For many people, one of the most surprising things about the cultural reckoning that is going on in the context of Black Lives Matters demonstrations around the country is to find out how much of the pop culture we consume has racist implications. Moreover, many who believed blackface was a relic of the past have lately been reminded of many more contemporary examples, and famous Disney classics have been called out for cultural insensitivity and racist stereotypes.
From this perspective, there are still several more recent movies worth analyzing as well. Read on and find out which are the iconic ’90s movies that have been called for racism.
When Aladdin was released in 1992, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was strongly criticized for its negative portrayal of Arab culture, leading Disney to modify some of its more objectionable lyrics. However, for others, Aladdin ‘s issues go beyond a few word choices.
As Vox explains, “the 1992 film revels in a lot of Orientalist stereotypes,” including a “mythos [that] reeks of mystical exoticism” and “the citizens of Agrabah [being] frequently depicted as barbarous sword-wielders and sexualized belly dancers.”
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
From the moment the long-awaited Star Wars: the episode I entered theaters in 1999, the movie faced accusations of racism. Several alien species speak with accents that sound like stereotypic approximations of different ethnic groups, but Jar Jar Binks, portrayed by Ahmed Best, was a particular point of contention.
In an article for The Nation at the time, Patricia J. Williams wrote, “Whether intentionally or not, Jar Jar’s pratfalls and high jinks borrow heavily from the genre of minstrelsy.” She also noted that the character of Watto could be considered “both anti-Arab and anti-Jew.”
The Green Mile
By far the most notable critic of The Green Mile in 1999 is filmmaker Spike Lee, who argued in 2001 that the portrayal of John Coffey— played by late Michael Clarke Duncan— is one of the examples of Black characters with supernatural abilities who reinforce the traditional stereotype of the “noble savage” or “happy slave.”
In his list for Salon of the most racist Oscar films of all time, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “Coffey uses his magical powers to heal White authority figures and punish their enemies. Coffey uses his magic to show his innocence. But he amazingly does not use his magical powers to liberate himself—or oppressed Blacks in the segregated south of the 1930s.” The way Kendi sees it, The Green Mile “is only believable through the illogic of racist ideas.”
Filmed during the 1992 Los Angeles riots— a reaction to police officers being acquitted for the brutal beating of Rodney King— Falling Down is a movie with racism on its mind. Simultaneously, the movie is showing an angry white man (Michael Douglas’ D-Fens) on a violent spree that does not hold up for many of the critics.
For the film’s 25th anniversary in 2017, April Wolfe wrote an article on LA Weekly’s complicated history of Falling Down, calling it “one of Hollywood’s most overt yet morally complex depictions of the modern white-victimization narrative, both adored and reviled by the extreme right.” Wolfe goes on to explain that the movie seems to side with Douglas ‘character, and that “anyone paying attention to white rage today will find familiar the ways in which the film couches D-Fens’ behavior in economic anxiety.”
Dangerous Minds is part of the common genre of “inspirational teacher” films, but many claim that it often contains a more insidious trope: the “white savior” narrative. Twenty years after the 1995 film was released, Aisha Harris wrote in Slate that Dangerous Minds oversimplifies the theme of race and “raises the… white-savior narrative that so often rests” at the core of the inspirational teacher drama.
To Harris, one of the most significant mistakes in the film is that the teacher Louanne Johnson (Michelle Pfeiffer) is bullied by her students for being white. “By having the students exert prejudice upon their teacher rather than make any explicit mention of how the education system overwhelmingly fails black and Latino students in turn, the students are largely responsible for their own failures,” Harris writes.
Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
Although some called 1994 ‘s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective Offensive, the 1995 sequel, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, drew even more outrage at its broad, stereotypical, and negative portrayal of African culture. The film shifts the action to the fictional African country of Nibia, where the main character is trapped in a dispute between (equally fictional) tribes.
As a review in the Hartford Courant said at the time the film was released, “The tribes, by the way, are depicted here as warlike, superstitious and essentially stupid. Such patronizing, demeaning, if not also racist stereotypes of Africa probably haven’t been seen in Hollywood movies for decades.”
Bulworth is another overtly racist film: Warren Beatty stars as a senator who wants to start speaking openly about his views, including those on racial issues. While much of the 1998 movie is intended to be satire, some argue that it actually does more harm than good.
Complex included Bulworth on their list of the 50 most racist movies, calling it “the most embarrassing and racially insensitive two hours ever committed to celluloid.” And in a piece for The Baltimore Sun at the time the movie was released, Peter W. Bardaglio wrote, “Bulworth reinforces rather than undercuts certain racial stereotypes about white men and black women.”
Jungle 2 Jungle
Despite a title like Jungle 2 Jungle, it does not come as a shock that this 1997 film is not very respectful of indigenous cultures. Michael Cromwell (Tim Allen) learns that he has a long-lost son, Mimi-Siku (Sam Huntington), who has been raised among a tribe in Venezuela.
In a 2016 article for ATTN:, Almie Rose notes that Jungle 2 Jungle “peddles heavily in insensitive stereotypes about natives being clueless savages who do things like eat pet fish straight from the fish tank and always walk around barefoot in war paint.”
Adam Sandler is no stranger to racial controversy, so it’s probably fair to say that his early movies are not immune either. In 1995’s Billy Madison, the character of Billy’s maid Juanita (Theresa Merritt) was criticized for playing with racist “mammy” stereotypes.
As Ellen E. Jones explains in a 2019 BBC article about the history of the stereotype, “Traditionally depicted as a dark-skinned, overweight woman, wearing a headwrap and shawl, the mammy is employed by a white family to care for their children and is utterly devoted to her charges.”
Juanita also makes regular sexual advances to Billy. In Collider’s list of problematic movies, Greg Smith says that “the character comes dangerously close to harmful stereotypes about the oversexualization of black women, particularly in jobs like ‘being a maid to annoying, wealthy white people.'”
The Siege, which reflects on a fictional terrorist attack, was controversial shortly after its release in 1998. Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee called the film “extremely offensive.
It’s beyond offensive. We’re used to offensive, that’s become a daily thing. This is actually dangerous.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations said in a statement, “In this film, the Muslims have total disregard for human life.”
Outside theaters, there were even protests playing The Siege. A Deseret News article at the time describes demonstrators waving signs reading “Hollywood Racism Is Terrorism” and “Don’t Pay for Racist Movies.”
Kevin Thomas’ review of Krippendorf’s Tribe in the Los Angeles Times begins with the line, “If you thought that blackface went out with Al Jolson, you’re wrong.” The 1998 movie, in which Richard Dreyfuss plays an anthropologist who concocts a fictional African tribe, does indeed include a number of black-faced actors, while they pretend to be members of the tribe.
As Thomas continues, “Krippendorf’s Tribe revives all those old demeaning racist stereotypes in the most horrible ways.”