The rewhitening of film (“Back to the Future”, Addendum B)
Yet another reason for revisiting Back to the Future was an almost throwaway comment from John Oliver:¹
[…] Marty McFly was white, because black people don’t generally hang around John C. Calhoun lookalikes who’re obsessed with going back to the 1950s.
This was an excellent reminder of the political scene that spawned the film, with its messages about race and history. Oliver’s aside came within a piece about these same topics, so despite its brevity, it was quite well aimed.
I’ve discussed previously how white flight set the stage for new cheap-to-produce film genres for urban audiences including Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu, and blaxploitation, but by the 1980s, these trends had reversed. Karina Longworth details this occurrence’s particular effect on African Americans in film:²
The decade of the 1980s saw a decline in Hollywood films featuring mostly black casts and black heroes. In 1974, the peak of blaxploitation, at least in terms of volume, 7% of the films released by the major studios told stories primarily about black people. That number had dropped to 2.5% by 1981. […] Perhaps wary of […] controversies, on the big screen Hollywood steered clear of tackling the black experience, historically or in the present. In the interest of trying to target as many demographics as possible in each film, black movie stars like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were frequently paired with white co-stars in movies that were set in largely white worlds.
I’d differ slightly with Longworth as to the two actors she mentions: both Pryor and Murphy had enough star power—not to mention talent—that they frequently wore multiple hats for their films, including various combinations of writing, directing, and producing, ultimately meaning that they shaped the worlds in which they appeared. This resulted in films like Pryor’s autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986), Murphy’s African fairy tale, Coming to America (1988), and Harlem Nights (1989), a historical crime drama for which the two teamed up. Still, they are only notable exceptions to the trend Longworth otherwise describes correctly.
And alongside this trend, beginning in the mid-’70s and intensifying in the ’80s, there was a glut of films featuring nostalgia for the ’50s. A short list of the better known ones is:
- American Graffiti (1973)
- Grease (1978)
- Diner (1982)
- Back to the Future (1985)
- Stand by Me (1986)
- Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)
- Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
And on the small screen Happy Days, closely related to American Graffiti, as the film sold the concept, as well as borrowing Ron Howard from the TV show’s pilot, among other elements. The sitcom aired for 10 years (1974-1984), spawning multiple spinoffs.
The surge in ’50s nostalgia and the simultaneous drop in films starring people of color is far from coincidental. The blacklash in all these works is pretty evident, with no major roles and sometimes not even minor roles for people of color in any of them with the exception of Driving Miss Daisy. Even in that film, Morgan Freeman plays Hoke Colburn, the titular white woman’s servant, so he’s far from an equal.
So what was behind these changes in the film business? Longworth suggests that it was due to a corresponding shift in the overall political climate. In particular the “conservative revolution” ushered in by the Reagan administration, which Longworth characterizes as:³
[A] presidential administration which married a nostalgia for a white-supremacist past with Hollywood production values. […] [“Post racial”] terminology […] was used by conservatives as part of the argument against affirmative action and other social programs aimed at balancing racial disparity. In the republican argument—an argument that was inherently racist in that it demonized people of color for needing things like welfare, or asking for any acknowledgement of continued imbalance—the work of balancing the playing field was supposedly finished, and urban violence of the 1970s was a sign that white people needed to start looking out for themselves again. Reaganism reframed the activism and fights for equality of the 1960s and -70s as “chaos” and posited Reagan and the republican party as the solution to restore the order of the 1950s.
This last feature of conservatism is what Oliver was referring to on his show; one that continues to define the movement to this day. Not only were governmental policies based on these misguided ideas, they also precipitated a spike in violence by groups like the KKK throughout the decade. Anthropologist Wade Davis filled in further details on the topic in a recent article for Rolling Stone:⁴
For many years, those on the conservative right in the United States have invoked a nostalgia for the 1950s, and an America that never was, but has to be presumed to have existed to rationalize their sense of loss and abandonment, their fear of change, their bitter resentments and lingering contempt for the social movements of the 1960s, a time of new aspirations for women, gays, and people of color.
But the political scene, as well as that in Hollywood were ultimately symptoms of a cultural shift: Having fled to the suburbs, boomers were settling down, having kids, getting jobs, and the appearance of new suburban megaplex theaters coincided with these trends. Some would even say that the drug of choice for this generation went from the laid-back slacker cannabis to the vigorously capitalist cocaine, which, in addition to amping up energy, also required a “straight” job because of its expense. In any case, the supposed “family values” of the ’50s were revalorized, but this version of the past was an imagined one.
Additionally, art itself suffered a reversal, moving from the irony of postmodernism to the so-called earnestness of post-postmodernism. This translated to a certain lack of depth, which literary critic Fredric Jameson described in 1983 as pastiche:⁵
Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a particular or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter, without that still latent feeling that there exists something normal compared with which what is being imitated is rather comic. Pastiche is a blank parody, parody that has lost its sense of humor[…].
