9 Classic '80s Movies That Have Been Called Out for Racism
These films have been criticized for negative stereotypes and outdated cultural depictions.
The past few weeks of Black Lives Matters protests across the country have inspired major changes, including, among many other things, a larger cultural reckoning about the entertainment we consume. Many of the films we grew up with have been called out for racism over the years, from old Hollywood classics to more recent fare. These criticisms are not new, but it seems people are paying attention to them in a way they haven't before. With that in mind, here are nine classic '80s movies that have been called out for racist stereotypes and outdated cultural depictions. And for more films that are being reexamined, here are 10 Disney Classics That Have Been Called Out for Racism.
John Hughes' Sixteen Candles is considered—like many of Hughes' films—to be an '80s staple. But the character of Long Duk Dong, played by Gedde Watanabe, has been singled out as racist since the movie's release. As NPR noted in 2008, "In 1984, when Sixteen Candles came out, some Asian-American groups decried Long Duk Dong as stereotypical, racist, and part of a long history of Hollywood's offensive depictions of Asian men." More recently, star Molly Ringwald called the character a "grotesque stereotype" in an article for The New Yorker.
Fisher Stevens has a significant role as Ben Jabituya in Short Circuit, and he got upgraded to a starring role in 1988's Short Circuit 2, where the character's name was changed to Ben Jahveri. Both films used brownface makeup to make the white actor look Indian. He also speaks with an affected East Indian accent.
In 2015, Stevens expressed regret over donning brownface, telling USA Today, "I was an actor who needed a job and got a job and did my job. Looking back, oh my god. It should have been played by an Indian person." And for celebrities who have lost work for their alleged behavior, check out these 6 Celebrities Who Were Fired After Being Accused of Racism.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The depiction of Hindu culture in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was considered inaccurate enough to get the film banned in India after its 1984 release. And the movie has not aged well since then. "The stereotypes created here are part of a depressing lineage of othering Indians and East Asians in pop culture, making them insidious or untrustworthy or simply the subject of mockery," Kayleigh Donaldson wrote for SyFy Wire in 2018.
Revenge of the Nerds
Revenge of the Nerds has faced plenty of criticism over the past few decades, including accusations of misogyny and homophobia. But the film has been called racist since it came out: The 1984 review in The Hollywood Reporter said the movie is "filled with extensive racial stereotypes, which may offend some moviegoers." More recently, Jeremy Herbert of Crooked Marquee denounced "the casual racism that’s plagued the [Revenge of the Nerds] series since it introduced a revolving door of Asian stereotypes."
Soul Man isn't the only movie on this list to feature an actor artificially darkening his skin—but it's the only one where that's the driving force behind the plot. The film stars C. Thomas Howell as a white man who takes tanning pills to pretend to be Black and qualify for a Black-only scholarship. The film was subject to protests by the NAACP and others for its use of blackface when it was released in 1986.
In 2015, Howell told The Hollywood Reporter, "A white man donning blackface is taboo. Conversation over—you can't win. But our intentions were pure: We wanted to make a funny movie that had a message about racism." And for movies by Black filmmakers you can watch now, These Classic Movies by Black Filmmakers Are Free to Stream Right Now.
In the 1982 film adaptation of the musical Annie, Daddy Warbucks has a "mysterious, inexplicably mystical bodyguard" named Punjab, who is coded as Indian but is played by Trinidadian actor Geoffrey Holder, who is not of Indian descent. As Anna Leszkiewicz wrote for the New Statesman in 2017, "[Punjab] doesn’t speak, but does often spontaneously dance, and can seemingly make inanimate objects levitate, control animals, and fix injured body parts. This is a truly and deeply racist portrayal."
Adventures in Babysitting
Critics in 1987 were not shy in pointing out what they saw as anti-Black racism in Adventures in Babysitting, in which a group of white kids—and their babysitter, played by Elisabeth Shue—spend a wild night stranded in inner-city Chicago. The Los Angeles Times compiled reviews that spoke to the movie's "paralyzing fear" of Black people, with one critic writing, "What the movie seems to be about is a simple, vaguely racist theme: White kids should remain in the warm, velvety womb of the suburbs. When they enter the city, they encounter terrors of all sorts, coming mostly from one-dimensional [Black characters]."
And Adventures in Babysitting has only garnered more criticism decades later. In 2015, The Guardian included it on their list of "the worst of '80s movie racism." And for more things you might not have realized have racist connotations, discover 7 Common Phrases That You Didn't Know Have Racist Origins.
In The Toy, Richard Pryor plays Jack Brown, a Black man who gets hired by a spoiled white kid named Eric Bates to be his personal "toy." It's that plot that landed the film in the top 10 of Complex's "50 Most Racist Movies." "It doesn’t take a history buff to draw the uncomfortable parallels between the inexcusably inappropriate 1982 comedy The Toy and our nation’s storied practicing of slavery," writes the magazine.
On a similar list of racist movies, Business Insider's Keertana Sastry wrote, "This film was trying to show that a friend is earned by showing respect, not by being bought. But many believed Pryor's role was modern-day slavery, and degrading on all counts."
The Karate Kid
As Sonia Saraiya wrote in a 2019 Vanity Fair article, many Asian-American people have a complicated relationship with The Karate Kid's Mr. Miyagi, played by the late Pat Morita. While the character is beloved and earned Morita an Oscar nomination, some feel Mr. Miyagi reinforced and perpetuated stereotypes. Saraiya spoke to blogger Jon Moy, who condemned Morita's affected Japanese accent. "He’s the reason people felt comfortable adopting racist accents in order to mock us," he said. And for more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.