By now, you probably know that Hollywood was racist for a really long time. Say what you want about present times, but things have certainly changed for the better. Take a look back. Every studio, especially Disney, had had numerous films with very questionable content since the dawn of film. As times have changed, so too have films and how they deal with racial issues. Most of the time these days, we see racism in films as subtle little flashes, unnecessary stereotypes, and/or racial omissions and misrepresentations. We’ve come along from the early days of cinema where pretty much everything was racist, but it’s not perfect, far from it.
There are still plenty of racist movies around. Go check out Gods of Egypt or any of the other wildly whitewashed films being made as we speak. But what we want to address is hidden racism. We want to explore racist moments from major films that pass by undetected by most viewers. Maybe the racism in these films is purely accidental. Maybe they were done on purpose to force the audience to make racist associations subconsciously. Maybe they aren’t racist at all and we’re just too damn sensitive. Hell, maybe it’s more racist to point out the hidden racism in these films than it is to just ignore it. Either way, this list is dealing with moments from major films that got people talking. They may not be blatantly racist, but they were racist enough to hurt some people.
Most of the films on this list are recent movies. It would be too easy to go back 50 years ago and choose films that were racist. That’s been done to death. We’ve tried keeping everything within the last decade or so, except for a few monumental examples that we couldn’t ignore, if only to represent an entire category of films. The racist interpretations presented within are not the only reading available to viewers. For many, it’s become difficult to look beyond these interpretations, but we don’t want to suggest that any of the films on this list are flat-out racist, just that it is possible to see racist messages within them. Here are 15 Films You Never Knew Were Secretly Racist.
15. Passion of the Christ
The racism in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is not really all that secret, but we’re not hear to talk about how the Jewish population in the film was portrayed outright. Sure, there were some major issues in demonizing an entire culture, but that happens in almost every film that ventures into the Middle East. That’s the obvious racism. We’re interested in subtle stuff, like the Antichrist character walking amongst and mixing in with the Jewish people as Jesus walks with the cross. These are the moments when people associate the antichrist as Jewish without knowing it. By having this character pop in and out of the screaming crowd, the two separate entities become one.
14. Hacksaw Ridge
Another one? Mel Gibson has never been a stranger to controversy, but his most recent film, Hacksaw Ridge, which is very good and getting its rightful love, is another Gibson film that features some images that can be interpreted as subtle racism. There’s one sequence in particular that could rub Japanese audiences, or those with a soul, the wrong way. It begins with some American soldiers resting for the night in a bunker/hole on the so-called Hacksaw Ridge. We are unaware of where the Japanese soldiers or when they’ll attack. At one point, Desmond (Andrew Garfield) thinks he hears Japanese soldiers, but it turns out to be only rats feeding on the dead, a simple mistake. But this image comes back later when the Japanese soldiers are running across the terrain and the camera pans out showing waves of faceless and voiceless Japanese soldiers swarming the few American soldiers. It’s hard to sidestep the comparison between the burrowing and animal-like Japanese soldiers scurrying across the landscape with the rats that were doing the same not long ago.
We have to include Rocky because it’s one of the prime examples of hidden racism in films. In Rocky, you have, on the one side, the African American champion Apollo Creed, the mirror image of Muhammad Ali and his “God-given talents.” On the other side, you have the blue-collar and Caucasian-American Rocky Balboa, a slugger who had to work for everything he ever got. Through intense dedication and training, Rocky is able to punch his way to the top defeating “the other.” Now, this is not just the first Rocky film either. This model is repeated through pretty much all of them. Rocky isn’t alone during this time. Plenty of films had this same racist undercurrent. It’s not overtly racist, but it does glorify (and in a way whitewash) the hardworking American dream.
12. London Has Fallen
Let’s just ignore how stupid London Has Fallen is for a minute. The only reason this is considered secretly racist is because we will honestly be surprised if anyone has bothered to see it. Inside this head-smacker is your typical faceless Middle Eastern terrorist. They give him a motive for his violence, but it really doesn’t matter. His actions and his crimes against London seem to be justified purely by his race. The film is a perfect example of “terrorsploitation,” a form of fear-mongering that makes enemies of all Middle Easterners. At one point, the protagonist (Gerard Butler) even says to the terrorists, “Get back to F***headistan or wherever it is you’re from.” What a script folks. What a script.
