Forrest Gump: An Analysis

Forrest Gump follows a southern gentleman through his life of heroism, happiness, and loss.  Beginning with the main character, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), sitting on a bench at a bus stop, nothing seems to become clear to the audience.  It is not until Forrest begins to speak to strangers while he is on the bench, do things come more into perspective for the viewers.  The film begins with Forrest telling his life story to one person and throughout the movie, as buses arrive and depart, Forrest cycles through about four strangers to whom he tells his story – and all of this began with one box of chocolates.  Despite his IQ of 75, Forrest just appeared to be a social person to those who listened to his story.  Throughout the movie, Forrest is able to tell these strangers about his time at the University of Alabama in which he played football, his time in the military and, ultimately in the Vietnam War, and his time as a shrimping company CEO.  This film, as it takes its viewers through the modern history of the United States, touches on such subjects as race relations between blacks and whites and southern culture.  Although the movie did include race relations and a depiction of southern culture, it revolved mostly around the modern history of the United States; leaving the race relation and southern culture scenes to fill in the gaps of the story, although fairly accurately.

Race relations in the story of Forrest Gump are quite subtle.  Forrest is from the fictional town of Greenbow, Alabama.  Taking place in the south, the movie focuses on such issues as desegregation, but depicts blacks in two different ways.  There is the way that the movie portrayed blacks in today’s society, and the way that it portrayed the race in history.  The first person that Forrest talks to is a black nurse.  She is depicted as any regular person, no matter what race.  Her reactions to a stranger talking to her as she tries to read a magazine on a bus stop bench are justified and would be seen with any person.  However, it is at the time of 1994 that blacks are not depicted any differently from any other race – as is the accurate portrayal of society in 1994.  However, this changes as Forrest tells his life story and the viewers are taken back in time.

I noticed that on Forrest’s first day of school, there were no black children on the bus.  Other than being an accurate portrayal (as this was taking place in the 1950s), it paved the way for the remainder of the movie.  Race was not a huge subject in the movie, as the main character treated all races equally.  The first involvement of race relations within the film, took place as Forrest was going to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 1963.  The film included the day that the University desegregated and allowed for two black students to enroll in summer classes.  The film takes a comedic approach towards this historic event.  Forrest sees a group of people that appeared to be protesting.  He asks one of the group members what is happening and he replies by telling Forrest that “coons” (a derogatory name for the black population) are trying to get into the University.  Forrest replies by asking if he meant raccoons and is met with the reply, “No, niggers!”  To further emphasize Forrest’s relation to any and all races, Forrest notices one of the black students had dropped her book and he gladly returns it to her in front of the hostile, white, crowd.

As this is one of the main scenes that touches on race relations, the film includes multiple aspects.  According to the movie, even the Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, tried to keep the black students from enrolling.  As this is historically accurate, history goes on to tell us that the Alabama US National Guard had to be sent by President Kennedy to stop the Governor’s protest.  The movie incorporates this battle of wills by including black and white film of the Governor speaking to the people of Alabama and referring to the United States as a military dictatorship.

It was not until the film depicted the Black Panther movement, was race relation touched upon for a second time.  In this scene, Forrest’s love interest from when he was a boy, Jenny, knew someone who was part of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a group that sympathized with the Black Panther movement.  This person she knew was white and this element showed that whites did help blacks during the Civil Rights Movement.  The scene consists mostly of a member of the Black Panthers yelling at Forrest, who is in his military uniform.  The Black Panther member is explaining, but still yelling, to Forrest what the Black Panthers are all about.  He informs Forrest of the injustice that blacks are going through such as the raping of black women by white men and the unjustified treatment that white society is giving towards the black race.  The only reason that the Black Panthers allow Forrest into their meeting is because Forrest was unknowingly roped into speaking out against the Vietnam War and the Black Panthers sympathized with anyone who was against the war.  Their conclusion was that they were against any sort of war in which black soldiers are sent to die.  One of those black soldiers was Forrest’s best friend in the military, Bubba Blue.

