I think the tone for the evening was set when Michael J. Fox plugged his guitar into the mad scientist’s amp and blew himself backward through the wall and Camille started laughing so hard she almost needed medical attention. Grace thought Back to the Future was an eternal classic, and I pretty much do too, but the funniest part was watching Camille repeatedly fall on the floor howling. Based on my admittedly small and weird sample, the film remains relevant not only to teens but to eleven-year-olds who enjoy watching people whack their heads and fall down.
Robert Zemeckis channeled his inner Frank Capra for Back to the Future, taking advantage of a great script and stellar casting to play with the alternate-future concept of It’s a Wonderful Life in teen terms. Michael J. Fox had a career-defining moment as Marty McFly, who has a nice small-town life, a cute girlfriend, and a little bit of a confidence problem clearly stemming from having grown up in a family of Born Loser types, especially his cringing, wishy-washy bully-magnet father. Marty wants to do things with his life, but even competing in the school band competition feels risky—what if he loses? And the only person encouraging him to think big is the local wackadoo genius, Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd, making the most of his ability to make his eyes look really really huge).
I don’t need to recap this, right? Doc Brown has turned a DeLorean into a time machine powered by stolen plutonium, Marty ends up in 1955 without enough juice to get back, consults 1955 Doc Brown, who warns him about the horrible dangers of messing with the past, but it’s too late because Marty’s 1955 mom has already developed a crush on him. Hijinks ensue. I think people who can’t appreciate the sheer good-heartedness and humor of this film are probably few and far between and in need of therapeutic attention; it’s just a rock-solid pop-culture evergreen. Both kids loved it. I still pretty much loved it, too.
Grace’s discomfort point? The Libyans.
“Why?” I asked, though I was pretty sure I already knew.
“Um … it just … it’s so specific.”
“Well it’s the story, they say the plutonium for the time machine was stolen by a Libyan terrorist cell.”
“I know but…”
“But it seems weird to create cardboard bad guys who are Middle Eastern?”
“Well, yeah! I mean, like—look out, it’s ISIS!”
“So, there’s an interesting historical relationship between U.S. foreign policy and Hollywood. In the case of Libya, the Reagan administration declared them a rogue state in 1981. Before that, you probably wouldn’t find a lot of movies that characterized Libyan people or Libya as anything in particular. Once they got designated as a sort of enemy of the West it was open season. Portraying Middle Easterners and especially Libyans as bad guys, bombers, terrorists—suddenly that was part of the cultural moment.”
Grace wasn’t sure that really justified anything. I’m not sure it does either, but there weren’t really any bad guys in the movie. And I can think of a zillion films with more racially suspect plots, themes and characters than Back to the Future. But just as Heathers was probably not going to be the same text to a kid who grew up before the Columbine shootings than it was to one who turned ten the week of Sandy Hook, a post-9/11 kid maybe didn’t have the same ability to dismiss cavalier portrayals of terrorists from Arab countries. To me, it was innocuous. To her, it was seriously uncomfortable.
“Does it matter that it’s a comedy?” I asked her. “In terms of the offensiveness level of these people being specified as Libyan terrorists versus, say, Mexican drug cartel bosses? In fact, would that be different? And do you think it matters that “The Libyans” are not real characters in this movie? Like, obviously the script needed someone to shoot Doc Brown. They’re like an idea, not characters. Is that worse, or less bad?”
Grace thought about it. “I bet I wouldn’t have flinched as much if a Mexican drug cartel was the cartoony bad guy, to be honest.”
“Because that’s what our foreign policy, and our media, have reflected in your lifetime, yes?”
“And do you think that a Mexican person would be offended by that if it were ‘the Mexicans’ who shoot Doc Brown in that scene?”
“I have no idea. I mean, it’s not really … it’s obviously not meant to be super heavy. And then that’s where I guess I don’t know if it’s better or worse. A fleshed out villain is arguably better than a caricature but there was no point to having one in this movie, it wasn’t the story.”
“Agree. On both counts. Casual caricature is actually more offensive to my way of looking at things, but at the same time I can’t be bothered to be offended by the ethnicity of the shooters in this particular movie. It’s just so silly it’s like it’s not worth getting worked up about. It doesn’t feel like it has a bad spirit.”
“It doesn’t,” Grace said. “But I still found it jarring.”
“What if they’d been Russians?”
“Honestly? That might have rolled off my back, too,” she said. Grace’s history class had spent most of a semester on Russian history. “It was still the Cold War in 1985, right?”
“Yes. And to be honest I sometimes wonder if it ever really ended.”
“So is it acceptable in a film to have foreign nationals be bad guys?”
“In theory, of course. But there’s ways of doing it and ways of doing it.”
So, the shortest scene in the movie generated the longest conversation. Whether Hollywood illuminates or reflects the acceptable and unacceptable biases of a specific moment in American culture isn’t something I’m prepared to hold forth on, at least not in the context of a few frames of Back to the Future. But the taboos do appear to shift.
Meanwhile it’s eternally relevant to imagine what would change if you could go back in time. And it’s eternally hilarious when people get a truckload of manure on their convertible.
Amy Glynn writes for Paste and product-tests ’80s teen cinema for contemporary relevance.