Even at this, Jameson sees the wave of nostalgia films as embodying a particular form of pastiche, and further connects it strongly to the political and cultural realms:⁶
Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire[…].
But the ’50s nostalgia film was just one part of this new cinematic landscape. There are a few other films released in the decade worth discussing as part of this cultural trend.
There is much to love about one of the biggest hits of 1980, The Blues Brothers. In addition to some amazing comedy and an absurd number of car crashes, it also features many excellent performances from black musicians including James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and John Lee Hooker. It’s still problematic that the titular duo is white. The backstory is that Curtis (played by Cab Calloway) essentially raised Jake and Elwood Blues and schooled them in the musical form from which they take their name so they are effectively black on the inside, an act of twisted alchemy similar to the rationalization of Scarlett Johansson playing Kusanagi Motoko (草薙 素子), in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell. In both the film and eponymous band, John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd have stolen the headliner glory from the musicians who should take center stage.
With much more on-the-nose minstrelsy, the 1986 film Soul Man is the tale of a white guy who pretends to be black in order to win a Harvard law scholarship set aside for African Americans. NAACP Chapter President Willis Edwards summed up the issue even more at the core than a main character appearing in blackface for much of the film’s running time:⁷
We certainly believe it is possible to use humor to reveal the ridiculousness of racism. However the unhumorous and quite seriously made plot point of Soul Man is that no black student could be found in all of Los Angeles who was academically qualified for a scholarship geared to blacks.
Such criticisms did not deter the first couple from screening it at Camp David, though they did at least have the excuse that their son Ron Reagan appeared in it. A White House spokesman let The LA Times know, “The Reagans enjoyed the film and especially enjoyed seeing their son Ron.”⁸
The final film that should be noted here is not a new one, but a rerelease: 1946’s Song of the South returned to theaters in 1980 and 1986 to wild success. Rather than confronting the work’s appropriated folktales and depictions of happy slaves, Disney and their apologists tried to dismiss the film as a light-hearted fantasy. But as Longworth notes:⁹
[T]o reposition [Disney’s] movies as fully escapist was in keeping with a level of denial and wishful fantasizing that was integral to Reagan America[…].
And indeed, there was widespread controversy and protest of the film this time around, with Ron Finney of the LA Times declaring:¹⁰
We’ve seen 1980 close with the re-release of a film that has debased blacks for 34 years.
Criticism included shutting down some screenings of the film to such a degree that following its 1986 showing it went back in the “vault” forever, with only carefully curated clips shown on television. Eventually, these too disappeared until only Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as the theme song of the Disney parks attraction, Splash Mountain, remained. This song was based in part on the racially-charged song “Zip Coon”, which also gave rise to a minstrel show character of the same name. This year Disney decided to cease playing the song as well.
And here we come again to the theme of cancel culture. If you remember, in the previous Addendum I wasn’t so sure if I was on board with it. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out that it’s of a piece with the right wing’s weaponization of liberal values against the holders of those same values. My first clue should have been Bill Maher’s wholehearted embrace of it, and my second should have been how unevenly the term is applied. As Billy Bragg noted on a recent episode of Intelligence Squared:¹¹
Any cursory review of recent high-profile cases of cancel culture will reveal a troubling pattern: the victims of this trend are always defenders of the status quo.
Billy Bragg, who I have enjoyed since his self-roadied first tour of the US, isn’t just a musician, he’s a pretty astute guy, especially when it comes to politics, a realm into which his music regularly ventures. He goes on to sum up the case up quite well:¹²
Like the term political correctness before it, cancel culture is a trope used by reactionaries to police the limits of social change. It allows the proponents of white male supremacy to portray themselves as the victims of discrimination, undermining the rights of the real victims of structural inequality.
And so we’ve returned to the beginning of this tale. We see that the rhetoric of the right hasn’t changed, only their level of desperation has, with the Trump administration recently issuing an executive order outlawing any teaching about our nation’s white supremacist past. But all this posturing hasn’t stopped society from becoming increasingly enlightened—although quite gradually, I’ll admit. And let’s be clear, although it was protested, Song of the South was never cancelled; Disney seems to have decided that it simply no longer embodied values they wanted to project and removed it quietly and without prompting.
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- “U.S. History”, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 2020.
- Karina Longworth, “Splash Mountain”, You Must Remember This, 2019.
- Wade Davis, “The Unraveling of America”, Rolling Stone, 2020.
- Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, 1983. I’ll note that he describes this trend as postmodernist but Umberto Eco and others make it clear that Jameson is actually describing the shift to post-postmodernism.
- Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, New Left Review, 1984.
- Bob Thomas, “Los Angeles NAACP Protest”. The Lewiston Daily, 1986.
- “Reagans on ‘Soul Man’: Thumbs Up”. The Los Angeles Times, 1986.
- Ron Finney, “‘Song of the South’ Again Sings its Debasement of Blacks”, Los Angeles Times, 1981.
- “Debate: Cancel Culture is Threatening Our Freedoms”, Intelligence Squared, 2020.