Cringing at ‘Airplane!,’ I have to ask: Just how racist is this movie?

by DGO Web Administrator

By virtually every account, the movie “Airplane!” is one of the funniest movies ever made, ranking No. 10 on American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 funniest movies of American cinema.

Released in 1980 and starring Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “Airplane!” was a seminal comedy of my childhood, always watchable and ever quotable – “Surely, you can’t be serious.” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley” was 79th on AFI’s list of the 100 best all-time movie quotes.

Last weekend, the ladyfriend and I were looking for something light and silly to watch, so we popped in “Airplane!” – neither of us having seen it in years. Not long into the movie, we began looking at each other hesitantly with big eyes of exaggerated disbelief. We had to pause the movie and discuss:

Was “Airplane!” always this racist, inappropriate and laden with stereotypes? Here’s a much-abbreviated rundown:

There are the two black men on the plane speaking “jive” with so much slang and broken English that subtitles are required:

“Shiiiiit, maaaaan. That honky muf’ be messin’ mah old lady … got to be runnin’ cold upside down his head, you know? (Subtitle: “Golly, that white fellow should stay away from my wife or I will punch him.”)

There’s the flamboyant character of Johnny, whose only role in the movie is to prance around mission control making sassy non sequiturs.

There’s the long line of passengers and crew waiting in line for their turn to shake and slap (and worse) a woman who needs to calm down and get ahold of herself.

Now, being a heterosexual, white male, I realize there are few groups I have culturally-approved, politically-correct license to speak about – positive or negative – beyond anything pertaining to straight white guys.

That disclaimer aside, I have two main questions: Was the movie made during a time where such racism, misogyny, and stereotyping were more acceptable to broad, mainstream audiences? Or have we become overly PC, where jokes can still offend but they better not offend when it comes to race, gender, or sexuality? I had to wonder: If “Airplane!” were made today, what would it look like and what would be left of it?

Take the two men speaking jive. What is intended to be funny here and who or what are we laughing at? With a predominantly white cast, white filmmakers, and presumably white-majority audiences, was the joke simply at the expense of black culture as a whole? Was the joke mainly about needing subtitles to decipher English, and “jive” happened to be within the cultural lexicon, yet still exotic enough?

What would this joke look like if written in 2017? Is there a group that uses colloquialisms and broken English that is culturally acceptable to laugh at? How about lower class whites, aka hillbillies? Is there a subculture that is acceptable to exploit for its exoticism? What if one of the men was a fetishist trying to talk through a ball gag?

Being just a babe when this movie was released, I don’t know how it was viewed by audiences then. My bet is that, for the majority watching, it was not considered racist or otherwise inappropriate beyond the raunchiness (with a PG rating, no less). And while certain jokes are undoubtedly racist in retrospect, I do not think the filmmakers are racists or were consciously being racist when they made the film. But if all this is true, at what point did the film – or at least parts – become uncouth to mainstream audiences, and what prompted its uncouthness?

Admittedly, I don’t have clear answers to these questions yet, though my guess is, like everything, they are likely found somewhere in the middle. Yes, we have come a long way culturally in terms of sensitivity, respect, and kindness toward minority, underrepresented, and historically disparaged groups. And at the same time, the things we are no longer allowed to laugh at (or with?) seem to be growing.

Before you get all sanctimonious, I offer one more question: Who or what currently is the culturally-approved target of our jokes, that, 40 years from now, we’ll pop in a movie and say, “Wow, that is offensive!”?


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