelf. Usually for movies that everyone wanted to see, you would have to reserve it and wait at least a few months before it would arrive. But the library is a great resource for families on a budget, since you can get everything for free.
The copy we got included descriptive audio for the sight impaired. This meant that a narrator would describe everything that happens on the screen. Again, this was a VHS tape, which meant you couldn’t just turn off the narration. It’s cool that that service exists, but if you’re not impaired, it makes for a trying watch.
For instance, in the opening scene, the narration went something like this:
“A feather blows across the screen. It flutters around a busy area of town, down to a man sitting on a bench.”
For those of you who are fortunate enough to have your eyesight, imagine sitting through 2 1/2 hours of that. Believe me, if you had, you would have a newfound appreciation for your ability to see.
“Forrest Gump” stars Tom Hanks in his iconic role about a man who goes by that name who has a different disability. Forrest has an intellectual disability. He’s lacking in intelligence so much that his mother, played by the likable Sally Field, has to sleep with the superintendent in order to get him into a normal school. Not only that, but as a child, he also had trouble walking without braces. He has a friend named Jenny (Robin Wright), who shows up intermittently throughout his life. The movie encompasses the life of this man born in the mid-20th century and shows how he interacts throughout the recent history of the United States.
As you can see, this isn’t the most politically correct film, which is somewhat ironic given it was made in the supposedly “PC” Clinton era of the mid- to late ’90s. Right off the bat, casting the able-minded Hanks as a man with an intellectual disability is rather problematic in itself. Yes, acting is about portraying someone who is not like yourself, but there’s no way to get inside the mind and understand what it’s like to be someone else who is disadvantaged in this way. It’s nearly impossible to play this sort of role without it coming off as something of a caricature. Most well-respected actors don’t take roles like this anymore. Insulting people who are disabled has become somewhat of a taboo, but in many circles, it’s still socially acceptable, which is kind of sad. Using the word “retarded” was cool around the time this movie came out, and although you probably won’t hear it in public, it will still get thrown out there in close company. Now that Breaking Bad has reached a zenith in pop culture, it’s shown that using actors who share their disability with the character they play works very well. So, if the script calls for that type of character, it’s not necessary to get an able-minded actor to play them, which is great. But in the ’90s, no one gave it a second thought, it just made for easily accessible comedic situations.
Much of the movie’s humor comes from Forrest’s involvement in many important U.S. events that took place throughout the mid-1900s, but most of the jokes are based around his disability in some way. He pronounces things oddly and whenever he’s given a task by an authority figure, he takes it literally and performs to the letter exactly what he’s told to do. This makes for some tragic moments, as he’s easily taken advantage of, especially by the military.
The reasoning for this character being the protagonist of the film seems to be for the sake of showing a person with either a blank slate or a child-like view of the world, to show how a person with a certain innocence reacts to heavily politically charged events. If this is in fact the point, then that’s also insulting to people who share Forrest’s disability.
But he does care about people, especially his friends, and he’s a loyal friend. There are positives to take away from this problematic character, and there are some clever moments in the film, despite the flaws. When Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), Forrest’s former commanding officer from when they served in the Vietnam War, asks him if he’s found Jesus, Forrest replies “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”
It wouldn’t have been much of a deviation to have made the character a man with just simple tastes a simple outlook on life. Being from Alabama, there are a lot of people from that area of the country who take pride in that sort of world view in a positive way. That sort of character would have served the same purpose, but without going for that cheap, offensive humor this film so strongly features.
For those who haven’t seen the movie since the ’90s, they might be surprised by how dark the film is. As mentioned earlier, Forrest’s mother has sex with the school superintendent so that Forrest does not have to go to a special needs school. But being told from Forrest’s point of view, that bit could easily go over people’s heads without them realizing.
Forrest is named after an ancestor of his who was a high-ranking officer in the Ku Klux Klan. The film doesn’t go into what the KKK represented, but Forrest, in his simple understanding, just believes they rode around on horses wearing funny masks. There’s nothing wrong with insulting that horrible organization, but to treat it as something silly without acknowledging the reasons they did what they did and what they actually stood for seems rather irresponsible. Although the group no longer holds the power or public view it once had, it does still exist even today, and their beliefs are still very prevalent in society, as evidenced any time the subject of race comes up in the news, such as the recent events in Missouri.
But the character who gets it the worst is Jenny. Early on, the film hints that her father, who doesn’t appear onscreen, had a history of abusing or molesting her in some way. It’s not clear exactly what he does to her, as the only evidence the audience is given is Forrest’s misguided explanation, and it’s clear that he’s unaware anything harmful even occurs between them. Pedophilia until very recently, similar to intellectual disability, and especially in the ’90s somehow was considered a joking matter, just something to be laughed at. It’s only been within maybe the past decade, when the scandal within the Catholic Church came out that some people began to treat pedophilia as a serious issue, probably because many people discovered that they knew people who had been molested as a child. But it’s somewhat ridiculous it’s taken this society so long to even consider it a legitimate issue, rather than comic relief fodder. Thankfully, the film kind of lends that issue the gravity it deserves more than most pop culture of the time.
