Is Back to the Future a racist classic?
February 3, 2013 9 Comments
What is the story of Back to the Future?
A guy goes back in time, accidentally prevents his high-school-age parents from falling in love (according to how they had done so in his timeline), and so he has to play matchmaker for them in order to save his own existence. He succeeds so spectacularly that when he gets back to his own time, his family is better off and happier. Along the way he invents rock & roll and skateboarding.
That’s the story everyone knows. And sure, that stuff all happens. But that’s only a small part of the story. Indeed, that only really describes what happens to the McFly family.
What happens from the point of view of the rest of the inhabitants of 1955 Hill Valley?
First off, it’s 1955 and everything is basically great. The city is clean, people are happy and content. Then a strange, parentless drifter on shore leave named Calvin Klein arrives and unthinkingly suggests to Goldie Wilson, a busboy at a local diner, who happens to be black, that he’s going to be mayor. “Mayor!” Goldie exclaims. It had apparently never occurred to him. Then Goldie says those fateful words: “I’ll be the most powerful man in Hill Valley, and I’m gonna clean up this town.” A few days later, Calvin disappears. But the seed has been planted.
And in case it wasn’t clear, from the start, Goldie’s goal is ‘power’, and his intent is to ‘clean up’ a town that as far as we can see did not need any cleaning up. What does this mean, you might wonder? Flash forward to the 1985 of the beginning of the film and we get our answer. Ask yourself: is Hill Valley ‘cleaned up’ yet? The town square and surrounding downtown has descended into a sleazy mess populated by strip clubs, hobos and porn theaters rather than bright department stores and baby buggies, the clock tower has not been repaired for 30 years, once-booming suburbs are decaying, and the Biff Tannens of the world lord it over the McFlys. It’s basically the ‘if you kill yourself’ vision of Bedford Falls given to Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, but made reality. Oh yeah, that Goldie Wilson sure ‘cleaned up’ all right.
It’s important to remember that the 1985 of the beginning of the film is (probably) already affected by McFly’s past alterations to some extent – or at least, is self-consistent with them. We know this because Marty McFly invented skateboards and rock & roll – two things that we can see are present in the 1985 of the movie’s intro. This means either (as with the other major time-travel classic Primer) the intro we see is already some kind of a ‘second’, branched timeline, or McFly is just trapped in a self-consistent fate paradox in which in going back in time he is compelled by the laws of physics to only do things consistent with his starting-present 1985 (such as skateboards).
Either way, this means that the 1985 we see at the beginning of the film, despite on the surface ‘not having been changed by him yet’, is nevertheless reflective of many of McFly’s choices in the past – including, prompting the political career of Goldie Wilson. And so it is that in this 1985, Mayor Wilson is running for re-election.
How has Wilson’s Mayorship gone, you wonder? He has clearly been Mayor a long time. He is running for re-election. “Progress is his middle name”, say the billboards, in a perverse borrowed echo of past slogans. But what sort of ‘progress’ is this? Is it not the ‘progress’ of progressives everywhere?
Let’s look, by contrast, at the progress as defined by 1955 Mayor Red Thomas: ‘more jobs, better education, bigger civic improvements and lower taxes’ (!). Of course, we can infer that at some point, Red Thomas – and along with him, that vision of progress – loses to Goldie Wilson. Can we help but conclude, from everything shown in the film, that this was a change for the worse that Marty McFly has planted?
Yes sure, the McFlys made out all right. They’re confident, liberal, prosperous yuppies now, thanks to George’s science fiction writing. And Mayor Goldie Wilson has presumably enjoyed himself. But poor Hill Valley! And – seemingly – it’s all due to the idea having been planted in that busboy’s head back in 1955 by an arrogant ‘future’-oriented busybody that he should run for Mayor, of all things.
So what were the filmmakers really trying to say with all this? “This is what happens if you let a black man become mayor”, the subtext screams out. Surely, seen in this light, Back to the Future can proudly take its place alongside Birth of a Nation in the pantheon of reactionary, racist film classics.