Saturday, May 25, 2013

Back to the Future (1985)

Yep. Back to the Future, the 1980s film classic.

Before we begin, I do not debate the classic status of the Back to the Future series. I love the films myself! I won’t do a full-on review here, though, because what could I possibly add to a movie that we all grew up loving that nobody else has already said?

Unfortunately, while Robert Zemeckis has made a number of great, great films, he also has some experience working in politically unsavory undertones. The entire plot of Forrest Gump has a naïve, simple man follow orders unquestionably and stumble on honor and fortune doing so… while the love of his life, Jenny Curran, finds her life slowly spiraling down the drain in her attempt to live as a “liberated woman.” My friend Martin Schneider wrote a wonderful review of Mars Needs Moms—one of the most sexist, heteronormative movies ever made—after which he actually confronted Zemeckis himself about the film.i

We all know how Back to the Future unfolds. (If you don’t, go watch it. You should anyway. I’ll wait.) The film tells a wonderfully engaging story about… Actually, I'll let Kelly Oxford explain.

The Libyans

For all the film’s intelligent writing, striking imagery, and incredible editing, it has one big flawii: it features two Libyan characters who don’t exactly exemplify the country’s better tendencies. Doc Brown explains that he used the Libyans' gullibility to steal plutonium from them (that they themselves had previously stolen).

Richard L. Duran as Terrorist #1, who spends his screen time doing this.
Jeff O’Haco as Terrorist #2, who spends his screen time doing this.
Clad in taqiyah and keffiyeh and spewing fake Arabic gibberish, these terrorists spend the entirety of their time in the movie shooting and shouting. Notice that Terrorist #2 has trouble starting his Volkswagen, tinging his characterization with ineptitude. Terrorist #1 has his AKM jam, even though Kalashnikovs have a reputation as some of the most reliable guns in the world (implying that only the most inept terrorist could jam a Kalashnikov). From the Volkswagen’s German roots and the AKM's Soviet roots, we also have a subtle association of Libya with America’s most powerful enemies of the 20th century.

Yes, the Libyans exist as an almost-incidental subplot in a much larger film. Yes, the film clearly labels them as nationalists and terrorists and does not imply that all Libyans resemble them. I doubt I’d have a problem with this depiction if it existed in a vacuum.

But this film exists in a long line of films that depict every Arab character within as a provincial terrorist who shouts guttural imprecations as he wildly fires an AK-47 at anything not as brown as himself, a stereotype that predates September 11 by many years (as will become more than clear in time as this blog progresses). That such a longstanding, pernicious stereotype appears in such a venerated and otherwise-excellent film only rubs salt in the wound.

The Historical Context

Libya didn’t actually possess nuclear weapons at that point in time, and there existed no evidence of the country having an interest therein1 (although Libya and the USSR did engage in talks to build a nuclear power plant within Libya).

Nevertheless, then-President Reagan made his enmity toward Libya and its longtime ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, abundantly clear. He described Gaddafi as an international pariah and a Soviet puppet ruler. Reagan viewed Libya as a potential channel through which the Soviets could attack America and heat up the Cold War. Probably motivated by his virulent anti-Jewish sentiment, Gaddafi continued to aid revolutionaries in Palestine to combat what he called the “Zionist enemy,” as well as revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua.2 In response to Gaddafi’s inimical decisions, Reagan implemented a series of sanctions, including the 1982 oil embargo.

This little history lesson has a point: at this point in time, America considered Libya among its most threatening enemies. As America has a history of doing with its enemies, it then comes as no surprise to see Libya vilified in film. Even so, it remains important not to conflate an insane, authoritarian, evil ruler like Gaddafi with his people, whom he oppressed himself directly. Back to the Future made only perfunctory attempts—if it attempted at all—to do so.

At least the film doesn’t show Gaddafi directly… unlike Reagan.
Dr. Jack Shaheen put the film on his list of worst films, a verdict I can’t say I agree with. I believe the film’s success and subsequent wide propagation motivated his decision, as well as a personal experience of his own that he mentions in the book.1 I wouldn’t call Back to the Future’s depiction of Arabs positive by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve certainly seen worse.

I love Back to the Future. But even more so than in the things we hate, we must remain cognizant of negative images and undertones in the things we love, the films and media that actually influence us and change our worldviews as we watch (especially those as widely seen as this film). So as much as you and I love Back to the Future, it remains important not to take its depiction of Libyans seriously.

In fact, I really wouldn’t recommend taking anything about this movie seriously.

i I know for a fact that Marty admires Zemeckis and didn’t actually want to do that, but telling off one’s heroes comes with the film criticism territory!
ii Well, two flaws, really. The soundtrack features Huey Lewis & the News’ “The Power of Love,” a particularly annoying song from the cottage cheese of rock music.

1 Shaheen 91-92
2 Bruce St. John 121-124

Books I Cited

  • Bruce St. John, Ronald. Libya and the United States: Two Centuries of Strife. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2002. Print.
  • Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch, 2009.


  1. Good article? What was Shaheen's personal experience with BttF though?

    1. Hey, thanks! I probably shouldn't call it not “personal” in the truest sense of the word, but I do think this anecdote colored how he looks at this film…

      “In May 1987, I was in Washington, DC, having dinner with several Arab-American friends. In the adjoining room, my host’s daughter was watching Back to the Future. After watching Arab terrorists shoot at the protagonists, the anxious girl rushed into the dining room. ‘I can’t watch anymore,’ she said, ‘I don’t want to see those bad Libyans.’”

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  3. Great article! I write for a blog that requires me to watch Back to the Future every week and come up with a new topic about the film each time, and I wish I'd found your article before I wrote about the Libyans and Reel Bad Arabs. I linked to you at the bottom; hope that's okay. Keep up the great work!

    1. I know it's been a while, but thank you very much!!