Racism, Society and the Vietnam War in the 1960’s in Forrest Gump Essay Example
Racism, Society and the Vietnam War in the 1960’s in Forrest Gump Essay Example

Racism, Society and the Vietnam War in the 1960’s in Forrest Gump Essay Example

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  • Pages: 9 (2368 words)
  • Published: April 21, 2017
  • Type: Essay
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Memories can be formed in many different ways. Often times they are images and sensations that one can associate with a time or event in the past. A certain smell can have the effect if transporting you to a special place that you remember dearly. The creation and retention of memory is both conscious and unconscious, with the end result being a stored piece of information that can be dug up at any given time. More intriguing are the memories an individual can have about a time or place they have never experienced in their lives.

In this case, it could be said that these are more the work of preconceptions and assumptions. Through word of mouth someone born in the 1990’s can overtime develop an image of what they believe the 1920’s to have been like. Pictures, printed works and live


recordings from the time itself, further support the stories that are passed down through the generations. A picture of 19th century European soldier may allow us to perceive what life may have been like at that time by visualizing his clothes and expressions.

Beyond this mostly factual depiction of the past is something far more powerful. Cinema. The modern movie screen is a medium that recreates all sorts of era’s, landscapes and scenarios, from the daily life of an ant, to the farthest reaches of the universe. In Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, we are given a look into America during a time of radical change. Through the eyes of a simpleton, Forrest Gump, Zemeckis guides us through the social and political goings on of the 1960’s. Within his depiction of the 1960’s, we are able

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to form opinions of the time.

Forrest is a symbol of the struggle to hold onto 50’s America, during an era marked with race riots, distrust of the government and the Vietnam War. In this essay I will attempt to connect the events of Forrest’s life as we see then in the film, to the collective memory that many American’s have regarding the 1960’s. By encompassing crooked political action, aggressive anti-war movements and the emergence of the counter-culture movement, Forrest Gump has become a strong driver of the perception of the country in the 1960’s.

A product of the utopian 1950’s American dream, Forrest Gump is exactly that, an All-American boy. This is of course with the exception of his IQ rating of just a 75. As a boy in Savannah, Georgia, his classmates treat Forrest very poorly. By the actions of those who want no part of Forest, we are led to believe that this was the norm in 1950’s Georgia. We are constantly taught in our education process of the mistreatment of African Americans in our nations past, but we are rarely reminded of the struggles that those with disabilities had to deal with.

Living in a much less widely accepting culture Forrest was forced to fend for himself as an outcast. Forrest’s leg problems also point to the development of technology that has taken place in the past 50 years. A viewer can look at the rusted metal leg braces that the young boy is forced to wear and assume that this is the equivalent of a wheelchair or crutches. One cannot help but feel for the boy’s unfortunate situation. However, it is his leg

braces that allow Forrest to have his first major impact on his country in the unpredictable form of rock and roll.

In an encounter with a young Elvis Presley, Forrest does about as much dancing as his leg braces would allow while Elvis strums away on his guitar. It was this hip bouncing and swiveling motion that Elvis went on to use to drive every young girl in the 1960’s absolutely wild. His mental disabilities also bring into question the state of education in the time period. In very short sequence we see Forrest being denied entrance to an elementary school based on his ineptitude, then shortly after, playing football for the University of Alabama.

By having Forrest play for the infamous coach, Zemeckis expands the reach of his film as a collective memory. For some, the 60’s cannot be remember without bringing up the Bear Bryant national championships with the Crimson Tide. Although it is pretty clear that Forrest is at the school due to Bear Bryant’s interest in his blazing speed, Forrest also stands out for his actions regarding race relations. In 1963, or protagonist is on hand to witness the George Wallace’s refusal of integration at UAB. Forrest, presumably unaware of the magnitude of the situation, does not think twice when one of the young African American women drops a book.

He walks right up to who we can assume is Vivian Malone, and tries to give it back to her. Due to his sheltered upbringing and proper 1950’s ways Forrest is even unaware of the racial slurs being used against the students. The integration scene is one that most viewers will inevitably recall as

a true historical event, but by placing an uncompromised individual in the situation we are able to understand how unfathomable the whole event really is. It can be argued that movies depiction of President Kennedy calling the National Guard in is more memorable than the few black and white pictures from the real occurrence.

Forrest’s presence at UAB that day has a way of symbolizing President Kennedys accepting voice during the situation. Gump could never have understood the words of Governor Wallace on the front steps of UAB. “The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government. (Wallace) What was really taking place here was clearly unbeknownst to the Alabama Governor along with all the white students in attendance. The film is designed for us to only be able to agree with one person here, Forrest. It is almost as if Forrest is in the same position as us, gazing in on the significant event with extreme hindsight. It could lead a viewer to believe that in fact Forrest is not mentally handicapped, instead decades beyond his time in terms of racial understanding. Soon after this sequence we are met with the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

As this is a major event in American history, it is one that did not require much explaining within the film. What we do see is Forrest in the present day reflecting on this moment in his life with an old woman on the

bus bench. By bringing us back into the present day, it shows how the two people on the bench can vividly recall where they were when JFK died, as anyone who lived through the tragedy would be able to do. Just 3 years later, after ending his time at the University of Alabama and becoming an All-American (which is how he met JFK) Forrest is is persuaded by an army recruiter to join the war in Vietnam.

