Blockbusting history: Forrest Gump as a powerful medium of American cultural memory

As we all await a new FORREST GUMP film–the last one was axed on 9-11 in 2001– I take time to reflect on what Forrest would do with history of the past 30 years. I have recently reviewed the article below on Forrest Gump and cultural memory–and have to say I am only disappointed that my (2000, 2009) article, Robert Zemeckis’ FORREST GUMP and American Culture and Memory, is not mentioned.Otherwise it is a great summary for teachers of American and world cultures or film.–kas

Article first published online: 18 JAN 2012

DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2451.2011.01794.x       © UNESCO 2012

Forrest Gump ranks as one of the most successful movies ever. The Academy Award-winning movie counted 78 million moviegoers in the USA and a worldwide box office of $673 million.1 Directed by Robert Zemeckis and released in 1994, the tragicomedy centres around the story of the fictional Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), who witnesses and influences important moments in contemporary American history and popular culture. Because of his low intelligence, Forrest is unaware of the historic significance of his experiences.

Almost as soon as it was released, scholars began discussing reasons for the film’s success. Many discussions highlighted not only the film but the political climate of the USA in the 1990s. Within the context of so-called “culture wars”, Forrest Gump was perceived as a political text that fit a conservative desire to exploit the nation’s past (Wang 2000). As a result, Forrest Gump was regarded by many as a media product that conveyed a certain political interpretation of history.

In the past, the production of cultural media like movies, memorials, museums, and textbooks has been conflated with its consumption which was considered either inaccessible or insignificant. With regard to Forrest Gump, such assumptions led to an abundance of scholarly readings and much speculation about the film’s viewership.

But without an audience, cultural media remains inert. It is not enough to simply call a medium of cultural memory, such as a movie, a representation of the past and situate it within the political context of its time. Questions of “collective memory” must be addressed. As historian Alon Confino made clear more than a decade ago, that it is necessary “to avoid an arbitrary choice and interpretation of evidence” (Confino 1997, p.1395). To that end, the need for reception studies has been formulated repeatedly (Beim 2007; Kansteiner 2002; Wineburg 2001).

When a historically-based feature film like Forrest Gump is seen by millions, it is important to find out why and how people relate and respond to this media. Certainly in the fifteen-plus years since the film was released, the political climate has changed dramatically. Nevertheless, the film is still a part of American culture and society (as I will discuss later). How is it watched, interpreted, and remembered today?

In order to think about the production, distribution, and consumption of media like the movies,2 I will start with a brief introduction to Halbwachs’ theoretical framework of collective memory and the refinements of his concept in cultural memory studies. To explore Forrest Gump as a medium of cultural memory I will first discuss the movie and its attendant scholarly interpretations before examining the film’s presence in and influence on other social and media networks.

Collective memory, cultural memory, and Forrest Gump

The question of how memory is shaped by social context was first raised at the turn of the last century. A genuine social psychological question (how groups affect individual memory) was formulated by French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs ([1925] 1992). Aspects that were pivotal to his concept of collective memory included shared social frameworks of remembrance acquired through the communications within different social groups. Under the terms of Halbwachs, individual memories are reconstructed based on present social frameworks. Halbwachs sees social frameworks as “words” and “conceptions” which are not devised by any particular individual, but rather “borrowed” from his milieu (Halbwachs 1980, p.60). Through these social frameworks, the individual creates an image of the past that is meaningful in light of his or her present experiences.

According to Halbwachs, social frameworks are conveyed through communication with others. By “others”, he means all groups that we belong to throughout our lives, such as family, religious groups, social class, etc. Through these we-groups our identity is shaped and stabilised. To understand the thinking and memory of an individual, one must identify where a person belongs and identify his or her role in such a group. The subject of memory and remembrance is always individual, just as individual memory is always a social phenomenon. Each individual memory is unique, since no two people have the same place within a group.

Halbwachs also embraces cultural products. In describing an imaginary trip to London, he explains that he never thinks of the city by itself, but always through the perspective of various social groups. Thus, as Halbwachs walks through London he is accompanied by historians, architects, and painters he has met through his reading, who make the city accessible through their individual and collective perspectives. By the very act of thinking, Halbwachs communicates a host of collective memories as well as the social and cultural schemas shaping his perceptions and memories: “Other men have had these remembrances in common with me” (Halbwachs 1980, p.24).

Elaborating on Halbwachs’ concept, we can pinpoint the symbolic order of media and institutions of memory. Egyptologist Jan Assmann differentiates the two modes (or as Halbwachs would say, two frames) of remembrance. For informal acts of memory in everyday life, such as those investigated by Halbwachs, he coined the term communicative memory. He distinguishes between communicative memory and cultural memory as an area of material culture and organised communication (Assmann 1995, 2008). Here memory is used metaphorically, i.e., the objectivised culture that serves as a society’s memory.

Because Assmann uses the term “cultural memory” in terms of premodern societies, it is difficult to apply its underlying concept (which centres around festivals, rites, and poems) to modern mass media which tend to distribute rather than simply retain group memory. Following Aleida Assmann, literary scholars Astrid Erll and Stephanie Wodianka (2008, p.5; emphasis in the original, translation S.M.) have cited feature films as distributional media, and therefore “cues – as media stimuli – on a collective level”. Thus, feature films, i.e., movies, don’t belong to cultural memory per se, but must be examined for their capacity to stimulate public debate about the past. Given significant communicative, cultural, and political frameworks, a feature film can be a powerful medium of cultural memory. Methodologically this understanding results in a multidimensional examination of film that starts with analysis (the “intra- and inter-medial dynamics” of the film) and ends with looking at the film’s presence in social and media networks (“pluri-medial dynamics”) (Erll 2008).

Forrest Gump the movie

The film opens with Forrest sitting at a bus stop in Savannah, Georgia, where he engages in a series of conversations with different people waiting for the bus. He recounts the episodes of his life, which are all closely linked to iconic moments in contemporary history.

In the opening scene, Forrest shares the bench with a young African-American nurse. He introduces himself by name, opens a box of chocolates and offers her one. The nurse declines. Tom Hanks then speaks the line that became one of the most popular movie quotes ever (Fischoff et al. 2000): “I could eat about a million and a half of these. My momma always said, Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Although the film was adapted from the novel of the same name by Winston Groom (1994), there are differences in the way Zemeckis and screenwriter Eric Roth have chosen to interpret Forrest Gump as a character. Groom’s book opens with the sentence: “Let me tell you this: Being an idiot is no box of chocolates.” In the movie, Forrest is depicted as simpleminded but good, a sympathetic character throughout. Though he is called an “idiot” at several points in the film, the attribution is mitigated by certain stylistic devices. First, it is always used by other characters, and unsympathetic ones at that. Forrest is aware that he is not as smart as other people, but he refuses to think of himself as stupid, and bolsters himself with a saying that also became a well-known “Gumpism”: “Mommy says stupid is as stupid does.” In addition, a large part of the film’s magic stems from Tom Hanks, whose star persona allows us to see the character as not only slow-witted but sensitive as well. Thus, Hanks’ previous and subsequent movie roles predispose the audience towards accepting Forrest as an Everyman hero.3

The film presents history through the eyes of a single hero, and becomes an example of Oral History. As Forrest witnesses many events (including the Vietnam War), his story is told by linking autobiography to contemporary history, and thereby transmitting history via word of mouth. The life of Forrest Gump is influenced not only by indelible personalities and events, but also his early love Jenny (Robin Wright). Though Forrest and Jenny grow up in the same small Southern town, their paths diverge and lead them to very different life experiences. While Forrest’s mental and physical disadvantages are ameliorated through the loving care of his single mother, we come to see how Jenny’s potential has been damaged by her abusive father. After college, Forrest enlists in the Army and fights in Vietnam, while Jenny joins the American “counterculture” (depicted as promiscuity, hippies, drugs, violence, and a politics of slogans). In the movie, this path is shown as some kind of aberration. After learning she is ill and doesn’t have much time left, Jenny returns home to Alabama and to Forrest. Her chief motive is to have her son raised by Forrest, the boy’s father. Overall the film intentionally operates with clichéd images. According to director Zemeckis, Jenny symbolises “drugs, sex, and rock’n roll”, whereas Forrest’s character is oriented towards “Mom, God & apple pie” (Zemeckis et al. 2001).

