Video by Section 3 Films
Camera: AJ Martinson III
Assistant Camera: Eric Rafael
March 21, 2015
"Cultural Appropriation and Back to the Future"
by Justin Peniston
Back to the Future came out in 1985, but I didn’t see it for the first time until it was out on video . . . let’s say 1986. I would have been fifteen at the time and probably living in D.C. (as opposed to Maryland, which we moved back to in 1986, if I’m not mistaken). At this point in my youth, I’ve really discovered girls, I was probably dating, or about to break up with, Betsy Hill at the time. It was a time of transition for me, I was starting to become the adult I was going to be, and I was choosing the parts of myself as a child that I was going to keep as a man. My love of films and of genre fiction were foremost among those parts of myself; they weren’t going anywhere.
What I’m trying to say is, I loved Back to the Future, and I was a young man.
I remember gushing to my mom about how cool Back to the Future was, and frankly still is. It was a sci-fi film that I was confident that my parents could enjoy; for them, liking SF/F stuff was the exception, not the rule . . . they liked only what managed to cross over to the mainstream, which Back to the Future certainly was. I liked it and wanted my mom to like it, and I was confident that she would.
Instead, she told me that she didn’t need to see a movie that suggested that rock & roll hadn’t been created by Chuck Berry, but by a white teenager. She didn’t need to see a movie that showed that “Johnny B. Goode” wasn’t the groundbreaking tune that it actually is. I was stunned. I mean, she was my mom, so of course she was kind of a stick in the mud, but come on! It was such a small part of the movie . . . which, upon reflection, is maybe part of the problem.
I was probably old enough to understand what “cultural appropriation” was, but I didn’t want to believe in it. I was a light-skinned black guy in the blackest of cities in the '80s. The Cosby Show was in its heyday. Matters of race were getting better, as far as I was concerned. Racism was something I learned more about in history class than in life.
My parents, on the other hand, had been born in the late '40s/early '50s. While I was coming of age in the '80s, their teenaged years resembled the period that Marty McFly traveled back to in the movie. There isn’t a lot of racism on display in the film, the owner of the diner scoffs at future mayor Goldie Wilson’s political ambitions, clearly because of his race, and the villains of the film, Biff Tannen and his cronies, make a racist comment to the band at the school dance . . . but they’re the villains, so that’s okay.
I didn’t really notice that no one of any significance, no character that matters, was anything but a white person. Even Goldie Wilson’s existence is only there to provide a look at the differences between the 1950s and the 1980s, but I didn’t care at the time. Being concerned about representation in films was something for my parents. I watched The Cosby Show. I lived in a better world.
Nowadays, we wrestle with race in ways that were inconceivable in the '80s. We have a black president, but that ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the '80s, Barack Obama was Goldie Wilson, and some older white man that meant well was probably scoffing at his aspirations. Nowadays, that guy’s kids are quaking in their boots, because they don’t feel like they rule the world anymore. Nowadays, we throw around terms like “white privilege” to try to explain that you can never know how it feels to have people lock their car doors when you walk by . . . and that happened to me even in the halcyon '80s.
It’s a truism that black folks have to work twice as hard and be half as good to get half as much, certainly my parents believed it. So, when Chuck Berry’s hallowed place in musical history was taken away by Back to the Future, and given to Republican Alex P. Keaton, well, that stuck in her craw. At that moment, there was nothing in her that was going to allow her to enjoy Back to the Future, and while I thought she was getting worked up over nothing in 1986, I kind of get where she was coming from today.
Honestly, my mom may not even remember that conversation. She might be one of those people that remembers the movie fondly, in the days before Quentin Tarantino and Iggy Azalea decided to wear our clothes and put the pictures on Instagram.
As for me, I still love Back to the Future. Don’t think that when I watch it, the first thing on my mind is how we been done wrong by Whitey. But, once I get to the “Enchantment Under the Sea” part of the film, I remember my mom and the innocence of youth, I remember the lesson that film never meant to teach me, and then I hope that when they inevitably reboot the film, they give Donald Glover a good, long look for the role of Marty.
About Justin Peniston
Justin Peniston is a writer of things, mostly of the comic and cartoon variety. He's written Avengers Assemble! for Marvel Studios, Blue Beetle and JSA for DC Comics, and Eternal Descent for IDW, but he'd like to be best known for writing Hunter Black, the webcomic that he does with William Orr, and Rocket Queen and The Wrench, a creator-owned comic for readers of all ages. He lives in Los Angeles with his extremely patient wife, where he hates bananas and wishes that his favorite football team would change its name so he can stop feeling like a terrible human being.