Tom Hanks first learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in 2020, but that didn’t stop him from securing a call to action in The New York Times directed at America’s history educators and movie producers. Despite his editorial’s rapturous reception in certain circles, it still motivated the inevitable progressive backlash. The Oscar winner’s inclusive assessment of America’s past just wasn’t good enough for NPR’s Eric Deggans, who intimated that the actor must atone for the white supremacy his oeuvre has propagated.
The absurdity of Deggans’ essay aside, Hanks’ pontificating on an editorial page reserved for the U.S.’s most renowned experts is inexplicable. In the piece, Hanks engages in a two-fold argument concerning white atrocities against African Americans: 1) History classes don’t teach enough about such events as evidenced by their absence from his former history textbooks and 2) Hollywood needs to make more films about African-American history. Yet, as Times readers were quick to notice, many contemporary textbooks and documentaries do, in fact, foreground Tulsa and other similar abominable events during the Jim Crow Era and have for decades—topics that weren’t quite resolved in time for inclusion in the history books of Hanks’ boomer youth. U.S. schools do have a history problem, but it is rooted more in the lack of rigor and contextual analysis inherent to the greatest-hits, Forrest Gump-style approach to the curriculum than the willful scrubbing of inconvenient facts.
As for the actor’s second suggestion, the last thing the country needs is more of the awards-bait historical epics on which Hanks built the middle of his career. Since his consecutive Oscars for turns as a gay, HIV-positive lawyer in Philadelphia and intellectually disabled saint in Gump, Hanks has devolved into self-importance—an erosion of his affable everyman authenticity that may render his uncanny, CGI’d appearance in The Polar Express his most personal performance of the past two decades. Without the touch of esteemed directors like Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Sam Mendes or Paul Greengrass, Hanks’ recent films fall short of his talents.
Hanks’ popular appeal has also greatly diminished beginning, not coincidentally, around the same time he entered the fray of amateur political commentary in the Bush II years. Yet, his success as the king of the Hollywood historical drama has only bolstered the ubiquity of the subgenre, leading studios to take less chances on highly inventive and distinct projects not manufactured to win Oscars and end up as filler on Sunday basic cable. One can only imagine studios’ missed opportunities on the way to financing Hanks’s 2020 one-two punch of the postbellum News of the World and WW2 saga turned AppleTV premiere Greyhound—films that made virtually no dent in a critical or public consciousness eager for the blockbuster spectacle of Tenet and the indie cred of Promising Young Woman.
If Hanks’ plea succeeds, it will be a no-win situation. A white director would not survive the Twitter crucifixion unleashed if they were to direct the Tulsa story, especially in a culture where a musical boasting a Latin-X writer and Asian-American director incites fury over omitting darker-skinned minorities. Likewise, a director of color helming such projects would perpetuate a system that deems historical films about black victimization as the only relevant African-American narratives. Current Woke Bible White Fragility sees such isolated celebrations of Black History as positioning racism in a vacuum. Until recently, skewering the Black History movie was fair game as Chris Rock proved in the 2014 film Top Five with his savage portrayal of a popular comedian taking on the role of Haitain slave revolt leader Toussaint Louverture to gain critical legitimacy. Now, the Hanksian history flick has become the ponderous endgame for a movie culture paying lip service to diversity while expanding the status quo.
Even Deggans cannot find a better remedy despite his evisceration of Hanks for not coming to terms with his career playing, “American white men ‘doing the right thing.’”According to him, Hanks must first renounce his entire body of work before embarking on a slate of Black History projects in his time off from self-flagellation—movies that, upon release, would naturally reignite outrage over white male authority while further boosting the reputations (and bank accounts) of the victimhood-industry elite to which Deggans aspires.Rather than opining, Hanks could take a page from his contemporaries Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone by working on films with multiracial casts and directors of color that eschew the pedantic and, at times, reach profundity. He could also take public umbrage with the president he fervently supports neglecting to commemorate the D-Day invasion so central to Saving Private Ryan in favor of exploiting the Tulsa centennial even though Oklahoma has continued coming to terms with the event for two decades via various initiatives ranging from investigations to scholarships for the affected families’ descendants. Instead, America’s iconic everyman has succumbed to the mob, and we all know what he is gonna get.