Other than those race depictions, the movie did not include many other depictions except for some subtle instances.  When Forrest was introducing Bubba to the audience, he explained that Bubba’s mother works in someone else’s kitchen and cooks for them.  This explanation was paired with a visual aid of seeing Bubba’s grandmother, and great grandmother entering the dining room of a rich wealthy family and serving them food.  When Forrest goes to talk to Bubba’s mother, it is herself and her many children in an old house – perhaps what was once a house for the social elite, but had succumbed to aging and lack of attention.  The only kind of race reversal happened when Forrest was able to give some of his shrimping money to Bubba’s mother and instead of herself cooking for others, the movie cuts away to her being served by a white woman.  Another subtle, yet significant, depiction of the black race was a scene in which Forrest is a part of what appears to be either a Baptist or Pentecostal choir.  The scene, although only lasting about half a minute, shows the church filled with all black people except for Forrest, swaying, singing, dancing, and clapping to a holy hymn.  Not as significantly, however, it appeared that Forrest’s mother had black workers in her house, but only seemed to treat them as if they were white.

Taking place in Alabama, Forrest Gump would have trouble existing without depicting the south.  The southern culture is one of the first aspects of the movie that the audience is introduced to, is the southern culture.  In Forrest Gump, the south is portrayed as accurately as anyone could have portrayed it.  The stereotypical southern accents, the confederate flag license plates (seen on the truck that chases Forrest one day after high school), and the small community feel that the fictional place of Greenbow held.  One of the first instances of the southern culture characterizing Forrest was the mention of his name.  Forrest, at the beginning of his narrative, explains that he was named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, General Nathan Forrest.  However, the fact that he says his mother named him that to remind him that we do things that make no sense, is contradictory to the southern culture and ideology.

At this time, the south was changing racially, socially, and structurally, as stated by a review done by Kevin Stoda (http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/forrest-gump/user-reviews/Robert+Zemeckis%E2%80%99+FORREST+GUMP+and+American+Culture+and+Memory-NQDOUMOVVL4BNGMUNN2YV3OBNI.html). It seemed as it Forrest was oblivious to the change and so was the audience.  Forrest did not need to go through any sort of maturation in order to see any part of his life from the same perspective as his neighbors.  Even though the movie was filmed in South Carolina, it still had that Alabama feel to it.  Forrest, throughout his life, lives in a plantation home that had been in his family’s possession for generations.  This is a common occurrence in the south.  Seeing plantation homes that have been in a family for multiple decades is nothing unusual.  The plantation home that Forrest and his mother lived in was just the beginning of the stereotypical look of the south.  All the roads in this small town in Alabama were dirt roads and it appeared as if there was no commercialized area for miles.  Field dotted the land and, as is seen today, those fields were used for American football.

Forrest’s interaction with American football was not a large portion of the movie, but as were most of the times in his life, it was very significant.  Forrest went to the University of Alabama, an institution that has a very rich football history.  He played for their football team and that essence of the importance of football came through the film.  That southern football mentality found its way into the film – only to depict the south more and more accurately.

It seemed that Forrest’s love interest, Jenny, was the stereotypical southern “white trash.”  She was poor and grew up on a tobacco and corn farm.  She lived in a run-down house and had a sexually abusive father who suffered from alcoholism.  Her life seemed bleak and it only seemed become even bleaker, as she was taken from her abusive father to live with her grandmother.  From that short cut-away of Jenny getting out of the police car and walking up to her grandmother’s trailer home, the southern stereotype of poor and uneducated inhabitants, reared its ugly head once again.

In contrast to what one might believe, the element of religion was not a large factor in this movie.  Other than Forrest being in the choir at the Baptist church, there was not much mention of religion.  While they were children, however, Jenny and Forrest prayed to God to make Jenny a bird so that she could leave her abusive father.  There was no real mention of religion from Forrest’s mother other than when she told him that if God wanted everyone to be the same, that they would look like Forrest.  This is a surprising factor to omit, especially when southern culture is very embedded by religion.  However, it is good to understand that it is not a large part of everyone in the south.