11. Star Wars: Phantom Menace
Of all the things that are the worst about Star Wars: Phantom Menace, racism falls very low on the list, but still, it’s there, so it’s here. Yes, we can say that when dealing with aliens, Earthly stereotypes do not apply, but then why do they overlap so blatantly? No matter what, we’re dealing with Earthly directors, so when we see our stereotypes present on an alien land, we must think that they are, a) intentionally racist, or b) accidentally racist. In The Phantom Menace, the first secretly racist character we meet is Watto. Watto has some of the stereotypical facial features of Jewish people, but he is also has a Yiddish accent. This alien is clearly meant to be Jewish. Sadly, he is also greedy and ruled only by money. C’mon, George. Then we meet the worst character of all, Jar Jar Binks. Aside from his West Indian/alien accent, Jar Jar is from a primitive tribe who use spears and rocks as weapons. He is jovial, not very bright and ready to serve. He is everything a tribal African stereotype usually is minus the skin color.
10. Angry Birds
Some people call it a parable for colonization while others say it’s anti-multiculturalism. You could probably make the argument for both sides, but we’re focusing on racist interpretations here, so we will only look at the anti-multiculturalism side. Angry Birds is a ridiculous film about an isolated island of birds who are happy, except for one dude, Red. When a race of pigs land on their island and begin to throw parties, everyone falls in love with these visitors except for Red. Turns out, Red’s suspicions about the pigs are right as these villains are revealed to be stealing all the birds’ jobs eggs. Regardless, even if both sides of the racial argument are horrible associations, the fact that Angry Birds has at least two different interpretations is impressive for such a movie based on a phone app.
9. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
OK, so this is only secret racism because no one would expect a movie about robots to be racist, but yet here we are. The racist characters in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen are named Skids and Mudflap. There are some facial stereotypes present here, such as buck teeth and a gold tooth, which is brutally offensive, but really everything about them scream urban black youth stereotype. Both of these twins are jive-talking and gangsta, which is strange because they’re alien robots. The argument is that the voice actors went that route naturally. OK, so then why give them the facial stereotypes? Why script in one of them saying he “don’t do much readin'”? You see, the speech alone is fine. Associating the speech with all these other racist associations is mean-spirited and insulting. Figure out the difference and you can avoid racism.
8. Jurassic World
OK, so this one is pretty harmless, but Jesus people, give your script a proofread before making a movie. Maybe try and eliminate all offensive words from being spoken in rehearsal if you can. In Jurassic World, the characters running the park have an endearing short-form for the Pachycephalosaurus and it happens to be offensive. You would think that they would call them Patchy or Patchies, but nope, they call them Pakis, the derogatory term for Pakistani people. There’s an argument to be made that they are, in fact, saying Patchy, but they clearly aren’t. We can pretend that we’re so innocent that we can say this word with a sincere denotation and be safe, but we don’t live in that world. There are negative connotations with that word so just change it. Call them Patchies and annunciate or if the pronunciation insists on a hard K, don’t shorten it at all.
7. Memoirs of a Geisha
Call it racial insensitivity or obliviousness or whatever you want, but the team behind Memoirs of a Geisha really brought it on themselves when they cast a Chinese actor in a Japanese role. Perhaps this is overblown because, after all, this type of thing happens all the time in movies about Africans or Middle Easterners. When it comes to the average North American audience, we can’t tell cultures apart to save our souls. If the actor playing the part is close geographically and/or phenotypically to the character, the standard movie goer has no problem accepting it. But, for Japanese people, the geisha is incredibly iconic and relations between Japan and China were, at the time of filming, icy at best. Who knew that an American movie adapted from an American book starring a Chinese main cast playing Japanese characters would cause a controversy?