As the movie follows Forrest throughout his life, it checks in on Jenny whenever the pair’s paths happen to cross. Forrest ends up (mostly by accident) joining the military, starting his own company, and stumbling onto investing in then fledgling company, Apple (Forrest must be a billionaire by now if he held onto that stock), all “highly regarded” positions. By contrast, Jenny becomes a stripper and a hippie, and she takes a lot of drugs and has abusive boyfriends. By the end, she contracts AIDS and dies. They both came from simple means, but Forrest was the more successful of the two. Though one would think this would make Jenny a sympathetic figure, instead the movie mostly treats her as though she’s one of those “bad girls” who sleeps around and gets herself into so much trouble because she likes the bad guys, and she’d be so much better off if she would just love Forrest, because he’s such a good guy, but she doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. It’s not until she learns to give up on her anger toward her father that she realizes she should be with Forrest, and that’s when she finally finds peace in her life. It’s a pretty ugly message that’s sent to women through this film.
It looks especially bad, as one of the film’s main themes is the whole “box of chocolates” thing. That is, you don’t know what you’re going to get out of life, you just have to be like Forrest and make the best of whatever you’re given. But if that’s true, then Jenny has mostly herself to blame for putting herself in so many bad situations. Her problem is that she holds on to that anger at her dad.
But anyone with any sense of compassion would agree that not only is Jenny not to blame for what her father did to her, but that she has every right to be pissed off at her dad and at the world in general for being so vilely violated at such a vulnerable age. She had no one to rely on early in life, other than Forrest, who wasn’t exactly in any position to support her in the ways she needed.
For some people who are in unfortunate situations, knowing that you don’t have much control over the hand you’re dealt in life, but all you can do is make the best of it, can be a comforting, empowering, and even hopeful message. It is true that the circumstances of one’s life are mostly out of their control, and they have to learn to be resourceful with what little they are given. It’s important to stay positive in life, even though it can often be difficult for many. That positivity can make the bitter pill that is life go down easier. But for others, having a chip on their shoulder and a healthy amount of “fuck off” for the forces that are trying to hold them down can be much more inspiring and rousing to action.
The “box of chocolates” idea is only true to a certain degree. A majority of people have relatively little control over the circumstances of their life. But people who possess more wealth or power have unlimited options. Not only do they have control over their own lives, but they often have control over the lives of many people. They might not do anything “meaningful” with those vast resources, but at the end of the day, even if they feel “unfulfilled,” the fact is they still have near-total control over their own lives. Less affluent people who don’t hit the right path, whatever that is, can find their lives passing them by because they missed out on something early in life. It’s not too late to make a change, but it’s much more difficult to do now. For the people who were telling this story, who were already at the point where they could do most whatever they wanted to with the rest of their lifes, to send this kind of message to us plebeians, is kind of condescending.
There’s nothing wrong with a “positive” movie, especially if it offers real inspiration. So often, however, the perhaps “well-intentioned” message rings hollow. If it rings hollow, that’s because it is hollow. The audience doesn’t have to be happy with whatever it’s given. Happy endings can be great and satisfying when they are earned, but if you’re going to insult them, then making them happy is going to be tough. “Forrest Gump” came out at a time when opportunities were plenty and the U.S. was trying to turn the corner on issues of poverty and racism (though those issues were really just swept under the rug). The U.S. was out of the Cold War and the war in the Middle East was on hold. Perhaps this movie made a lot more sense back then when the average American might have had more control over their life. There’s no question of its popularity, but perhaps its time has come and gone.
Asian sighting: Although one of the key scenes in the movie takes place in a combat zone during the Vietnam War, no actual Vietnamese or Asian or anybody actually appears onscreen to represent the Viet Cong military. There’s just a lot of bullet fire and explosions. Lt. Dan’s fiancee Susan (Teresa Denton, although in the credits, the character is listed as “Lt. Dan’s Fiancee,” rather than her actual name), whom he introduces at the end of the movie, is of some uncertain Asian descent, possibly symbolizing that he’s made his peace with his experience in Vietnam. Losing your legs and nearly dying isn’t enough of a reason to be angry either, apparently. You gotta find an Asian lady to make it all better.
We don’t often reflect on pop culture from earlier in our lives enough to really think about how those things helped form the worldview we hold now. “Forrest Gump” was an influential movie for a lot of people. Many of the ideas espoused in this film that perhaps were meant to inspire are now used by those with greater means, like libertarians for instance, to shame people in less fortunate positions who are upset about their situation. Those who find themselves victims of heinous crimes are more likely to find themselves scolded for “playing the victim,” and told that they are too bitter. Sometimes, we need to take a look at things we have enjoyed in the past and examine them more closely, and sometimes, we might find we don’t like what we see the way we used to.
Some movies are ageless, and they’ll stand the test of time as long as people are watching movies, others become outdated and are looked at as a relic of their time. Having celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, “Forrest Gump” is already outdated, which is disappointing considering some of the classics that came before it that still continue to shine brightly.
A man who’s actually experienced a bit of a resurgence lately, “Weird” Al will carry us out:
Next up, #75. “In the Heat of the Night”