One reason so much attention was paid to the movie at the time of its release was the use of a new computer-based technique, morphing (Hoberg 1999; Nelmes 2003). Through this technique the director was able to integrate real film clips into the story, and manipulate it in such a way that the main character appears to be part of the historical footage. This can best be illustrated by discussing an important sequence of the film.

Sequence 1: As Forrest and Jenny are walking home from high school, a group of teenage boys throw rocks at them, hitting Forrest in the back and taunting him with insults like “stupid”. To protect him, Jenny yells, “Run, Forrest, run!” Forrest picks up speed, crosses a field, and runs into a nearby stadium, where the football coach is so impressed, he drafts Forrest onto the college team, despite his low IQ.

This sequence opens with 1963 footage showing a television report on the desegregation of the University of Alabama. First one sees the newscaster, then people listening in a barbershop, before the film cross-fades to a re-enactment of the famous scene at the entrance to the University of Alabama (the original commentary is still audible in voiceover). We can see students, National Guardsmen, and a reporter, as well as George Wallace, governor of Alabama, who is trying to prevent the court-ordered desegregation.

Forrest joins a group to ask what’s going on. One student answers that “coons” are trying to go to college with them. Forrest misunderstands this racist epithet, and even after the student’s clarification (“Not raccoons, you idiot. Niggers!”), he doesn’t take in the significance of the situation. As he goes to the front of the crowd of protesters, one of the black students accompanied by the National Guard drops her notebook. Forrest bends down, picks up the book, and hands it to the black student, politely addressing her as “Ma’am”.

Thus, many important elements of the plot are compressed into a sequence of about five minutes. It demonstrates how Forrest is regarded as an “idiot” by people his own age. Running is another main theme of the film. Here we see how Forrest’s ability to run fast is owed in large part to Jenny (she advises him to run in other sequences of the movie as well). As a child, Forrest used running to overcome an intellectual disadvantage; he escapes from teenage bullies and by becoming an athlete, gets into college. In the course of the film Forrest’s running ability helps him survive in Vietnam, and brings him worldwide fame as a “running guru”.

The sequence also demonstrates how Forrest’s limited ability “to see things as they are” yields positive results. The fact he differs from much of society also means that he doesn’t harbour their racist ideas. From a historical perspective his ignorance becomes a kind of innocence. In the film the racist student insults Forrest for being an “idiot” because he doesn’t understand a racist term, while in the book, it is Forrest himself who feels superior to people of other races or those who have greater disabilities (Halliwell 2004, p.222).

The historical setting of the film refers to the racial history of the civil rights movement. Other footage integrated into the story includes the Kennedy assassination, the shooting of Reagan, the moon landing, Watergate, etc. Zemeckis’ choices are representative of an American historical consciousness that was evident during the 1980s and 90s. If people were asked in 1985 to name the most significant events of the past fifty years, they would point to the Second World War, the Vietnam War, space exploration, the assassination of JFK, and the civil rights movement (Schuman and Scott 1989). In 1994, the year that the film was released, a survey asked, “What historical event that occurred during your lifetime do you remember most vividly?” Responses included the assassination of JFK, the moon landing, the Challenger shuttle explosion, the Vietnam War, and Watergate (Roper Center for Public Opinion Research 1994).

Zemeckis assembles the most significant and vividly remembered historical events, allowing his audience to see these media events through the eyes of Forrest Gump. These iconic media images were recently differentiated by the visual historian Gerhard Paul (2008, p.29) into specific dimensions and types of media icons. All seven of Paul’s icons are broadly represented in the movie, from “event icons” (e.g., the assassination of JFK) to “commercial icons” (e.g., the Apple logo), “social icons” (long-haired hippies or Vietnam vets), etc. The film thus represents a form of generational memory. The director himself belongs to the so-called “baby boom” generation, born between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. In the film Zemeckis links the remembrance of significant or iconic events that shaped his generation’s identity to the corresponding music of the times. Not only does this render the images familiar, but, as Zemeckis puts it, the music serves as a “signpost to history” and the emotions connected with this kind of visual and auditory familiarity (Zemeckis et al. 2001). In this way, Zemeckis refers to entwined processes: iconisation and emotionalisation (Hoberg 1999, p.198). The director constantly and consciously reproduces his own generational imprint which itself is mediated through mass media and popular culture. Zemeckis literally turns the TV or radio on for his audience, and thereby the power of media is squared by repetition. This plot device implies a crucial decision. If one takes this pointed iconisation in a negative sense, the film merely (unconsciously) repeats images and stereotypes. Seen from this general “cinepsychoanalytical” perspective, the film is a time machine,4 an ideological concoction that has one primary message: “We can escape change” (Nadel 1997, p.206).

But the repeated iconisation employed in the movie can also be understood as a satirical element, a stylistic device reflecting how one’s perceptions are shaped by media images. Postmodern readings expect viewers to recognise and decipher such stylistic devices as ironic (Donnerstag 2002; Scott 2001). The caricature of groups and characters is less a kind of negative stereotyping than an obviously absurd and satirical representation that stimulates the audience to reflect on the inadequacies of the representation itself. From this perspective, questions of historical authenticity or representation take a back seat. Forrest Gump is itself a mirror of a specific postmodern consciousness that reflects questions of how history and memory are represented. As Vivian Sobchack (1996, p.3) writes, “one could, in fact, suggest that Forrest Gump is a one-joke movie, absolutely dependent for its humor and irony upon historically (self-) conscious viewers who have been immersed in questions about their own possible place in history.”

In postmodern readings, the iconisation in Forrest Gump could also be interpreted as a filmic examination of mass media-created societal or historical consciousness. Viewed from this perspective, Forrest Gump offers, as Hoberg (1999, p.198) argues, the potential for the type of serious reflection that is usually the province of avant-garde films.

Some aspects of postmodern reading are evident in the desegregation sequence, where Zemeckis repeatedly cross-fades original footage and re-enacted historical scenes with scenes showing people in front of their televisions. As he enters the University of Alabama, Forrest waves at the camera. Although he is unaware of the historical significance of the moment, he seems to understand the power of media representation. Thus, Forrest Gump waves to an audience experiencing history in the same way the characters do in the film: as spectators watching it on a screen.

Alison Landsberg (2004) has coined the term prosthetic memory to describe how historical events one has not personally witnessed can nevertheless become individual recollections. Through mass media, impersonal historical phenomena are replaced by “experiential” collective memories. Landsberg explains this phenomenon by examples from experiential museums, historical re-enactments, and historical feature films. Film scholar Robert Burgoyne has examined the film Forrest Gump and its function as prosthetic memory, and arrived at the conclusion that “memory is thematised here as the connective tissue that binds the characters to the narrative of nation” (Burgoyne 1997, p.107). From Burgoyne’s perspective, the crucial question is whether the film is capable of consolidating national identity while narrating stories of American racism, political homicide, and war. One answer is that the film substitutes memory for history. Burgoyne does not interpret this in a positive way, seeing it primarily as depolitisation: the film doesn’t reflect on specific circumstances, developments, and results of historical events, but instead constructs “an image of nation that can exist apart from, or float free of, the historical traumas of the 1960s and 1970s” (Burgoyne 1997, p.107). However one interprets this process, the substitution of memory for history becomes clearer when one examines a second, more controversial sequence from the film.

Sequence 2: In the film Forrest is brought to Washington, DC to receive the Medal of Honor from President Johnson for heroism in Vietnam. Afterwards, he goes sightseeing and comes upon a massive gathering at the Lincoln Memorial. Still in his uniform, Forrest is shoved to the front of a group of protesters holding signs like “Veterans Against the War in Vietnam”. At the podium antiwar activist Abbie Hoffman, dressed in stars and stripes, is speaking out against the Vietnam War. He invites Forrest to come up and report on the war himself.

