July 6, 2019, marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Forrest Gump. At the time it was the 4th-highest grossing film ever made, selling 78 million tickets at the domestic box office. It was nominated for thirteen Oscars and won six. The VHS cassette and two-disc soundtrack became staples of the American home.
It is past time to grapple with the movie’s influence. For better or worse, the movie is where a lot of us learned what we didn’t get to in history class, from desegregation to Vietnam to the AIDS epidemic. It is a movie that taught many of us what it means to have a history, and inspired some to become historians themselves. The film was and remains a powerful piece of historical storytelling.
Contingent has brought together six historians to reflect on what Gump means to them.
At the request of my high school students, I recently watched Forrest Gump with my Disability History class. Although the movie came out six years before they were born, they were looking forward to it—but I was wary. As far as I remembered from my last viewing, ten years prior, the film was a heavy-handed moralistic tale in which the intellectually-disabled main character is framed as achieving success despite himself and his disabilities. When I watched it again with my students, though, I discovered that the movie had a more complex depiction of disability than I remembered.
Of course, my memory wasn’t completely faulty—there are many troubling aspects to the film’s depiction of disability. My students noted that nearly every joke is at the expense of Forrest. It is his lack of understanding that hilariously places him at the forefront of various historical moments. His story also epitomizes the inspirational porn narrative. He “overcomes” his disability to become a war hero, a shrimp boat captain, and a father. Lt. Dan, on the other hand, is the quintessential angry gimp.
Yet my students looked deeper into the film and found various positives. They noticed that Forrest Gump shows a variety of disabilities. Forrest clearly has an intellectual disability, but also has a physical impairment—his leg braces—as a child. Lt. Dan’s missing legs are the most obvious physical disability in the film, but Jenny’s AIDS is also disabling. Indeed, in the early 1990s, people with AIDS were fighting for protections under the recently-passed Americans with Disabilities Act.
Further, the film has positive portrayals of the disabled and their families. For instance, Mrs. Gump goes to extreme lengths to have Forrest mainstreamed in the local schools, mirroring the fight for educational integration led by parents of disabled children in the 1950s. Lt. Dan’s triumphant moment, when he curses the hurricane and then swims in the ocean, complicates the helpless crip narrative. The complexity of disability surprised me and made me appreciate the film more. Given this, and the discussion it fostered among my students, I plan to use it in class again.
Casey Green is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Connecticut, where she studies disability and gender in colonial New England. She is also an associate lecturer at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts where she teaches American history and government courses..
Don Polite Jr.
“Shrimp is the fruit of the sea.”
So claims Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue in one of Forrest Gump’s most memorable scenes. When Forrest boards the bus taking him to Army basic training, he finds only one soul willing to share their seat: Bubba. From there, Forrest and Bubba are friends, and their friendship serves as one of the film’s key emotional arcs.
After Bubba’s death in the Vietnam War, Forrest kept his memory and their friendship alive with the eventual founding of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which has inspired a real-life restaurant chain. The genesis for Bubba Gump Shrimp is Bubba’s listing of twenty-one different ways to prepare shrimp.
Whether called “soul food” or “Southern cuisine,” much of the United States’s cuisine can trace its lineage back to black cooks. The film briefly taps into this history with a flashback, showing Bubba’s grandmother and great-grandmother serving shrimp dishes to wealthy-looking white men. It is implied that his great-grandmother was enslaved, and the white man eating her dish was her enslaver.
Though enslaved people were trained to prepare elaborate feasts for their owners, they were given scraps for their own nourishment, such as rations of corn mixed with cottonseed. The result was a forced culinary ingenuity. Many contemporary “Southern” dishes, from chicken bog to hash, are the result of enslaved people’s efforts to make meals out of scraps.
After listing the twenty-one shrimp recipes, Bubba finishes, “that’s about it.” But what he described was not simple. Shrimp became a staple of the film’s Blue family because it was a cheap and accessible resource. Bubba’s family did what many generations of the Black families in America did: make the most of a limited resource. In the process, Bubba and the Blue family provided a demonstration of Black culinary artistry, by way of shrimp – “the fruit of the sea.”
