Today is “Back to the Future Day” (the real one), although the nerd in me feels compelled to point out that the date in question is actually from Back to the Future II, which would make a much less catchy, much more confusing day name. “Today is Back to the Future Today?”
The beloved film franchise is one of those things that even people who love it also love to pick apart, from the creepy rape and incest vibe to the timeline chaos it created. Among the elements that has long been picked at is the film’s handling of race. Even at the time of the film’s release, it seemed clumsy, at best. The most oft-cited example is Marty McFly’s invention of rock and roll, and subsequent theft by Chuck Berry:
Technically speaking, this isn’t racist at all, because Marty was explicitly stealing Johnny B. Goode from Chuck Berry in the original timeline, and when Marty returns to 1985, they’re still presumably calling Elvis Presley the “King of Rock and Roll,” but the joke seems to depend on ignoring the logistics of the film’s timeline in favor of a more 12 Monkeys (the movie) setup. Either way, the intent of the joke is to suggest that a white guy invented rock and roll, had it stolen from him by a black guy, who then had it re-stolen by white people. If you’re in a charitable mood, maybe this scene was a scalding commentary on cultural appropriation, but it plays more like white wish-fulfillment. To most white people, this scene and cultural appropriation are “compliments.”
Then, there’s the scene in which Marty inspires future Mayor Goldie Wilson to pursue a career in politics:
“A colored mayor, that’ll be the day.”
The joke in this scene is supposed to be on the gruff malt shop owner. but once again, the implicit message is that it takes white Marty McFly to inspire the subservient black character to greatness. There’s also the matter of the character’s portrayal, which is about a six or seven on the stereotype scale, until you realize that the actor playing the part actually talks like this. And they gave him a gold tooth. And named him after it.
I saw the first Back to the Future film in the theater in 1985, and even then, these things seemed very clumsy, but then again, this was about the same time they released Soul Man (which then-President Ronald Reagan screened at Camp David, and loved). Racial sensitivity wasn’t really a thing back then, beyond considering it polite not to say the n-word when black people were in the room.
Sure, there were no other black people in the movie, but in 1985, that just made it “a movie.” If you graded it on a curve, Back to the Future was at least well-intentioned in its ham-fistery. Besides, how much social complexity do you expect from a film that has George McFly hiring the man who tried to rape his wife?
But there were a few other things about Back to the Future that I’ve missed all these years, like the scene from Back to the Future II in which Marty returns to a nightmare Hill Valley to find a black family living in his house. In my own white obliviousness, it never occurred to me that since this was only the third instance of black people in a Back to the Future movie, maybe it was saying something to black people:
That whole scene is kinda racist in my opinion. The neighborhood is all trashed with burnt out cars and houses that have been foreclosed ‘n shit and, of course, this is where a black family lives. Also when the father comes running in to investigate he says, “freeze sucka!” and the kids have a Thriller poster on the wall. I guess the whole town was turned into a ghetto but to make sure the audience understands they chose to introduce that fact to us with a black family. Come to think of it the only other black people in the series is the band that plays at the dance. So in the Back to the Future universe black people are either musicians or they’re poor and live in the projects.
I want to give this segment the benefit of the doubt. I want it to be about blockbusting and the way unscrupulous real estate moguls destroy neighborhoods to make a profit. But Back to the Future II has no time to really explore that, and instead it hastily sketches a connection between black families – even ones that seem to be as intact and loving as the family living in the McFly house – with apocalyptic neighborhoods. Lyon Estate isn’t just bad, it’s like Precinct 13 there, complete with crashed police cars and double homicides.
In fact, viewed in this context, the dad’s rant against the real estate companies seems more meant to shorthand the fact that this family consists of “the good ones,” victims of circumstance and white oppressor Biff Tannen. At best, they’ll be “rescued” by timeline-fixing Marty McFly, but who knows? They’re never seen again.
It was Kraze Kreighton, though, who really opened my eyes to the “Back to the Future Agenda” by pointing out a bunch of other stuff I had never noticed, like the fact that Goldie Wilson stole his entire campaign platform from the white 1955 mayor, or that the clock tower building is a Hall of Justice during the good old (white) 1950s, but is a “big-ass welfare office” under the black mayor:
Honestly, it was that “Department of Social Services” that turned me, because even if you don’t want to make the leap that conditions in Hill Valley are supposed to be linked to having a black mayor, that all the decline on display at the beginning of the film are simply meant to be “signs of the times” that will produce Marty’s culture shock during the rest of the film, it still says that the director sees a “Department of Social Services” as a sign of the times, and an unwelcome one.
In the end, I think Back to the Future is a case study in white cluelessness more than anything. For their time, the films actually did a relatively commendable job at including black characters without resorting to overtly offensive stereotypes, and were really trying not to be racist. Even that level of inclusion was a luxury, as evidenced by the fact that there were no black people in Back to the Future III. It’s a sad luxury, though, that enables you not to even know what other people hear you saying about them, let alone have to worry about it.
At least Robert Zemeckis has shown tremendous growth over the years, and even made an entire movie about a black main character. Who can fly an airliner upside-down, drunk off his ass. Progress!