Gump’s first impressions of Vietnam are showed to the viewer with the background music of Credence Clearwater Revivals, “Fortunate Son”. It is during Gump’s inclusion in the Vietnam War that the soundtrack really begins to play a role historically on the movie. The era saw an explosion of both pro and anti war songs. It is appropriate to have the first song we hear to be a very pro America rally song, which is how many GI’s when they were first deployed into a foreign country. “Now they told us Vietnam was going to be very different from the United States of America.

Except for all the beer cans and barbeque, it was! ” This quote ties the soundtrack selection into the state of mind in early Vietnam. He arrives to what appears to be a party on the ground; all the while helicopters are flying overhead. It would be easy to be positive and want to, ‘wave the red, white and blue’, as John Fogerty says in his song, while everything seemed so calm. This scene can be juxtaposed with another one that comes shortly after to show the harsh realities of war. Later we see Forrest walking through

the jungle in a heavy down pour.

With a stern look on his face and his rifle set and ready, this is clearly a changed man. Now we hear, Buffalo Springfield’s famous anti-war song, ‘For What its Worth’. Forrest is explaining how it rains non-stop in Vietnam when just as the sun comes out, shots fire past his face an explosions ring out. This was the real Vietnam War, the part that the recruiters would never mention to the young men the convinced of the honor of fighting for your country. The piece of propaganda that was given to Forrest at is graduation day read, “Excellent Careers for Excellent Young Men”.

This was a far cry from the death that surrounds Forrest and his infantry mates and now, he must run for his life. Forrest unintentionally acts a defiant to the racial tensions of the 1960’s through his friendship with Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue. When he first gets on the bus to join the Army, he is again treated as an outcast. When Bubba offers a seat to Forrest he sits down and listens to what he has to say without any reserve. This is because through both his mental and physical disabilities, Gump is rendered ‘discursively black’ by society at a young age (Shohat).

To some, he is seen as a race traitor and others he is seen as a pioneer. For his efforts in the jungles of Vietnam, Forrest is awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Again he is invited to the Whitehouse to receive the award and this is where he comes into contact with several different viewpoints on the Vietnam

War. He accidently end up giving a speech at an anti-war rally, although none of it is heard by the audience at the Washington Monument. It is at the counter-culture rally that Forrest is reunited with Jenny Curran, his childhood girlfriend.

Curran’s role at this point of the film is to represent the underground 60’s movement for peace and the end of the war that was just now coming above ground and having their voice be heard. Jenny is involved with the Black Panther Movement, an extreme leftist movement that started out as an African-American revolutionary movement, but by attracting a diverse membership became recognized as a stable for anti-war in the 60’s. The life of Jenny Curran in Forrest Gump shows the side of the 1960’s that Forrest is completely unaware of; drugs, sex and rock and roll.

Jenny is a fast living free spirit who used psychedelic drugs, is sexually free and strongly opposes the Governments policy on Vietnam. Jenny presents herself as a girl with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, on a destructive course (Early). Her social issues arise as a result of an abusive childhood, and can be greatly compared to the PTSD that Lt. Dan Taylor experiences after losing both of his legs in the war. Next, Forrest’s travels begin to explain to us the live of a war veteran in the United States. Forrest is commissioned to serve on the Selective Services playing ping-pong in China.

It is after winning for the All-American team in China that Forrest once again is inserted into a piece of American history. While appearing on the Dick Cavett Show, Forrest inspires a young John Lennon to write

the song ‘Imagine’ while he described the estranged way of living of the Chinese people. Again, much like the JFK reference, Gump quickly reflects on the assassination of John Lennon, all those who heard the news of the musician’s death can relate to the confusion in his voice. Life however was not as glamorous for all Vietnam War Veterans in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

Lt. Dan Taylor is the films carrier of that message. Taylor, who lost his legs in war only to be saved by Forrest, it bitter about not having died on the battlefield as the men in his family have always done. Now an alcoholic and a paraplegic, Taylor hates his country and says he’s “Living off the government”. It is pretty clear that the support he is being given is not enough for someone in his unfortunate position. One study shows that almost half of all male veterans of Vietnam had been arrested or in jail at least once (Epstein). The interplay between cinematic techniques, politics and society has long been discussed in terms of the ideological function of the Classical Hollywood style that is characterized by an aesthetic of formal harmony that “naturalizes” and makes the on-screen constructions recognizably “invisible” for audiences” (Burton). Burtons comments about the creation of a collective memory for an era on screen, shines through in Forrest Gump. When breaking it down into the specific events and cultural themes that Forrest comes into contact with, the timeline and recreation of a well-known history is apparent.

However it is subtleties that go unnoticed in a period piece such as this that allow the characters and settings to

be used as real memory. If there are nuances within Gump that are not exactly accurate to the time, they are passed over by the average viewer and critic. By tying the settings and major events in US history together with a perfectly assembled soundtrack of pro and anti war songs, director Zemeckis has successfully created a piece of work that is regarded as accurate and relatable to any viewer who attempting to make a memorial tie to the United States of America in the 1960’s.


  1. Wallace, George . "Statement and Proclamation of Governor
  2. George C. Wallace. " School House Door Speech. University of Alabama , Tuscaloosa. 11 June 1963. Speech. Early, Emmett. The War Veteran in Film.
  3. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2003. 217. Print. Epstein, Jack, and Johnny Miller. "US Wars and Post-traumatic Stress Disorders. " SFGate. (2005): n. page. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.
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