Don Polite Jr. (@Polite_DPJ) is a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, where he studies the overlapping and mutually reinforcing systems of Jim Crow and US empire in Puerto Rico.
Like the other decades it portrays, Forrest Gump offers a paint-by-numbers version of the 1960s, one that advances an archly conservative take on the era’s radical politics. A scene that embodies both of these problematic elements occurs near the midpoint of the movie, after Jenny and Forrest reunite at an antiwar rally in Washington, D. C.
At a gathering of Black Panthers, the two are joined by Jenny’s live-in boyfriend, Wesley. He’s a cartoon of political radicalism: president of the Berkeley chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, decked out in granny glasses and a surplus army overcoat and speaking the apocryphal taglines common in popular imaginings of the 1960s. “Who’s the baby killer?” he asks upon seeing the uniformed Forrest. Within just a few seconds, the film has characterized Wesley—and the New Left he represents—as rude, arrogant, and privileged.
The scene’s treatment of the Panthers is even more simplistic; like Wesley, they are completely one-dimensional, and even more strident. One unnamed Panther, played by Michael Jace, voices his organization’s antiracist, anti-imperialist messages cogently, but in the scene, his message is treated as background noise. As he yells things like, “We are against any war where black soldiers go to fight and come to be brutalized and killed in their own communities as they sleep in their beds at night,” the camera quickly pans away to focus on Forrest’s concern over Wesley and Jenny’s escalating argument.
These black revolutionaries are merely window dressing, helping to illustrate Jenny’s increasing loss of innocence (Forrest’s innocence, on the other hand, seems invulnerable). With no historical context for the Panthers or their militancy, the movie’s audience cannot assess the merits of the group’s positions, a framing reminiscent of 1960s-era press coverage that fixated on the bellicosity of the Panthers’ rhetoric but paid little attention to its substance.
In case the film’s message that members of the 1960s Left were overly angry—and arguably out of control—remains unclear to anyone watching, Wesley slaps Jenny, prompting a beat-down from Forrest as the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s rendition of “Hey Joe” blares on the soundtrack. (Later, cloaking his misogyny in feigned political frustration, Wesley will blame his abuse on “this war and that lying son of a bitch Johnson.”)
Driving home the point that the Left—black or white—shouldn’t be taken seriously, at the end of the scene, right before he and Jenny leave the stony-faced, gun-toting Panthers, the movie goes for a laugh. “Sorry I had a fight,” says Forrest, “in the middle of your Black Panther party.”
Zachary J. Lechner (@ZacharyLechner) is an assistant professor of history at Thomas Nelson Community College and the author of The South of the Mind: American Imaginings of White Southernness, 1960–1980.
Imagine you’re a soldier in Vietnam. Miles of thick jungle; your boots sloshing in the mud; the smell of burning diesel fuel. Now what are the sounds accompanying your patrol? Do you hear “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival? How about Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower”?
Because of their use in films like Forrest Gump, songs like these have become a part of American’s cultural memory of the Vietnam War. Until Gump’s release, Vietnam often sounded like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” thanks to its role in Apocalypse Now. The soundtrack of Forrest Gump, however, incorporated Vietnam into a larger musical ode to Baby Boomer nostalgia.
In Forrest Gump, we experience history as a playlist. The film transports us from Elvis Presley’s Eisenhower-era hit “Hound Dog” to The Mamas and the Papas’ counterculture anthem “California Dreamin” to the late-70s soft rock of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” The bad times are soothed by a good beat, and the good times are just a track skip away.
The film’s soundtrack even aids the visual effects. Director Robert Zemeckis famously altered historical footage to create scenes where Forrest interacts with people like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and John Lennon. While Hanks’ movie-star presence and the inconsistent lip-synching remind us what we’re actually looking at, the music subtly helps us suspend our disbelief. As Gump shakes hands with LBJ, “Mrs. Robinson” plays in the background, encouraging us to fuse together disparate elements of our collective memory.