As he steps forward, the microphone is unplugged, so only those closest can hear what he’s saying. Forrest is just ending his speech when the sound is turned back on. Hoffman gives Forrest a hug and shouts his name into the microphone, and the crowd cheers Forrest. Just then, Forrest hears the voice of his true love, Jenny, rise from the crowd. They run towards each other and are reunited in the reflecting pool in front of the monument.

When Jenny introduces Forrest to her new friends at the Black Panther headquarters, they are not greeted warmly. When Forrest sees Jenny’s abusive boyfriend Wesley, a leader of the SDS, slap her, he rushes to her defence. Ejected from the gathering, Forrest and Jenny spend the night walking around Washington, recounting what they have done over the past years. The sequence ends with Jenny boarding a bus to Berkeley with her boyfriend, and saying goodbye to Forrest once again.

This sequence, especially the scene at the Black Panther headquarters, was criticised for it simplified and failed to address historical questions regarding gender and race. Thomas Byers (1996, p.431) points to an absence of black figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, as well as the stereotypical depiction of the Black Panthers. “[T]he forgetting (repression) of the history of racism becomes the justification for repeating it – for presenting Black men in terms of clichéd negative stereotypes.” The scene was similarly interpreted by Jennifer Wang (2000, p.98), who emphasised the interrelationship of race and gender to an even greater degree. To Wang, that Jenny’s abuse took place at a Black Panther headquarters was no coincidence: “By visualising the danger of black autonomy to a white woman and by giving voice to the threats of Black Nationalism, Forrest Gump emphasises the need to keep these bodies under white America’s control.”

One should bear in mind, however, that the person who strikes Jenny is not a member of the Black Panthers but rather her white boyfriend, and that even greater violence of Jenny took place at the hands of her (white) father in Alabama. While it’s possible to view this sequence literally, without observing the potential irony of the situation, in a footnote Byers points out that at an academic conference, European feminists couldn’t follow his reading of Forrest Gump because they considered the movie a satire on American values and history. For Byers, an “ironic reading runs against the grain of this film”, while admitting that “Forrest Gump is a clever enough text, and ironic enough in spots, to make it difficult simply to exclude this possibility” (Byers 1996, p.440, fn. 4).

The most critical and cinepsychoanalytical interpretations focus on what has been called “post-traumatic masculinity”, i.e., traumatic events such as the emancipation of women and blacks, losing the war in Vietnam, and the AIDS pandemic, all of which threaten the (sexual) omnipotence of white men. Seen from this perspective, Forrest Gump is a kind of unconscious wish-fulfilment, since in the end Forrest is a patriarch who has dealt with all kinds of threats “and the old order is unshaken” (Byers 1996, p.439). But there are variations on such a psychoanalytical reading. In a later analysis, the Vietnam War and AIDS will become central traumas for Forrest Gump (both the movie and the character). But in this version, the movie is an apology “written by a babyboomer who is excluded from death” (Fan 2008, p.460). Here both Forrest and the baby boomer generation have weathered experiences like Vietnam and the AIDS crisis, and thus stand “outside the Law that defines human existence” (Fan 2008, p.460).

I was struck not so much by Fan’s idiosyncratic interpretation, but the assumption on which it is based. In his paper Fan seeks to explore why “babyboomers might find the film either too objectionable or too painful to watch” (Fan 2008, p.450). From a psychoanalytical perspective, both film and any perception of a film are completely imaginary, determined by unchanging universal fantasies related to human sexuality. This is a difficult topic, and it is not my goal to refute the notion of cinema as the “royal road to the cultural unconscious” (Lebeau 2001, p.6). What is clear is that cinepsychoanalysis cannot provide a plausible and obvious explanation for the overwhelming popularity of Forrest Gump, even as the movie offers starting points for both a critical psychoanalytical reading as well as a more positively connoted postmodern analysis of the film. Indeed, contradictory readings can focus on the same sequence while highlighting different symbols and pointing out different interpretations. Inasmuch as theoretical concepts provide categories and interpretative patterns, psychoanalytical readings centre around unconscious and repressed meanings, while postmodern analyses highlight ironic and reflexive constructions.

I would like to end this survey of readings on Forrest Gump with another example of positive reception. This analysis doesn’t explicitly draw on terms of collective memory but rather points out what James Wertsch (2008) calls a “narrative template”: the implicit mythic framework of narration. Wertsch defines narrative templates as “cultural tools that mediate what can be termed ‘deep collective memory’.” Thus it is possible to describe the cultural concept of self-reliance as an important interpretative pattern in popular American narrations (Bellah et al. 2008; Donnerstag 2002). One paradigmatic example is the cinematic adaption of the American fantasy The Wizard of Oz (1939), which suggests that truth lies in the individual, with no need for authorities from the outside world. If you define the concept of self-reliance as a narrative template, it is possible to view the representation of race in Forrest Gump less as an act of repression than an acceptance of the American past:

Forrest tells us that he was named for the Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the Ku Klux Klan. As Gump narrates this background, we see footage of the general leading the Klan. Gump, then, carries in his very name America’s racist history, and, by making him the redeemer of the nation, the film suggests that America itself, with the same racist roots, can transcend the ugly aspects of its past. (Chumo 1995, p.3)

Viewed from this perspective, the movie’s success is one of cultural resonance. It is a film that evokes the concept of a (national) self-reliance deeply rooted in American culture and history (Bellah et al. 2008).

Forrest Gump in social and media networks

In order to study Forrest Gump‘s success within different social and media contexts, I will start with an institution that is a major point of origin for Halbwachs’ thoughts about memory – the family. Where the film’s message may be controversial, one thing can be stated incontrovertibly: it is a family film. To this end, we can draw on film scholar Peter Krämer’s comparative analysis of highly successful Hollywood movies (Krämer 1998) to highlight family movie characteristics.

As has been explained, Forrest Gump transmits history through one man’s life story, by turning on the post-war generation’s television. Krämer’s analysis gives evidence that American baby boomers viewed the film’s fictional oral history as a type of reality. According to one Gallup poll, 40–65 year-olds, along with people aged 12–24, made up three-quarters of the film’s audience (Krämer 1998, p.307), supporting the idea that it was baby boomers who packed theatres to see the film, along with their children. For Krämer, Forrest Gump is a paradigmatic example of a “family adventure movie”:

These films are imbued with sentimentality, spectacle and a sense of wonder, telling stories about the pain and longing caused by dysfunctional or incomplete families (usually with absent or dead fathers), about childish wishes and nightmares magically coming true. (Krämer 1998, p.304)

In this 1996 perspective, Krämer claims that fifteen of the twenty top-grossing films in North America belonged to the genre of family adventure. At that time, the top five were E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), Star Wars (1977), and The Lion King (1994). Krämer cites two main reasons for the movies’ success: first, the capability to attract all segments of the audience. People of all ages could enjoy these movies, either by themselves or with family. But their popularity also stems from specific content that reflects contemporary family relationships. It is symptomatic that the main characters in most of these movies come from divorced or single-parent families.

If one applies this mirroring capacity to Forrest Gump, the only family adventure movie that explicitly involves history and memory,5 one sees how the film reflects baby boomers’ need to explore their own experiences and generational imprints and pass them on to their children. While such an explanation seems plausible, audience statistics reveal otherwise. For example, the Gallup poll cited above showed that Forrest Gump received high approval ratings from all segments of the audience, females more than males, and African-Americans more than non-blacks. To Krämer, Forrest Gump “became an occasion for self-reflection and communication across the boundaries of age, sex and ethnicity” (Krämer 1998, p.307).

Forrest Gump has been used as an intergenerational medium to great effect. In the mid-1990s educational psychologist Sam Wineburg carried out a longitudinal study of the historical consciousness of high school students. He discovered that Forrest Gump “played a major role in adolescents’ reconstructions of the Vietnam era, more than any other single source – including parents, teachers, or textbooks.” References to Forrest Gump occurred in every school he surveyed, and in both students’ and parents’ responses. Forrest Gump “was mentioned in 60 percent of the interviews on Vietnam. No other text even came close” (Wineburg 2001, p.252).