6. Happy Feet
You’re watching Happy Feet not thinking anything and then BAM! It hits you. This movie is racist. For many, many years, beginning with Disney, animated animals have been given racial identifiers. It’s a quick and easy (if not offensive) way to connect the audience with a known set of characteristics (or stereotypes). Happy Feet is no different, but when you discover that the Latino penguins live in what is basically the ghetto of the Arctic, are seemingly undereducated, uncivilized and need the Caucasian-type penguin to show them the way, you start to realize that Latinos drew the short stick in this film. When will it be that the voice-acting is enough? Even if you think you’re putting a positive spin on stereotypes, filmmakers should just avoid them at all costs. Especially when dealing with animals. Would we really be less-interested the penguins if they didn’t have stereotyped sexuality and attitudes?
5. The Blind Side
The white savior has long been a trope in Hollywood, but we don’t expect it to come from newer films. That’s why the 2009 film, The Blind Side, blind-sided us. Here we have Sandra Bullock, she’s white and rich and she needs a purpose. She decides to find an African American with no skills except those he was born with, his size. She then teaches him how to play football and he becomes famous. It’s all very sweet and it’s true! Except it’s not really true. The real football player, Michael Oher, already knew how to play football. He didn’t need a rich white woman to teach it to him using the simplest of comparisons in order for him to understand the rules. It’s in knowing this that the movie becomes even more racist. Why use the big dumb black man trope, a la Green Mile, if it isn’t even true?
4. The Jungle Book
Looking back on the history of Disney, you might wonder if they’ve ever made anything that isn’t racist, but everyone’s got to admit, that we’ve learned a lot about racial stereotyping from their films. It would be easy to fill this list with Disney animated references, but we’ve already talked at length about Disney in other lists, so we’ve included only one example here. The Jungle Book is one of those films that deals with otherness rather clumsily. It was made in 1967, so we don’t expect it to be flawless. Still, the issue with King Louie has always been a hot topic. The racial argument is that King Louie and the other apes were quite obviously meant to force the audience associate them with African Americans. This becomes a harsh comparison when they start singing about their desire to “be like you,” interpreted as a pointed reference to the African American’s conforming to a white way of life.
3. Forrest Gump
The classic film Forrest Gump has been accused of rewriting American history in countless ways, so it’s no shock that it’s controversial, but there’s a racial reading of the film as well. Forrest seems to be including himself in a number of black history moments which has ruffled a few feathers. You can say that Forrest has rewritten white history too, but white history doesn’t have a long history of being erased and misappropriated. Let’s look at the evidence. Forrest is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Racist? Well, it’s not not racist. What about the fact that he taught Elvis how to dance, erasing the influence of real black artists and dance? That’s not enough on its own, but Forrest was also responsible for breaking racial segregation in schools, a pretty huge undertaking for one white man. He also broke the Watergate Scandal, stealing that claim from Frank Willis, a black man. An interesting side note is that Forrest is carrying Curious George in his briefcase, a book with some massively racist undertones. All of this might be coincidental, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
2. Short Circuit
Maybe we were too innocent as children to recognize it or too naïve to think something was wrong, but Short Circuit has got some major racism going on. The one and only example is Ben Jabituya, your average lovable Indian character. Nothing seems out of the ordinary here. Yeah, he’s playing up the Indian stereotypes hard, but this is 1986, every Indian actor was doing the same and every film with Indians was guilty. Nah, the worst part is what you may have realized from watching Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. The guy playing Ben Jabituya is none other than Fisher Stevens. Like white, Jewish actor Fisher Stevens. To turn him into Ben on screen, they just had him work on developing an overly thick accent and then applied brown makeup to his face. Now, even for 1986, that’s pretty bad.
There’s been quite a bit of discussion of racism in Gremlins since it came out. There’s some very clear orientalism going on, but a lot of people seem to associate the gremlins with African Americans as well, claiming their dress, characteristics and attitudes are all black stereotypes. But we don’t have to dig that deep to find the racism. The old neighbor, Murray (Dick Miller) is a blatant racist. He’s upset about foreign cars the moment we meet him. Later, he’s out drinking and his Kentucky Harvester tractor won’t start, something he blames on foreign parts—he even calls these infiltrators gremlins. Later we see an Irish pub overrun by the unruly gremlins. They’re making the white waitress run around as they smoke, murder, fight, dance and gamble. This isn’t necessarily black culture. This is white culture being overrun by difference, symbolically passing the blame for each these vices onto foreign intruders. It might be a stretch, but the evidence is pretty eye-opening.