It seemed that Forrest’s mother was the stereotypical southern lady.  She appeared to be well educated and carried herself like a sophisticated woman.  Wearing hats and dresses and taking care of Forrest as a single mother, Mrs. Gump did what she could to provide with Forrest.  Since Forrest’s father was never in his life and was always on “vacation,” it was up to Mrs. Gump to provide.  Instead of doing manual labor, she ran a business that was similar to a bread and breakfast.  It seemed that at this time in modern history, it was quite orthodox for a woman to run an inn and take on the role of the caretaker of a plantation house.

Forrest Gump, a personal favorite, had a couple of examples of race relations between blacks and whites and also included subtle hints of southern culture within its 2-hour duration.  As stated previously, race relations and southern culture were not the focus of the film.  Instead, the focus was on the modern history of the United States – some of which included race relations and southern culture, but not always.  There are some critics and historians who bash this movie for inaccurate portrayals, but from the perspective of the southern depiction and black depiction, it was correct.  For what the producers and director decided to include in the movie, the depictions were very accurate.  Nonetheless, having been inducted into the Library of Congress Film Registry, Forrest Gump must have done something well.

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11 responses to “Forrest Gump: An Analysis”

  1. Elizabeth Richardson says :

    One of my all time favorites! Great write up on the film. I would agree for the most part and definitely think that it gives a great overview of the time period, maybe a slightly skewed perspective but it makes this complex era more approachable. There are certainly portrayals of race relations and southern culture as whole, whether or not people agree on them depends on whether they agree with the stereotypes. But stereotypes arise for a reason right?

  2. petrescucosmin says :

    I believe everyone has a right to their opinion about films or other topics. However from a lot of the comments I have read about this film, I do not think many got the gist of the message from the author and the film maker. This film is a great modern fable, a fable in the dictionary is defined as a brief fictitious story that teaches a moral. There are many morals defined in this film but foremost is integrity and a simple goodness.

    I have a half brother who grew up in the Southern U.S. and on one occasion we were discussing this film and he said he felt it portrayed Southerners as dimwitted. I disagreed with him and informed him that the author himself was a native Southerner. The setting is central to this story in that it lets the tale unfold tying in factual events with the fable before us.

    The film is wonderfully directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film is his opus and is acted by a great cast on all levels. From the children who were Forrest Gump and Gump Jr. by Haley Joel Osment. Say what you want but I feel Tom Hanks deserved the Oscar award. Gary Sinise is synonymous with Lt.Dan whenever you hear those words. Sally Fields is the loving dutiful mother in her challenging situation. Mykelti Williamson as Bubba gives you a real sense in the story that Gump had a genuine friend, he moves you with his character. Words don’t grasp the full performance of Robin Wright Penn as Jenny. Jennys’ tenderness and pain are palpable as exhibited by Wright.

    I feel that much of Gumps’ appeal is his downright sense of doing the right thing regardless of the people and situations around him and we see that in this film. That being the case maybe we all wish we could be just a little more like that, trying to maintain innate goodness and not the trade-offs we often make as we go down lifes highways.

    The movie has it all too,drama,comedy and it challenges societal norms as well. Then there are the almost endless quotes from the movie that have slipped into everyday speech. They are too numerous to say at this point.One of the toppers for me in the movie is when Forrest is in a quandary about life and wondering as Lt.Dan said we all have a destiny and his Mom says it is where we are all just floating around like a feather in the wind. Forrest’s character terms it very well with this quote,”I think it is a little bit of both.” From my experiences in life it does appear to be that way. So if you have not seen the movie,see it soon you are in for a real treat. If you did not like it, give it a try again and hopefully you will see it for the great story it is!

    More about the movie and Tom Hanks you can also find it here
    http://movieinfodb.com/en/people/31/Tom+Hanks

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