Another study, carried out by educational scholar Allan Marcus, reported that 78 per cent of participating students reported they had seen Forrest Gump while studying US history in school (Marcus 2006, p.4).6 The film seems to be a popular teaching aid for several reasons. First, there is the possible generational imprint of the teachers themselves. Second, as a tool for teaching history, the film skims significant events of contemporary American history. (Indeed, in its explicit transmission of history, the film mirrors the professional role of teachers themselves.) But another aspect was pointed out by Wineburg: unlike most movies about the Vietnam era, Forrest Gump received a PG-13 rating. This meant social studies teachers did not need parental or school permission to show the film in class, as they would for R-rated movies like The Deer Hunter or Full Metal Jacket. Such a distinction should not be ignored in understanding “how cultural products pass through schoolhouse doors” (Wineburg et al. 2007, p.67).

Along with family and school, Forrest Gump has been successful in many contexts. It has received countless reviews in national and international newspapers and magazines (Film Review Annual1995; IMDb 2009). Numerous awards (six Oscars, including Best Picture) have increased its publicity and popularity. Very few films can boast a similar impact on political debate and scholarly discussions.

Last but not least, innovative marketing strategies have been significant parts of the film’s success. Forrest Gump‘s merchandising is still lauded in management handbooks for its successful “windowing” (i.e., the release of a programme in different distribution channels at different times) (Wirtz 2006, p.675). Like most family adventure movies, the film had its theatrical release during the summer (Krämer 1998); its subsequent home video release promoted a brand of chocolate, something that led literary scholar David Lavery to conclude that the first sentence of Groom’s novel wasn’t changed for literary or dramatic purposes, but for reasons of marketing input (Lavery 1997). It is hard to say how much the screenplay was affected by strategic merchandising. Paramount Pictures’ strategy “to open a casual family restaurant with a theme based on Forrest Gump’s life” (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurants, Inc. 2010) seems to be a successful marketing decision.7

Today there are twenty-eight Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurants, twenty-two in the USA alone. They are constructed like movie museums, exhibiting cinematic memorabilia in glass cases along with screens showing the movie. Affiliated gift shops sell teeshirts printed with ‘Gumpisms’ and other souvenirs. While this kind of merchandising may seem odd, it is one more reason for the film’s enduring appeal. Because the locations from the film are also important to the movie’s fans (Aden et al. 1995), Paramount created Forrest Gump fan sites around the country where people can gather to celebrate birthdays and other family occasions.

The film’s enduring popularity is evident in new media such as Facebook, YouTube, etc. Forrest Gump has half a million Facebook friends, and many display their own photos from places like the Bubba Gump Shrimp Restaurants. On video platforms like YouTube, MySpace etc., teenagers recite Forrest’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial and re-enact Forrest and Jenny’s reunion.8 Here again the mirroring function of Forrest Gump is obvious; just as Forrest tours the nation’s capital in the film, Americans visit Washington, DC on vacations or school trips, and most go to the Lincoln Memorial. Clearly its cinematic representation shapes people’s expectations regarding both past and future visits.

The Lincoln Memorial sequence leads me to my last example, illustrating the congruence between memorial sites and films on a national level. On 20 January 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as the forty-fourth President of the United States. The official celebration began two days earlier, with a festive concert at the Lincoln Memorial. In addition to musical performances and speeches about the “dreams of our fathers”, viewers witnessed Tom Hanks talking about Abraham Lincoln. His presence was reported on television, in newspapers and on the Internet:

Another speaker was actor Tom Hanks, who as Forrest Gump famously gave a speech at the monument steps and jumped into the reflecting pool. This time, he appeared in a dark suit and read a somber tribute to Abraham Lincoln. (Barrett 2009)9

Even in 2009, Forrest Gump remained a powerful medium for cultural memory.


In 2009, Forrest Gump celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of its release. Once again, the movie was sold in a special DVD edition (complete with a box of chocolates) and yet another appreciative reading appeared, this time by well-known film scholar Thomas Elsaesser (2009).

In terms of America’s racial history, 2009 began in jubilant fashion with the inauguration of the country’s first black president, and ended with a small item in Time magazine. It sombrely noted that the most underreported story of 2009 was the fact that African-American and Latino schoolchildren are more segregated now than they have been since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr (Fitzpatrick 2009).

It is possible to link both ends of this spectrum to the public’s reception of Forrest Gump. From an optimistic perspective, one could say that the movie indicates that “America itself, with the same racist roots, can transcend the ugly aspects of its past”, or, more negatively, that just as Martin Luther King, Jr seems to be missing from the movie, so his political heritage is absent from today’s America. Both readings bear a kernel of truth.

The reason Forrest Gump has become such a powerful medium of cultural memory stems from its overloaded sense of familiarity, giving it a ready capacity for interpretation and offering multiple cues for why so many different readings can occur at the same time. When you consider the number of contradictory interpretations the film has had, director Zemeckis’ observation that “we are bringing to the party all of our own understanding of it” seems highly apropos (Zemeckis et al. 2001).

Halbwachs would say that both the individual and collective perspective frame a work’s perception. Thus, one’s perception of Forrest Gump will depend on who one is with when watching the movie. If you were to see the movie with an imaginary Hayden White, your inner communication would be quite different than if you were accompanied by Jacques Lacan. The same is true for an imagined audience. Some scholars ponder the film’s reception from the position of a historically self-conscious spectator, while others envision its viewers as white, ignorant males. The openness and transparence of Forrest Gump dovetail perfectly with the work of recent theorists in cultural memory studies, who maintain it is not the story itself, but the variety of media cues which form the basis for a film’s success.10

Any reading of a historically based feature film has to serve as a kind of blueprint for historical consciousness. As history, memory, and historical consciousness take place in the present, so each spectator will approach this technically clever and well performed motion picture as something that deeply matters to him or her on an individual level while sharing a collective experience about the past.


  1. 1

    The American Film Institute (2007) in 1997 and again in 2007 listed Forrest Gump as one of the 100 most important American movies ever. Most detailed information about the movie’s awards, box-office, and reviews can be found at IMDb (; accessed 22 February 2010).

  2. 2

    This article is part of the larger “Watching Contemporary History” project based on interviews with viewers of Forrest Gump. This project was funded by the German Research Foundation and carried out at Stanford University School of Education. I would like to thank Sam Wineburg whose empirical research motivated my project, and who provided me with the opportunity to join the Stanford History Education Group for several years.

  3. 3

    In May 2009, actor Tom Hanks was named one of “the TIME 100 – The World’s Most Influential People”, where he was depicted as an Everyman hero, somebody people would like to be standing next to in a long line, who makes them feel less alone, and who “keeps our best selves, our dream selves, excellent company” (Actor Tom Hanks, by Meg Ryan; Ryan 2009). The star image is a good example of how films, unlike books, make use of a whole range of simultaneous symbolic systems (i.e., on linguistic, visual, and auditory levels; see Hickethier 2007; Salomon, 1994, p.52).

  4. 4

    Critics have chosen this metaphor because Zemeckis as a director is also responsible for the Back to the Future trilogy (1985, 1989, 1990).

  5. 5

    An exception might be Number 17 of the top grossing movies, Back to the Future (1985), also directed by Robert Zemeckis.

  6. 6

    Forrest Gump represented the movie most often watched, followed by Apollo 13 (67%), Pearl Harbor (67%), The Patriot (59%), Saving Private Ryan (50%), Pleasantville (41%), Malcolm X (28%), Gone With the Wind (24%), Enemy at the Gates (22%), Amistad (20%), and Casablanca (20%) (Marcus 2006, p.4).

  7. 7

    Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) is another character of the film who is often seen as the black counterpart of Forrest (a simpleminded but good man). Bubba and Forrest meet on the way to basic training and later fight together in Vietnam. Before Bubba is killed, the men become friends and plan to enter the shrimping business together after the war.

