While growing up, I was often asked about my opinions and recommendations on movies. I was sort of a go to guy for certain films with most people liking my opinions. In my almost 19 years of life, there has been one movie that has haunted my every step. (warning this essay will be exaggerated for dramatic purposes)
There is one movie that has got me into more arguments with testy white people than politics, race, or religion. There is one movie that has upset me so deeply that I cannot help but write a rant about it. For years this film has been praised and lauded ad nauseum, and I’m sick of it. I’ve had to listen to people talk about how sweet it is and how uplifting it is. When I share my feelings about this atrocity, people often say I’m too judgmental or that I need to learn to enjoy movies instead of analyzing them (believe me if I didn’t enjoy movies, I would not watch them).
Now, anyone who knows me (even a minor encounter, or who read the title to this rant) knows what film I’m talking about. I’m talking about Robert Zemeckis’s abomination (er, sorry…film) known as Forrest Gump. In 1994, Forrest Gump was released to instant praise and ultimately won 6 Academy Awards. The 1980s had been a pretty repressive decade for American movies, with the Amblin era of Spielberg and Lucas. There were special effects blockbusters and Oscar bait epics like Gandhi & Out of Africa, for example. Movies and studios didn’t like to take risks. These films had good guys in white hats and bad guys wearing black, and violence was dwindling, except for our beloved 80’s Action Classics.
Real deep stuff, right? Movies weren’t trying anything. In the late 80s and early 90s, things started to change. Independent cinema arrived. Filmmakers like Spike Lee, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Kathryn Bigelow, the Coen Brothers, and Abel Ferrara (among others) were challenging the studio system with distinct voices and new styles. They were making movies that were uncomfortable, violent, spoke new truths, and explored American culture beyond white picket fences. The geriatric coffee table shit of the 80s was done. Originality was winning once more (as it had during the New Hollywood stretch in the early 70s).
Getting back to Forrest Gump, we have a movie that would’ve fit more nicely in the 80s. My argument here is to not merely explain why Forrest Gump didn’t deserve those six Oscars. I could not care less about those awards. The Academy nominated and awarded films like Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, Joker, Crash, Shakespeare in Love, The Help, The English Patient, and Gladiator. It doesn’t surprise me that the dying old white people who vote for the Academy like to feel good about the social problems in this country. Why be provoked and have your views challenged when you can sit down and see racism be solved with friendship in films like Green Book?
This essay would be the size of Infinite Jest if I even scratched the surface of the problems with the Academy’s nominees and winners over its 90 years. No. I’m writing this because I’m fed up with Forrest Gump’s reputation as the holiest film ever made. Try telling someone on twitter or in a face-to-face conversation you dislike Forrest Gump. Like criticizing their religion, they will take it as a personal insult. I’ve driven down that road one too many times, but I must continue fighting the good fight to educate people on why Forrest Gump is a genuinely awful movie.
1994 was a great year for movies. Three Colors: Red, Pulp Fiction, Clerks, The Shawshank Redemption. Then along comes Forrest Gump. It’s got everything a family wants in a movie. Laughs. Friendship. The most popular and overplayed songs from the 60s. Quotes and sayings that you can put on your car. All good right? Wrong. Now I don’t believe those who love or even like Forrest Gump are wicked people. I reserve that title for those who don’t like the film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I’m an understanding guy for the most part. I’ll chalk your infatuation with this film to naivety. I’ll give you a pass. But now I’m going to explain why you’re wrong. Forrest Gump is horribly offensive in two ways. One; it is genuinely one of the worst scripts ever written. The characters are one dimensional and speak only in one-liners and parables, vacant of any meaning.
The Forrest character is a cartoon. He is silly. He is an imbecile. If I had to compare him to something, it’d be a Looney Tunes character. I can almost hear it now. “He’s a simple man who does good! Don’t you have a heart?” “Forrest Gump is a lesson in patience and a testament to the power of the human heart.” To hell with that. This leads me to my second point. Forrest Gump is an offensive portrayal of a man with an intellectual disability. Now, I’ve had people tell me Forrest doesn’t have a disability. He’s just “a little slow” or “simpler than most folks”. It’s funny because almost every Forrest Gump fan I know is the kind of person who uses the word “retarded” in a regular way and then says “they didn’t mean it that way”. That’s exactly what the filmmakers of Forrest Gump are doing. Zemeckis and co. are crafting this man who is literally an idiot. I’m not saying that to be cruel, but Forrest Gump is unaware of his surroundings 24/7. The man is clueless at a black panther meeting, in an interview with John Lennon, in the Vietnam War, eating ice cream while getting butt surgery, in the White House, even as his damn mother is on her deathbed.
They chose to make this character an imbecile. It’s plain condescending towards people with intellectual disabilities. I am close friends with children and adults with intellectual disabilities ranging from severe to incredibly mild. None of them are like Forrest. They dehumanized him. Everything he does is done for comedic purposes so the good Samaritan sitting on the couch watching the movie can chuckle and say “oh that sweet boy Forrest. He’s not bright, but he sure makes them cry, that’s fine by me. I’m not objecting to feel good movies. But when it’s done at the expense of a group of people who sometimes can’t speak up for themselves about how they’re portrayed in the media? Then I have a problem.
