When It’s Too Soon to Say “Happily Ever After”
One of the things that most knocked out audiences when Forrest Gump opened in theaters was its use of what was then still novel digital technology to insert Tom Hanks’ good-natured Forrest into select black and white or grainy 16mm color newsreel footage. Never before had eyes been challenged by what the kids of today would call “deep fakes” on TikTok. So beyond a brief flicker where the lips of a former world leader are manipulated, it really looks like Hanks is standing next to President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and, in the most humorous sequence, President Richard M. Nixon, the latter of whom unwisely suggests Gump spend the next few nights at the Watergate Hotel.
The proverbial Hall of Presidents sequences are all amusing, and the way that leaders, who were once more mythologized in an everyday life that existed without the internet and 24-hour cable news cycles, were suddenly resurrected from the dead remains a clever trick.
Less amusing, at least for myself, is the way this trick is first played by amiably inserting Gump behind the infamous bigot, Alabama Governor George Wallace, as he screeched from the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, swearing he would never let Black students integrate into the state’s public university. Earlier that year, Wallace was inaugurated as governor by declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
The scene in Forrest Gump, of course, is meant to mock Wallace as a fool. It’s a sequence designed to showcase Gump’s bafflement by and total incomprehension of racism. Forrest is simple, but Wallace is stupid. It also narratively places Gump in the real and fraught racial divisions of the 1960s, particularly as a Southern white man who, again without him comprehending the implications, is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Confronting with clear eyes those thorny and painful aspects of Southern, and American, history is necessary.
Yet it doesn’t actually feel like Forrest Gump is sincerely attempting that. Rather it is clouding the past with a sense of moral superiority from the present. Things are so much better now that we’ve solved racism. Forrest, meanwhile, has a more contemporary 1990s point-of-view where he implies the then-popular talking point of “I don’t see race.” When he meets Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise) in Vietnam, his C.O. cracks a joke about Forrest and his buddy, an intellectually disabled Black man named Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), sounding like brothers.
“No, we are not relations, sir,” a puzzled Forrest responds much to Lt. Dan, and presumably the audience’s, chagrin and laughter.