  8. 8

    In 2009 the movie had a fan site with 394,148 fans on Facebook (; accessed 5 January 2009). This homepage does not exist in the same format anymore. Now, the movie fan site displays 5,703,662 “people like this” (accessed 14 September 2011). For videos see (accessed 27 February 2009). If you Google “Lincoln Memorial” and “Forrest Gump” together, you can see how people all over the world remember their trips to Washington, DC with photos subtitled with a device on Forrest Gump.

  9. 9

    Devlin Barrett (Associated Press Writer), Obamas, Bidens enjoy Lincoln Memorial concert, (accessed 27 February 2009).

  10. 10

    See Erll and Wodianka (2008). In this regard Forrest Gump can be compared with another successful blockbuster regarded by most people as a serious historical film: Schindler’s List. See Classen (2009).


    Additional references common to Memory Studies can be found at the end of this dossier in the selected bibliography, pp.197–202.

    • Aden, R. C., Rahoi, R. L. and Beck, C. S., 1995. Dreams are born on places like this. the process of interpretive community formation at the “field of dreams” site. Communication Quarterly, 43 (4), 368–380.
    • American Film Institute, 2007. AFI’s 100 years … 100 movies. 10th Anniversary edition. [online]. Available at [accessed 10 August 2011].
    • Assmann, J., 1995. Collective memory and cultural identity. New German critique, 65, 125–133.
    • Barrett, D., 2009. Obamas, Bidens enjoy Lincoln Memorial concert. San Jose Mercury News [online]. Available at [accessed 10 August 2011].
    • Beim, A., 2007. The cognitive aspects of collective memory. Symbolic interaction, 30 (1), 7–26.
    • Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W.M., Swidler, A. and Tipton, S. M., 2008. Habits of the heart. Individualism and commitment in American life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
    • Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurants, Inc., 2010. Press kit [online]. Available at [accessed 6 September 2011].
    • Burgoyne, R., 1997. Film nation. Hollywood looks at U.S. history. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
    • Byers, T. B., 1996. History re-membered: Forrest Gump, postfeminist masculinity, and the burial of counterculture. Modern fiction studies, 42, 419–444.
    • Chumo, P. N. 1995. You’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on: Forrest Gump and national reconciliation. Journal of popular film and television, 23 (1), 2–7.
    • Classen, C., 2009. Balanced truth: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List among history, memory, and popular culture. History and theory, 48 (2), 77–102.
    • Confino, A., 1997. Collective memory and cultural history: problems of method. American historical review, 102 (5), 1386–1403.
    • Donnerstag, J., 2002. Kultur und Erzählung. Zur Vermittlung amerikanischer Kultur. In: F. Jaeger , ed. Kulturwissenschaftliche Perspektiven in der Nordamerika-Forschung. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl, 41–59.
    • Elsaesser, T., 2009. Geschichte(n), Gedächtnis, Fehlleistungen: Forrest Gump. In: T. Elsaesser , Hollywood heute. Geschichte, Gender und Nation im postklassischen Kino. Berlin: Bertz+Fischer, 181–191.
    • Erll, A., 2008. Literature, Film, and the Mediality of Cultural Memory. In: A. Erll and A. Nünning , eds. Cultural memory studies. An international and interdisciplinary handbook. Berlin: De Gruyter, 389–398.
    • Erll, A. and Wodianka S., 2008. Einleitung. Phänomenologie und Methodologie des Erinnerungsfilms. In: A. Erll and S. Wodianka , eds. Film und kulturelle Erinnerung. Plurimediale Konstellationen. Berlin/ New York: De Gruyter, 1–20.
    • Fan, V., 2008. The unanswered question of Forrest Gump. Screen, 49 (4), 450–461.
    • Film Review Annual, 1995. Englewood: J. Ozer.
    • Fischoff, S., Cardenas, E., Hernandez, A., Wyatt, K., Young, J. and Gordon, R., 2000. Popular movie quotes: reflections of a people and a culture. Based on a paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, 7 August 2000 [online]. Available at [accessed 6 September 2011].
    • Fitzpatrick, L., 2009. Top ten underreported stories 2009. Continuing segregation is hurting U.S. competitiveness. Time, 8 December 2009 [online]. Available at,28804,1945379_1944495_1944497,00.html [accessed 10 August 2011].
    • Groom, W., 1994. Forrest Gump. London: Penguin Books.
    • Halbwachs, M., [1925] 1992. On collective memory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
    • Halbwachs, M., 1980. The collective memory. New York: Harper Colophon.
    • Halliwell, M., 2004. Images of idiocy: the idiot figure in modern fiction and film. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
    • Hickethier, K., 2007. Film und Fernsehanalyse. Stuttgart: JB Metzler.
    • Hoberg, A., 1999. Film und Computer: wie digitale Bilder den Spielfilm verändern. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.
    • IMDB, 2009. Forrest Gump (1994) [online]. Available at [accessed 10 August 2011].
    • Kansteiner, W., 2002. Finding meaning in memory: a methodological critique of collective memory studies. History and theory, 179–197.
    • Krämer, P., 1998. Would you take your child to see this film? The cultural and social work of the family-adventure movie. In: S. Neale and M. Smith , eds. Contemporary Hollywood film. London: Routledge, 294–311.
    • Landsberg, A., 2004. Prosthetic memory. The transformation of American remembrance in the age of mass culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
    • Lavery, D., 1997. No box of chocolates: the adaptation of Forrest Gump, literature. Film quarterly, 25 (1), 18–22.
    • Lebeau, V., 2001. Psychoanalysis and cinema. The play of shadows. London: Wallflower.
    • Marcus, A. S., 2006. Exploring the past with feature film. In: A.S. Marcus , ed. Celluloid blackboard: teaching history with film. Charlotte (Scotland): Information Age Publishing, 1–13.
    • Nadel, A., 1997. Flatlining on the field of dreams. Cultural narratives in the films of President Reagan’s America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
    • Nelmes, J., 2003. An introduction to film studies. London: Routledge.
    • Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, 1994. History Channel Market Study. iPOLL Databank of Roper Center. Connecticut: University of Connecticut [online]. Available at [accessed 10 August 2011].
    • Paul, G., 2008. Das Jahrhundert der Bilder. Die visuelle Geschichte und der Bildkanon des kulturellen Gedächtnisses. In: G. Paul , ed. Das Jahrhundert der Bilder: 1949 bis heute. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 14–39.
    • Ryan, M., 2009. The 2009 Time 100. Tom Hanks. Time, 173 (3), 101 [online]. Available at,28804,1894410_1893836_1893832,00.html [accessed 10 August 2011].
    • Salomon, G., 1994. The interaction of media, cognition and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
    • Schuman, H. and Scott, J., 1989. Generations and collective memories. American sociological review, 54 (3), 359–381.
    • Scott, S. D., 2001. Like a box of chocolates: “Forrest Gump” and postmodernism. Literature film quarterly, 29 (1), 23–31.
    • Sobchack, V., 1996. Introduction: history happens. In: V. Sobchack , ed. The persistence of history. Cinema, television, and the modern event. New York/London: Routledge, 1–14.
    • Wang, J. H. 2000. A struggle of contending stories. Race, gender, and political memory in “Forrest Gump”. Cinema Journal, 39 (3), 92–115.
    • Wertsch, J. V., 2008. A clash of deep memories. Profession, 1, 46–53 [online]. Available at [accessed 10 August 2011].
    • Wineburg, S., 2001. Historical thinking. Charting the future of teaching the past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
    • Wineburg, S., Mosborg, S., Porat, D. and Duncan, A., 2007. Common belief and the cultural curriculum: an intergenerational study of historical consciousness. American educational research journal, 1, 40–76.
    • Wirtz, B., 2006. Medien- und Internetmanagement. Wiesbaden: GablerVerlag.
    • Zemeckis, R., Starkey, S. and Carter, R., 2001. Audio commentary on Forrest Gump. Special Collector’s Edition DVD, Paramount Pictures.


