The BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy represents the best and the worst of ‘80s cinema. In the pro column you have: exhilarating sci-fi adventures, thrilling set pieces, unforgettable theme music, affable stars with stellar comedic chops who commit 100% to the wacky plot, and Billy Zane in a cowboy hat. In the con column you have: casual misogyny, a bizarre incest subplot, and an undercurrent of racism and classism that defines the entire series. It can be jarring to revisit the series if you last watched it as a kid who — whether due to age or privilege or both — never picked up on the bigotry at the heart of these films. Though they can still supply escapist nostalgia and serve as a fun triple feature, it’s impossible to divorce BACK TO THE FUTURE from its endorsement of the good life as something that belongs solely to wealthy white people.
From a continuity perspective, BACK TO THE FUTURE works as a terrific triple feature. Each entry picks up right where its predecessor left off and includes numerous callbacks that serve as genuinely funny and charming gags and grounding moments in a potentially confusing time travel narrative. The audience thrills to Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) skateboarding prowess, whether he’s hitching a ride on the bumper of a car using a standard board or learning how to maneuver a hoverboard in the future. Each wild-eyed reaction shot or exclamation of “Great Scott!” from Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) earns a grin from an appreciative audience. We laugh and cheer whenever Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the iconic villain everyone loves to hate, finds himself on the wrong end of a load of manure.
Director Robert Zemeckis had a strong run of cartoony, campy films from 1985 to 1992, including BACK TO THE FUTURE Parts I through III, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Death Becomes Her. His penchant for live-action Looney Tunes humor is on full display in the trilogy, and his collaboration with Lloyd makes excellent use of the actor’s gift for physical comedy. From Marty’s exploding amplifier introduction in Part I to the Max Headroom-style waiters at Cafe ‘80s in Part II to Doc’s magnifying glass gags in Part III, the trilogy is full of zany cartoon moments that make the films incredibly fun to watch. Plus there are so many deliciously ‘80s moments in these films: Marty moonwalks in the Wild West, a dog named Copernicus makes a crucial discovery, and it’s never explained why a high school student would be a lab assistant for a kooky local scientist…that’s just how we rolled back then.
There’s so much joy and humor in these movies — and so much talent in front of and behind the camera — that it’s painful to see all these wonderful elements in service of a plot that exalts wealthy white people above everyone else. The trilogy uses epithets for Black people and Native Americans. It plays up racial stereotypes for laughs, depicting Libyan people as terrorists and Japanese people as taskmasters taking over the world. It dehumanizes Native Americans, Black people, and Chinese immigrants. Part I rewrites history to suggest that Marty, a white man, invented rock ‘n’ roll, a musical genre invented by Black Americans and then stolen by white musicians. The same film shows Marty giving the 1955 version of Goldie Wilson (Donald Fullilove), a Black man, the idea to run for mayor. Though you could argue that the Chuck Berry gag still gives credit to Berry, since Marty was playing a Chuck Berry song when he “invented” rock ‘n ‘roll, you can’t ignore the combination of these two incidents. Taken together, they suggest that Black people can’t innovate on their own, that they rely on white ingenuity to accomplish anything.
The anti-Black racism gets even worse in Part II. After Biff becomes a millionaire due to some time travel shenanigans and takes control of the city, it turns from an idyllic suburb into a crime-ridden war zone. Marty’s house is now inhabited by (gasp) a Black family. His whole neighborhood is filled with burning cop cars, chalk outlines and graffiti everywhere, and the sound of gunshots. The greedy and vulgar Biff turns Marty’s quaint hometown into a haven for the “wrong” kind of people, and the film pretty clearly identifies the “wrong” kind of people as Black residents. When Marty sets things “right” again at the end of the film, his white family is back in his clean, safe neighborhood. Goldie Wilson is mayor again, though it is significant that the family movie theatre from 1955 — back when the mayor was white and everyone laughed at the idea of a Black mayor — is back to being a porno theatre in 1985, an unsubtle dig at the contrast between the wholesome (read: white) good ol’ days of the ‘50s and the loose morals of the ‘80s.
Of course, while the film trilogy promotes wealthy white nuclear families as the aspirational ideal, it takes issue with the wrong kind of rich white person. Writer Bob Gale has stated that Biff was based on Donald Trump, and the similarities are obvious: abusiveness, cruelty, misogyny, a tendency to project his worst failings onto other people, an alleged history of sexual assault, a fondness for tacky buildings with his name plastered all over them, etc. There is a certain amount of satisfaction to be had from Biff’s repeated misfortunes in the trilogy and in the idea that one could use a time machine to prevent his (and therefore Trump’s) rise to power. Still, this cathartic wish-fulfillment is not without its own problems.
Wilson deserves just as much credit as his more famous co-stars for his incredible charisma and total commitment to the role, but his charisma might be a detriment in the scenes where Biff is “put in his place.” Wilson is so naturally likable that he turns the obsequious Biff into a pathetic figure that we feel sorry for, especially as the McFlys treat him with disdain once they have more money than he does. Biff deserves disdain, obviously, but not for being less wealthy than the McFlys. No, he deserves disdain for being a bully and an attempted rapist who takes every opportunity he can to make other people feel small and powerless. That moral lesson doesn’t really come through as much as it should, though. The happy ending, according to BACK TO THE FUTURE, isn’t that the McFlys are happy because they’re good people and that Biff has learned his lesson. No, the happy ending in the films is that Biff is “just” an auto mechanic and the McFlys are living the good life off bestseller royalties and corporate salaries. Happiness in this Reagan-era vision of the ideal life is based on nothing more than materialistic concerns.
One of the biggest running themes in the film is that Marty doesn’t know when to be the bigger person and walk away from a fight. When he finally learns this lesson, he sets his own future right. As Doc tells Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) in the final scene of Part III: “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.” If we can learn from our past mistakes, the film argues, we can build a better future free of determinism. BACK TO THE FUTURE doesn’t seem to learn the right lessons, though. It doesn’t acknowledge the racism that runs throughout American history as a mistake, dooming its characters to keep upholding the same racist behaviors over and over again. Life may be good for the McFlys, but the happiness and prosperity of anyone who isn’t wealthy or white doesn’t seem to figure into the equation.
BACK TO THE FUTURE is a beloved film trilogy for a reason. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are a phenomenal comedic duo, imbuing their characters with so much heart and delivering classic lines with so much personality that they’ve become imprinted on our collective consciousness. The pulse-pounding adventure sequences and the rousing theme are just as thrilling today as they were 30-35 years ago. The effects hold up remarkably well, as does much of the kooky humor. Even with a time machine, though, the trilogy can’t escape its racist themes and disregard for anyone who lacks the privilege of its main characters. It’s tempting to escape into a comforting narrative about traveling through time to set the world right, but BACK TO THE FUTURE misses the mark by only considering wealthy white people when it defines the word “right.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE: THE ULTIMATE TRILOGY is now available to own on 4K Ultra HD.