The music lulls us into accepting the movie’s reality. With each viewing (and listening), we go deeper into an imagined past where the war and Forrest Gump and the counterculture and Jenny and ping-pong all exist right alongside each other.
Joe George (@JAGeorgeII) is a literature instructor at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. You can find more of his work here.
Despite the efforts of some great teachers, I was never a particularly good student of history. Something happened, though, in 8th grade Social Studies that would later shape my relationship to the past. My teacher screened Forrest Gump in class.
Even though he wasn’t paying much attention, he fast-forwarded through every sex scene and was able to hit MUTE right before every bad word. How many times had he seen the movie? What other historical fables had he enjoyed?
This is what Forrest Gump taught me: all white history is fanfiction.
Some fanfic, of course, is based more in fact than others. But any understanding we have of the past has been interpreted and shaped by witnesses, archivists, and scholars, even by our own personal journeys. Consider how long we believed that George Washington had wooden teeth because we were unable to reckon with the rot at our nation’s founding.
Forrest Gump did not exist. He did not live through the forced integration of the University of Alabama. But Vivian Malone did, as did so many others whose stories of integration weren’t recorded to the extent of Malone’s. That doesn’t mean we must ignore them. After all, the task of black history is taking a crumb of information and turning it into nourishment. We extrapolate, theorize, project. This work is valid.
Forrest Gump taught me all white history is fanfiction. And I can do that, too.
Jazmin Benton is a PhD student in visual studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Forrest Gump doesn’t know what to do with the 1970s. To be fair, neither do historians, but it’s especially obvious in a movie that functions as a kind of “greatest hits” for the Boomer generation’s historical experience. In the 1950s, we get Elvis and civil rights; the 1960s, Vietnam and angry hippies. And then what?
How about a montage! At some point in the mid-1970s, after enduring a series of personal tragedies, Gump decides to get up off his porch and run. We then get a sequence where he jogs back and forth across the United States for years, attaining folk hero status and a cult following despite giving no explanation for his seemingly endless run.
Why is Forrest running? Why do so many Americans follow him? The film echoes a central Boomer narrative, stated most clearly in Tom Wolfe’s 1976 article “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening”: that the cataclysm of the 1960s had left Americans feeling lost, unable to come to terms with the traumatic events that had shaped their youth. According to Wolfe, when the Boomers entered their thirties they retreated inward, searching for answers not in collective action but in personal transformation. They discovered yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, and other forms of self-improvement. Outdoor jogging became a national phenomenon. Both Tom Wolfe and Forrest Gump try to portray this search for meaning as good-natured, if a bit goofy; but this belies the conservatism at the heart of the Boomer retreat.
Forrest tells us, reflecting upon his cross-country run years later, “I’d think a lot about Mama and Bubba and Lieutenant Dan. But most of all, I thought about Jenny. I thought about her a lot.” Troubled by memories of Mama (the older generation), Bubba (racism and civil rights), and Lieutenant Dan (the Vietnam War), Gump focuses instead on an image of heterosexual monogamy as a path to the future.
The conservatism of Gump’s search becomes even clearer when he finally stops running and explains to his followers, “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” It’s an apologia for the Boomer generation’s retreat from the communitarian ideals of the 1960s: we tried, we failed, we got tired and went home. Monument Valley, the cinematic icon of the West, is in the background, as if to say Gump’s return home is an acknowledgement there are no more frontiers.
The film ends with Gump loading his son onto the same school bus he rode as a child, returning us to a safe nostalgic image of the 1950s, before Vietnam and civil rights and women’s lib tore us all apart. Ronald Reagan is president. It’s morning again in America. After years of running, we’re finally back where we started.
David Parsons (@davidlparsons) is an adjunct instructor in southern California, author of Dangerous Grounds: Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era, and host of The Nostalgia Trap podcast.