    • Sabine Moller is a Lecturer in Contemporary History at Humboldt University Berlin who studies a broad range of media and dimensions of historical consciousness, such as family recollections, historical feature films, and politics of memory. From 2008 to 2010 she visited Stanford University School of Education (as a fellow of the German Research Foundation) to examine the interrelationship between historical feature films and viewers’ historical consciousness. She earned her PhD (with a comparison of East and West German memories of the Second World War) in Social Sciences from the University of Hanover, where she worked as a Fellow in the Department of Psychology’s “Traditions of Historical Consciousness Project”. From 2002 to 2005, Sabine Moller was project coordinator of the project, “International Traditions of Historical Consciousness” involving seven European countries, which was located at the Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen). From 2005 to 2008 she was a Lecturer in History Didactics at Oldenburg University.

About eslkevin

I am a peace educator who has taken time to teach and work in countries such as the USA, Germany, Japan, Nicaragua, Mexico, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman over the past 4 decades.
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6 Responses to Blockbusting history: Forrest Gump as a powerful medium of American cultural memory

  1. eslkevin says:

    National Crisis, Subversive Stupidity, and the Disintegration of Cultural Memory in Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump

    Martin, Charles. “National Crisis, Subversive Stupidity, and the Disintegration of Cultural Memory in Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Grand Hyatt, San Antonio, TX, . 2013-05-03

    Abstract: The humor in Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 film Forrest Gump generates primarily from the comical intrusion of the film’s title character, a man of self-confessed limited intelligence and understanding, into moments of national crisis in recent American political and cultural history: in particular, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the protests that opposed that war. The core of the extended joke is a special visual effect which involves archival footage doctored to include the image of the rural simpleton innocently misconstruing the crisis around him. Gump witnesses Governor Wallace make his stand against the integration of the University of Alabama; he attends the March on Washington; he shakes the hands of President Kennedy before blandly narrating his death. The laughter generates from his simple stupidity: his lack of understanding of these crises and his resulting inappropriate response generated by his incomprehension. We also laugh at the dissonance his presence creates and the anarchic assault on history his stupidity perpetrates.

    To this point, scholars and critics have necessarily and appropriately focused upon the obvious violence the film in general and its visual effects in particular perform on political and cultural consciousness by reconstructing memory to condemn liberal politics. I will move the discussion beyond the political implications of the film and concentrate instead on the function the figure of the idiot in American humor and the figure’s implementation here to recalculate and frustrate the idea of historical record. History, of course, is a system of knowledge. The iconic documentary footage Forrest Gump employs has served as a visual mnemonic, a cinematic shorthand for our cultural understanding of the social change that marked the sixties. On the other hand, stupidity, its implications of incomprehension and intellectual impotence represents knowledge’s empty and troubling opposite. The presence of a figure that represents an absence of knowledge and volition in a historical record, such as archived film, not only alters the recorded memory of the event, it establishes limitations on knowledge and memory, throwing into question the capacity to know history or to be sure of memory at all.

    Although my paper will particularly concern the special visual effects in Forrest Gump, I will also consider Gump’s cinema ancestors, particularly the montage of staged and archived footage that opens Hal Roach’s Blockheads, in which World War I soldier Stan Laurel follows orders and guards the same trench for twenty years after armistice. In this antecedent and others, the visual dissonance of the idiot in the moment of historical crisis leaves the audiences in proverbial stitches and memory in disrepair.


  2. eslkevin says:

    Endnotes. Kermode, Mark // Sight & Sound;Dec94, Vol. 4 Issue 12, p63
    Comments on the American cultural history as essayed in the motion picture `Forrest Gump,’ directed by Robert Zemeckis. Use of music and clothes to identify the cultural milestones; Portrayal of the Vietnam War in American cinema; Use of period pop in film.

    Life = box of chocolates. Parshall, Gerald // U.S. News & World Report;2/27/95, Vol. 118 Issue 8, p10
    Reports that `Forrest Gump,’ the film about a slow-witted mother’s boy, received 13 Academy Award nominations. In California, a 20-year-old accident victim feared fatally brain damaged, emerged from a coma after his life-support system was turned off, and told his mother he loved her.

    Manipulating, `Forrest Gump’. Sherer, Michael D. // Quill;Nov/Dec94, Vol. 82 Issue 9, p34
    Comments on the movie `Forrest Gump’ and its impact on the credibility of news photography. Film’s use of computer-assisted technology to generate news images; General audience’s evaluation of the veracity of images; Public concern about truth in news images and information; Codes of ethics for…

    Forrest Gump. Calavita, Marco // Cineaste;Oct94, Vol. 20 Issue 4, p64
    Reviews the motion picture `Forrest Gump’ starring Tom Hanks.

    Film reviews. Pearson Jr., Harry // Films in Review;Nov/Dec94, Vol. 45 Issue 11/12, p60
    Reviews the motion picture `Forrest Gump,’ directed by Robert Zemeckis.

    `No Box of Chocolates’: The Adaptation of Forrest Gump. Lavery, David // Literature Film Quarterly;1997, Vol. 25 Issue 1, p18
    Focuses on the film adaptation of the novel, `Forrest Gump’, by Winston Groom. Groom’s approval of changes made by screenwriter Eric Roth; Logic of the changes; Self-censorship-for-profit.

    Transatlantic gumption. Romney, Jonathan // New Statesman & Society;10/14/94, Vol. 7 Issue 324, p41
    Critiques the motion picture Forrest Gump. Box-office success; Plot of the movie; Moral of the story; Highlight of the story.

    American images. Blake, Richard A. // America;8/13/1994, Vol. 171 Issue 4, p18
    Reviews the motion picture `Forrest Gump,’ directed by Robert Zemeckis.

    Featherweight. Alleva, Richard // Commonweal;9/23/94, Vol. 121 Issue 16, p17
    Reviews the motion picture `Forrest Gump,’ directed by Robert Zemeckis.

  3. eslkevin says:

    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 ( 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.

  4. eslkevin says:

    Democracy Now! returns to Chicago, site of the largest NATO summit in the organization’s six-decade history, where nearly 50 veterans discarded their war medals by hurling them down the street in the direction of the NATO summit. We hear the soldiers’ voices as they return their medals one by one from the stage. “I’m here to return my Global War on Terror Service Medal in solidarity with the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan,” said Jason Hurd, a former combat medic who spent 10 years in the U.S. Army. “I am deeply sorry for the destruction that we have caused in those countries and around the globe.” Scott Kimball, an Iraq war veteran, adds: “For all the servicemembers and veterans who are against these wars, you are not alone!” Click here to see the other parts of the 2013 Memorial Day Special: 2, 3, 4, 5.

    AMY GOODMAN: Today we bring you a Memorial Day special, “Honor the Dead, Heal the Wounded, Stop the Wars.” That was the demand of veterans who gathered in Chicago in May of 2012, just a year ago, at the site of the largest NATO summit in the organization’s six-decade history. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as women from Afghans for Peace, led a peace march of thousands to the summit gates. Iraq Veterans Against the War then held a ceremony where more than 40 veterans hurled their war medals toward the gates of the NATO summit.

