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Commentaries on this Media!

On white time travelers rewriting African-American history

by Critical Commons Manager

The interplay of past and present in popular culture histories includes the trope of fictional characters inaugurating “real” historical events. These causation narratives have driven two extraordinarily successful films directed by Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump and Back to the Future. In Forrest Gump, a slow-witted character played by Tom Hanks is digitally composited into archival film images as if he participated in historical moments such as the desegregation of the University of Alabama and teaching Elvis to dance. A nearly identical scene occurs in Back to the Future, when a time-traveling Michael J. Fox teaches Chuck Berry to play rock ’n’ roll over the telephone. On the television series Quantum Leap, a temporally discombobulated Scott Bakula helps to free Martin Luther King’s grandfather from slavery and teaches Chubby Checker to do the twist. Although clearly circumscribed by their fantasy constructs, the frequency with which these fictional scenarios involve white characters taking responsibility for (or facilitating) the historical achievements of African-Americans underlines only one aspect of the problematic nature of this type of “playful” historical revisionism.

A white time traveller teaches Chuck Berry to play guitar

Michael J. Fox offers a preview of rock and roll guitar styles from Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix to Pete Townshend at a 1955 sock hop

from Back to the Future (1985)
Creator: Robert Zemeckis
Distributor: Universal
Posted by Critical Commons Manager