Forrest Gump and Social Change

A lot has been written about Forrest Gump, from it’s winning the Best Film Oscar over Pulp Fiction to it’s (arguably) dubious right wing politics. Personally, I love the film as much as I love Pulp Fiction, and have seen it waaaay more times. I loved it when I was 10, I’ll love it when I’m 90 (assuming I reach that age and movies still exist) and it makes me blub like a little girl.

Banksy: cool + bananas = cool?

As for the politics, Tom Hanks, an active Democrat , does not feel the film is right wing. However, the writer of the book “Forrest Gump”, Winston Groom, has written a hagiography for teenagers on that intellectual titan, and father of the modern world,  Ronald Reagan.
Anyway, there’s a PHD in discussing Forrest Gump’s politics, views on race, cinematography, influence, innovative use of CGI, place in popular culture etc. etc. so I want to focus on just two characters and what they say about the social and technological change that occurred in the period between 1950s and early 1980s (the period in which the film is set).

The two characters I choose are Lieutenant Dan, an important supporting character, and, perhaps more surprisingly, Bubba’s Momma. Why these two? Well these are the only two characters that have a scene showing their ancestors repeating the same actions over again.

Lieutenant Dan’s ancestors are shown dying in “every… single… American war”. Each one of these ancestors is played by Gary Sinese (Lieutenant Dan).

Bubba’s Momma is shown cooking shrimp, then her momma is shown cooking shrimp and Forrest mentions “her momma before her momma too” cooked shrimp. Each one of Bubba’s Momma’s ancestors is shown serving shrimp to a rich white man.

So, we have two characters who are shown (using the visual technique of the character’s ancestors repeating actions in different periods) to be .stuck in a seemingly inescapable cycle So what happens to them?

Well, after being wounded in battle, Lieutenant Dan is saved by Forrest Gump. He loses the lower part of both of his legs and is left disabled. Now, it could be argued that in the past Lieutenant Dan would have died of his wounds but now, due to medical science, he is able to live.

Lieutenant Dan, is not happy with this state of affairs, feeling he has been cheated from his destiny, and is now, in his words, a “cripple”. This situation again improves with Lieutenant Dan getting “magic legs” and being able to walk at then end of the film. As before, these would not have been available to Lieutenant Dan but for the advances in medical science and for Forrest’s amazing talents and incredible luck making Lieutenant Dan a millionaire.

“Magic Legs”

Bubba’s Momma also becomes a millionaire, as Forrest decides to give her Bubba’s share of his shrimping fortune. When receiving this she comically faints and is shown reversing history, in that it is now she who lives in fancy house and is served shrimp by a white woman (not a white man, but lets not get into that…).

Now, we can see Forrest’s influence on Bubba’s Momma’s position but would it even have been possible for Bubba’s Momma to attain her new social status before the period of the film? In Alabama, the deep south of America, with it’s Jim Crow laws and overt racism (shown in the film when black students first go the University of Alabama) it seems unlikely.

The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company is now a real thing. Of course it is.

So we can see that both Lieutenant Dan and Bubba’s Momma have managed to change their previously fated positions in life through the mediums of technological change (Lieutanant Dan) and social change (Bubba’s Momma). They, Lieutenant Dan and Bubba’s Momma, were both hard working, passionate people – which can be seen from Dan’s commitment to his troop and Bubba’s Momma imparting so much knowledge of shrimp onto Bubba – but they still would not have managed to have this happen without the semi-magical abilities of Forrest Gump.

So what conclusions can we draw from these cases? Well, Forrest Gump suggest that the 60’s – 80’s offered real opportunities to improve your lot but you needed plenty of luck for it to happen. Preferably in the form of a magical idiot-savant.