    ASH WOOLSON: No NATO, no war!
    VETERANS: No NATO, no war!
    ASH WOOLSON: We don’t work for you no more!
    VETERANS: We don’t work for you no more!
    ASH WOOLSON: We don’t kill for you no more!
    VETERANS: We don’t kill for you no more!
    ALEJANDRO VILLATORO: At this time, one by one, veterans of the wars of NATO will walk up on stage. They will tell us why they chose to return their medals to NATO. I urge you to honor them by listening to their stories. Nowhere else will you hear from so many who fought these wars about their journey from fighting a war to demanding peace. Some of us killed innocents. Some of us helped in continuing these wars from home. Some of us watched our friends die. Some of us are not here, because we took our own lives. We did not get the care promised to us by our government. All of us watched failed policies turn into bloodshed. Listen to us, hear us, and think: was any of this worth it?
    CROWD: No!
    ALEJANDRO VILLATORO: Do these medals thank us for a job well done?
    CROWD: No!
    ALEJANDRO VILLATORO: Do they mask lies, corruption, and abuse of young men and women who swore to defend their country?
    CROWD: Yes!
    ALEJANDRO VILLATORO: We tear off this mask. Hear us.
    IRIS FELICIANO: My name is Iris Feliciano. I served in the Marine Corps. And in January of 2002, I deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. And I want to tell the folks behind us, in these enclosed walls, where they build more policies based on lies and fear, that we no longer stand for them. We no longer stand for their lies, their failed policies and these unjust wars. Bring our troops home and end the war now. They can have these back.
    PETE SULLIVAN: My name is Pete Sullivan. I served in the Army National Guard for 12 years. And all I have to say is that this is not something that I’m proud of.
    ERICA SLONE: My name is Erica Slone. I’m from Ohio. I served in the Air Force from 2002 to 2008. I’m an Iraq veteran. In the military is where I learned what integrity meant, and I believe I served with integrity. And at this point in my life, if I want to continue to live with integrity, I must get rid of these.
    GREG MILLER: My name is Greg Miller. I’m a veteran of the United States Army infantry with service in Iraq 2009. The military hands out cheap tokens like this to soldiers, servicemembers, in an attempt to fill the void where their conscience used to be once they indoctrinate it out of you. But that didn’t work on me, so I’m here to return my Global War on Terrorism Medal and my National Defense Medal, because they’re both lies.
    JERRY: My name is Jerry. I’m from New York City. I served in the Army from 2005 to 2009. I fought in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I, today, am giving back my Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, because I realized that after a while that it was just nothing but an idea made by a bunch of politicians, money-hungry politicians in Washington who will do nothing and have a complete disregard for human life and will do anything in their power to just make more money in the end. Now, if it’s just an idea, then therefore it was just an idea that sparked two wars that I had to fight in. And I don’t want any part of it anymore. And I choose human life over war, militarism and imperialism.
    SCOTT KIMBALL: My name is Scott Kimball. I’m an Iraq war vet. And I’m turning in these medals today for the people of Pakistan, Iraq, Palestine, and all victims of occupation across the world. And also, for all the servicemembers and veterans who are against these wars, you are not alone!
    CHRISTOPHER MAY: My name is Christopher May. I left the Army as a conscientious objector. We were told that these medals represented, you know, democracy and justice and hope and change for the world. These medals represent a failure on behalf of the leaders of NATO to accurately represent the will of their own people. It represents a failure on the leaders of NATO to do what’s right by the disenfranchised people of this world. Instead of helping them, they take advantage of them, and they’re making things worse. I will not be a part of that anymore. These medals don’t mean anything to me, and they can have them back.
    TY: Hello. My name is Ty, and thank you all for coming out. I’m letting go and releasing this medal because love is the most powerful force that we can employ as human beings on this planet, and we cannot love holding weapons.
    ASH WOOLSON: My name is Ash Woolson. I was a sergeant. I was in Iraq in ’03, and what I saw there crushed me. I don’t want us to suffer this again, and I don’t want our children to suffer this again, and so I’m giving these back!
    MAGGIE MARTIN: My name is Maggie Martin. I was a sergeant in the Army. I did two tours in Iraq. No amount of medals, ribbons or flags can cover the amount of human suffering caused by these wars. We don’t want this garbage. We want our human rights. We want our right to heal.
    JAYSON MISSOULA: My name is Jayson Missoula. I graduated high school in 2002. And thinking that we had to protect our borders, I wound up first enlisting in the Coast Guard. I spent four years on active duty. And in my time, I started to feel guilty, because my friends were going on multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in other branches, and I was doing things as an 18-year-old, being led by men 10 years older than me, that the Secret Service recently got in trouble for. So then I get out, I go to college for a semester, and feeling guilty for spending time partying in the Caribbean and having to see humans—Haitians, Dominicans—floating in the water and wondering why they’re there, why are they leaving, and starting to ask these questions. All right, so then I go into the National Guard, sign up for a one-year contract, which they allowed me. They sent me to New Mexico to the desert for one month and then Vermont for two weeks. And after that, I was an infantryman, and then I was sent over to Iraq, and I spent just under six months driving a truck, playing god, after two weeks of infantry training. And we fortunately were redeployed home early. And since then, I’ve used my GI Bill to study political science and American studies, and it’s helped me humanize people all around the world, because one of the first friends I made is Palestinian, and I spent the summer in West Bank. For the first time, I learned a little bit what it feels like to be on the receiving end, when I was tear-gassed in a little village just south of Ramallah, Bil’in, I believe. But so, I apologize. One of my favorite new poets says, “Affirm life. Affirm life. Affirm life.” That’s absolutely what we have to do. And the only medal I’m going to keep is the Humanitarian Service one I got for being in New Orleans, because that’s the only thing that we should be doing as humans.
    DAVID VAN DAM: I’m David Van Dam. I was in the U.S. Navy. I’m a GI resister. I got a other-than-honorable discharge. And I want to say that their policies are other than honorable. And I’m honorable, and all the GI resisters that refuse to fight in unjust wars are honorable. This is in solidarity for all GI resisters of unjust wars!
    MARK STRUDAS: My name is Mark Strudas. I’m from Chesterton, Indiana. I just want to say thank you for being understanding, inviting and wonderful—even these guys in black and blue. This is a Good Conduct Medal. Ha!
    JACOB CRAWFORD: I’m Jacob Crawford. I went to Iraq and Afghanistan. And when they gave me these medals, I knew they were meaningless. I only regret not starting to speak up about how silly the war is sooner. I’m giving these back. Free Bradley Manning!
    JASON HURD: My name is Jason Hurd. I spent 10 years in the United States Army as a combat medic. I deployed to Baghdad in 2004. I’m here to return my Global War on Terrorism Service Medal in solidarity with the people of Iraq and the people of Afghanistan. I am deeply sorry for the destruction that we have caused in those countries and around the globe. I am proud to stand on this stage with my fellow veterans and my Afghan sisters. These were lies. I’m giving them back.
    CHRIS MOBERG: My name is Chris Moberg. I was part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And out of love and respect, out of the Iraqi people and the people of Afghanistan, I’m going to return these representations of hate and destruction back where they came from.
    JACOB FLOM: My name is Jacob Flom. I was in the Air Force from ’03 to ’07. And it’s—I joined the military so I could pay to go to college, because the working class fights the ruling class’s wars. But I’m not fighting for imperialism anymore. I’m fighting against imperialism. And this is dedicated—this is dedicated to all the courageous people who are under attack by the FBI, Carlos Montes and the Anti-War 23.
    RAYMOND KNAEBLE: My name’s Raymond Knaeble, and I’m here to return my medals. NATO, the U.S.A. government and Israel need to be held accountable for the war crimes, genocide, torture and drone attacks. I’m returning my medals! They can have them!
    STEVEN LUNN: My name is Steven Lunn [phon.]. I’m a two-time Iraq combat veteran. This medal I’m dedicating to the children of Iraq that no longer have fathers and mothers.
    SHAWNA FOSTER: My name is Shawna, and I was a nuclear biological chemical specialist for a war that didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction. So I deserted. I’m one of 40,000 people that left the United States Armed Forces because this is a lie!
    STEVE ACHESON: My name is Steve Acheson. I’m from Campbellsport, Wisconsin. I was a forward observer in the United States Army for just under five years. I deployed to Sadr City, Iraq, in 2005. And I’m giving back my medals for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan. May they be able to forgive us for what we’ve done to them. May we begin to heal, and may we live in peace from here until eternity.
    PHIL: My name’s Phil. I’m from Atlanta. And the reason why I’m throwing my medal back is because we are the global 99 percent, and we refuse to be silent, from Egypt back here to Chicago!
