While the Back to the Future films are indisputably great, at their heart lurks some troubling racial politics. Made during the height of the Reagan 80s, they long for a pre-60s era, a simpler - and whiter - time. The films give lip service to equality, but in reality they undermine any positive messaging. And Back to the Future III completely drops the ball, losing an opportunity to make a bold and positive statement that would have retroactively softened the racial aspects of the first two movies.
Back to the Future’s racial politics are simply a mess. In 1985 Goldie Wilson, a black man, is mayor of Hill Valley, something that - even setting aside the fact that 1985 Hill Valley is clearly in decline - is progressive. But Back to the Future insists on presenting Goldie’s journey to City Hall as one taken on the backs of white men; when time-traveling Marty McFly meets Goldie at Lou’s Cafe he gives the young man the idea to be mayor. Yes, Goldie the busboy has ambition - “Someday I’m going to be somebody,” he says - but it’s Marty the white boy who plants in him the seeds of his political future.
On its own that’s not too troubling. It’s a time travel joke predicated on the idea that big things have humble beginnings, and that the past takes on a new perspective when viewed through the prism of the present. But that scene doesn’t exist on its own; it exists alongside a scene where Marty McFly invents rock n’ roll.
Rock n’ roll’s origins are outside the scope of this article; we could argue back and forth about what is the first rock n’ roll record*, but what’s important is that rock n’ roll was born out of what was at the time known as ‘race music.’ Blues, gospel and R&B collided with folk and the Spanish guitar and something new was created. While rock n’ roll certainly sprang from interactions between white and black culture, the biggest contributors to the form in its infancy were black, with white musicians co-opting the style.
The Marty-inventing-rock scene is funny; “Your cousin MARVIN Berry” is something of a Twitter meme at this point, and one of my favorite quotes in a movie ever because of the way it balances being ridiculous and being actually funny. It’s a chicken and the egg paradox joke, and it’s well structured (“Your kids are going to love it”). But the underlying premise has a white boy reclaiming the origins of rock, which by the 60s had become a predominantly white musical genre. Now the honkeys who made rock music in the 80s - the Huey Lewises and the Eddie Van Halens - could take responsibility for the whole form. White people hadn’t just co-opted it, they had retroactively created it.
Again, these are just jokes, but they’re both based in a colonial concept of white people helping minorities get ahead. The concept here is that Goldie Wilson and Chuck Berry could never have reached the heights they reached if it weren’t for the help of a white boy. The superior white stands above, lending a hand to the black man. It’s an insidious kind of racism, the kind that reduces a race to children.
It gets worse in Back to the Future II. During the course of that film Marty ends up in a dystopian version of 1985 Hill Valley, and the first indication he has that everything is wrong is… there’s a black family living in his house.
Now, going into your home and finding a different family living there - and having been there a long time - is a terrific, disorienting science fiction concept. And having that family be black is a quick visual shorthand for ‘These are not the McFlys’ (especially since Crispin Glover wasn’t reprising the role of George McFly, meaning there was already an unremarked-upon change in the family). But as Marty flees Lyon Estates we see that the alternate version of this neighborhood is enormously ghetto, with graffiti on the lion statues that flank the entrance to the subdivision, packs of stray dogs and the burned out husks of cars. The message here is that Lyon Estates is now a bad neighborhood, thanks to the presence of black people.
There’s a socio-economic reality to this. White flight happened in a big way in urban centers in the 70s; as black people moved into historically white neighborhoods in the cities white folks took off for the suburbs. The white people would scram so fast that property values would plummet; the black family who just moved in would find the neighborhood deteriorating around them. Truly shifty real estate types did this on purpose; the practice was known as blockbusting, and it would involve hiring black actors to pretend to move into the neighborhood to scare off the white folks (I’m not even making this up). Is it possible that Lyon Estate has been blockbusted? It’s clear that the black family living in the McFly house in alternate 1985 have been, in the father’s own words, terrorized by a real estate company. But that seems to be backwards; in 1985A they’re trying to force the black family out of the neighborhood, likely to clean it up and sell the homes to white people.
I want to give this segment the benefit of the doubt. I want it to be about blockbusting and the way unscrupulous real estate moguls destroy neighborhoods to make a profit. But Back to the Future II has no time to really explore that, and instead it hastily sketches a connection between black families - even ones that seem to be as intact and loving as the family living in the McFly house - with apocalyptic neighborhoods. Lyon Estate isn’t just bad, it’s like Precinct 13 there, complete with crashed police cars and double homicides. The movie is making the neighborhood look like the South Bronx back when the South Bronx was the worst slum in America.
So what about Goldie in this film? His presence is briefly felt in the more happy 2015; we see that Goldie Jr is mayor, indicating a Kennedy-like dynasty. Goldie the third is selling hover conversions, and probably getting quite rich doing it. The Wilson family are upstanding citizens of future Hill Valley… even though they had to stand on the shoulders of whites to get there.
The first two Back to the Future films paint a complicated racial picture. The first film longs for the ‘simpler’ 1950s while doing the bare minimum to acknowledge that the period was not so golden for non-whites. The second film heavy handedly connects blacks with terrible, crime-ridden neighborhoods. The third film, set in 1885, is where the opportunity existed to clear everything up and make some smart, important statements about America’s racial history.
Except they just ignored it. There is no great-grandfather of Goldie Wilson in Hill Valley in 1885. There are, to the best of my recollection, no black people at all.
Why not? In a series that keeps bringing in callbacks and characters, why no Wilson family in 1885? It would have been a great chance to flip the situation in the original Back to the Future, with the Wilson family - freed slaves moved west - lending a helping hand to the struggling McFlys. That would have changed the ‘white man’s burden’ aspect of the first film into an examination of the chain of humanity, the way we help each other across generations, the way that we are ALL standing on each other’s backs. It would have also mitigated Hill Valley’s historical whiteness a bit, and possibly negated Back to the Future II’s statement that black families equal ghettos. The Wilsons were there from the start, Back to the Future III could have said, and Hill Valley turned out okay. And it would have presented an opportunity to equate the immigrant experience with the black experience, pitting both the Wilsons and the McFlys against the racist Tannen gang. The lack of a Wilson family isn't just weird, it's downright puzzling.
None of this changes the greatness of the Back to the Future trilogy, of course. I love these movies. But it’s always disappointed me that a series that was so tight, that seemed so in control of every aspect of its storytelling, blew it so badly with black characters.
* it’s Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 from 1951, but whatever.