This isn’t slander on Tom Hanks, either. Tom Hanks is a terrific actor, especially in films like Philadelphia and…well, yeah, Philadelphia. [Editor’s Note: No love for Castaway?] And I’m not here saying they needed to portray Forrest, who has an intellectual disability, as a raging genius with no social skills (I’m looking at you Dustin Hoffman). Why is it that every time Hollywood makes a film featuring a character with a disability, they either have to have the IQ of a newborn or they have to be a human calculator/savant? [Ahem… Midnight Cowboy] Let’s have some deviation from the formula, please. I’m also not making the argument that only people with intellectual disabilities should play characters with disabilities. There are actors for a reason, although Zackary Gottsagen (an actor with Down Syndrome) makes a great case for doing exactly that in last year’s The Peanut Butter Falcon.
It’s just ridiculous to me that the filmmakers of Forrest Gump didn’t even try to cover up their portrayal of Forrest. They didn’t try and give him some decency or class. They didn’t try to give him a few scenes where he’s not the most clueless guy in the room. It is so painfully obvious and I wonder if the people who love this movie have ever interacted with someone who has an intellectual disability beyond the classroom, or a social gathering or bumping into them for a few minutes. Forrest, the film’s titular character, is the punchline of EVERY joke. It speaks to an America that its far too okay turning their eyes from injustice and inequality in this country. It speaks to long running conservative beliefs of working hard and loving god. I mean God-dammit they literally say in the movie he’s named after a Ku Klux Klan wizard. But I digress. This is the kind of stuff a middle class White American family eats up. Forrest is an uneducated and simple man. He loves his mother and his country. Did I say he was simple and sweet? Because he is. And oh boy, he sure does tug on your heart strings.
Forrest becomes a decorated war hero! He becomes wealthy! Just by moving along and being himself. They make Forrest blind to racism and blind to the horrors of Vietnam. When they give him a chance to speak about what he witnessed in Vietnam and maybe give him an ounce of character, his microphone is muted and he turns into yet another punchline, embarrassing himself in front of thousands. He then runs into a lake to fall head over heels for the hundredth time with a crack addict hippie girl who keeps conning him again and again. But the filmmakers will try to tell me I’m all wrong. They have. When the producer Steve Tish accepted his Oscar for Best Picture, he defended himself saying: “Forrest Gump isn’t about politics or conservative values. It’s about humanity.” Give me a moment while I sit back and laugh my ass off for thirty minutes. The movie is about humanity? What a dull and blank statement. What the hell is that supposed to mean?
Forrest Gump is a movie that needs to be re-evaluated, especially today. I have witnessed far too many of my friends and peers on social media and in real life choose to be blind to their surroundings as they are blind to this film’s message and preaching. I’m tired of seeing posts about good cops hugging black children and Jesus quotes from the Bible. There’s some shit you just don’t need. Forrest Gump is beloved for many things. Because it’s a sweet story where you can turn your brain off and enjoy an All-American story about a simple man who fulfills the American dream with nothing. But mostly. Forrest Gump works so well with people because it plays to a lifelong tradition that’s rooted deep into the American lifestyle. Ignorance.
People are going to read this (and I thank you for giving it the time) and they’ll shrug it off. They’ll say; “I understand your views Mas and I’m sorry you were offended, but personally I don’t feel offended or see a problem with it.” This is the same argument to those who feel comfortable staying silent when black men and women are lynched by racist cops and racist civilians. “Hey it’s bad but my life is good and I don’t need to worry about that”. I’m going to be told by fans of this film that I need to learn to accept others’ opinions (I’m working on it) and that people can like what they like. It can be interpreted in many ways. “To you it’s offensive and condescending to people with intellectual disabilities but to me it’s a testament to the simple life and being good”.
To put it in simpler words “to you it means these awful things and you’re seriously offended, but I like it and I don’t care to see that far into it”. This is the same argument that people use to defend the confederate flag. “I know it stands for racism but for me it stands for pride for our country and my ancestors”. At a certain point you have to sit back and re-examine things with the proper lens. It is not my opinion that something is offensive. If someone says something is offensive, it is offensive.
If I’m hurt by something, that is not my opinion or my belief. Forrest Gump is a movie that portrays a man with an intellectual disability as a bumbling sweetheart who wouldn’t know how to count to five. He’s the comic relief character in his own story. In the end Forrest Gump is loved because it goes down easy, and pretends that the world just works that way and there’s nothing that can or should be done. That is a way of life that needs to be erased. Now, to wrap this up, let me ask one favor of you. I ask that next time you somehow feel inclined to pop your Forrest Gump DVD in and watch it, pay attention to what I’ve said. Don’t turn your eye to it. Please, do not be blind.