    MICHAEL THURMAN: Hello. My name is Michael Thurman. I was a conscientious objector from the United States Air Force. I’m returning my Global War on Terrorism Medal and my military coins on behalf of Private First Class Bradley Manning, who sacrificed everything to show us the truth about these wars.
    GREG BROSEUS: My name is Greg Broseus. I’m from Columbus, Ohio. I now reside in the beautiful city of Chicago, Illinois, that today is not quite as beautiful, because NATO is here. And I’m here to return my medals, because I cannot stand in solidarity and peace with my brothers and sisters in Iraq and Afghanistan as long as I wear them.
    SABRINA WALLER: My name is Sabrina Waller. I’m a United States Navy veteran. I deployed under NATO orders to Kosovo in ’99. I’m also a mother of an 11-year-old. For over 10 years of his life, we’ve been waging war. And the only fight that I want to participate in is the fight to ensure that my son and his generation never have to fight another war.
    MATT: My name is Matt [inaudible]. I served in the U.S. Army in 2004 in Iraq. I’m returning my medals today because, under the guise of freedom and democracy, I stole the humanity of the Iraqi people and lost mine. We are on the right side of history!
    MATT HOWARD: My name is Matt Howard. I served in the United States Marine Corps from 2001 to 2006 and in Iraq twice. I’m turning in my campaign service—Iraq Campaign Service Medal and Global War on Terror Service and Expeditionary Medals for all my brothers and sisters affected with traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
    BRYAN REINHOLDT: My name is Bryan Reinholdt. I’m from Kentucky. I’m a former sergeant of the U.S. Army. Former sergeant of the U.S. Army, proud member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. And I’m taking these things off—all of them—encourage you to refuse to.
    MARK: I’m Mark. I haven’t been too convinced of anything the last seven years, except for the fact that I’ve been hurting. And I have three daughters: Anell, Leah and Nora. And I’m convinced, looking out across this, this crowd of peace-loving people, that my daughters are going to have peace.
    ZACH LAPORTE: Hi. My name is Zach LaPorte, and I’m an Iraq war veteran from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Thank you. I’m giving back my medals today because I feel like I was duped into an illegal war that was sold to me on the guise that I was going to be liberating the Iraqi people, when instead of liberating the people, I was liberating their oil fields.
    RACHEL McNEILL: My name’s Rachel McNeill. I served in the military for almost eight years as a sergeant. And i’m returning this medal today because it’s time to restore America’s honor and renounce this war on terror.
    JACOB GEORGE: My name is Jacob George. I’m from the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas. I’m a three-tour veteran of the Afghan war, paratrooper and sergeant. And I have one word for this Global War on Terrorism decoration, and that is “shame.”
    SCOTT OLSEN: My name is Scott Olsen. I have with me today—today I have with me my Global War on Terror Medal, Operation Iraqi Freedom Medal, National Defense Medal and Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal. These medals, once upon a time, made me feel good about what I was doing. They made me feel like I was doing the right thing. And I came back to reality, and I don’t want these anymore.
    JOSHUA: I’m Joshua. I’m a member of IVAW, and I’m from Chicago. And honestly, friends, I’m here to tell you that I blame myself first. I should have done my homework, should have realized the lies before I participated in them. So this symbolic act, this throwing of the medal, is for all those people out there who are wondering why we’re doing it. Do your homework.
    RICHARD STRODER: My name is Richard Stroder [phon.], and I’m from Auburn, Alabama. And I’m here to say that war is a racket!
    TODD DENNIS: My name is Todd Dennis. I served in the United States Navy. I have PTSD. I’m returning my Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal because it was given to me, according to my letter, because of hard work and dedication and setting the example. I was a hard worker because I buried my PTSD and overworked myself in the military. And I’m throwing this back and invoking my right to heal.
    MICHAEL APPLEGATE: My name is Michael Applegate. I was in the United States Navy from 1998 to 2006. And I’m returning my medal today because I want to live by my conscience rather than being a prisoner of it.
    NATE: My name’s Nate. I served in the U.S. Navy from ’99 to 2003 and participated in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I was wrong to sign myself up for that. I apologize to the Iraqi and Afghani people for destroying your countries.
    JOSHUA SHEPHERD: My name is Joshua Shepherd. I spent six years in the United States Navy. These are not mine. They never were. They’re instruments of control from this government. I will not continue to trade my humanity for false heroism.
    BROCK McINTOSH: My name is Brock McIntosh. I was in the Army National Guard and served in Afghanistan from November ’08 to August ’09. Two months ago, I visited the monument at Ground Zero for my first time with two Afghans. A tragic monument. I’m going to toss this medal today for the 33,000 civilians who have died in Afghanistan that won’t have a monument built for them. And this is for the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers.
    JOHN ANDERSON: My name is John Anderson. I did two deployments to Iraq. And all of this destruction was not necessary. And now, we will bring it to an end, because another world is possible. We are unstoppable!
    CROWD: Another world is possible!
    JOHN ANDERSON: We are unstoppable!
    CROWD: Another world is possible!
    GRAHAM CLUMPNER: I’m Graham Clumpner. I’m an Army veteran. I spent a good amount of time in Afghanistan. And I just want everybody to look around, take a second and look around, look next to you right now. I’m talking to the police officers. I’m talking about everybody out here. There are thousands of people out here for something important. We’re hearing. We’re having a conversation for the first time in a long time—for many of us, for the first time. And I want to say that all of us, in some way or another, are trying to serve this great land that we live in, but it’s only great because of what we do with it. And sometimes we make mistakes. And the way we change that is we admit our mistakes and we take responsibility for our mistakes, and we change and we become better, and we do it together. So I’m returning my Global War on Terrorism Medal, because I don’t fight wars on adjectives.
    VINCE EMANUELE: My name is Vince Emanuele, and I served with the United States Marine Corps. First and foremost, this is for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Second of all, this is for our real forefathers. I’m talking about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I’m talking about the Black Panthers. I’m talking about the civil rights movement. I’m talking about unions. I’m talking about our socialist brothers and sisters, our communist brothers and sisters, our anarchist brothers and sisters, and our ecology brothers and sisters. That’s who our real forefathers are. And lastly—and lastly and most importantly, our enemies are not 7,000 miles from home. They sit in boardrooms. They are CEOs. They are bankers. They are hedge fund managers. They do not live 7,000 miles from home. Our enemies are right here, and we look at them every day. They are not the men and women who are standing on this police line. They are the millionaires and billionaires who control this planet, and we’ve had enough of it. So they can take their medals back.
    CHUCK WINANT: My name is Chuck Winant. I’m here on behalf of six good Americans who really wanted to be here but they couldn’t be. They couldn’t be, because when they came to the U.S. border, they’d be immediately arrested. And the crime they’d be arrested for was refusing to continue to participate in the crimes against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. And these good Americans, who are exiled now from this country, who deserve amnesty, are Private Christian Kjar of the U.S. Marine Corps; Private Kim Rivera, Army, Combat Action Badge, refused redeployment to Iraq; Corporal Jeremy Brockway, U.S. Marine Corps, Combat Action Badge, refused redeployment to Iraq; Specialist Jules Tindungan, Combat Infantry Badge, paratrooper, refused redeployment to Afghanistan; Sergeant Corey Glass, Army, refused redeployment to Iraq; and Sergeant Chris Vassey, paratrooper, CIB, refused redeployment to Afghanistan. I have their awards in my pocket, and I’m throwing them back, mad as hell!
    AARON HUGHES: My name is Aaron Hughes. I served in the Illinois Army National Guard from 2000 and 2006. This medal right here is for Anthony Wagner. He died last year. This medal right here is for the one-third of the women in the military that are sexually assaulted by their peers. We talk about standing up for our sisters—we talk about standing up for our sisters in Afghanistan, and we can’t even take care of our sisters here. And this medal right here is because I’m sorry. I’m sorry to all of you. I’m sorry.
    ALEJANDRO VILLATORO: My name is Alejandro Villatoro, sergeant. I went to—took part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan 2011. Believe me, I was a soldier. I was a squared-away soldier, and I really believed in this mission. And I learned the Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. But after my experience, I realized that there is no integrity. Integrity: do what’s legally and morally right. And we failed. So there is no honor in these wars. There’s just shame.
    AMY GOODMAN: Veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, hurling their war medals towards the gates of the NATO summit in Chicago. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report, as we bring you this Memorial Day special, “Honor the Dead, Heal the Wounded, Stop the Wars.”

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