In a guest essay for the New York Times earlier this month, actor Tom Hanks apologized for his contribution as a filmmaker to erasing black history from American consciousness. Referencing the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, he wrote, “History was mostly written by white people about white people like me, while the history of Black people — including the horrors of Tulsa — was too often left out. Until relatively recently, the entertainment industry, which helps shape what is history and what is forgotten, did the same. That includes projects of mine.”
Those projects of his include producing numerous outstanding films and TV shows based on American history, including Band of Brothers, The Pacific, John Adams and From the Earth to the Moon. In addition, as one of America’s most beloved and successful living actors, the two-time Oscar winner has starred in some of the most memorable history-based movies of the last few decades, including Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, and Apollo 13.
But in an essay last weekend titled “Tom Hanks Is A Non-Racist. It's Time For Him To Be Anti-Racist,” National Public Radio (NPR) TV critic Eric Deggans griped that Hanks’ confessional “is not enough.” His film work has too often “focused on the achievements of virtuous white, male Americans,” making it “tougher for tales about atrocities such as Tulsa to find similar space.”
Deggans, who ironically is the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, concedes that Hanks is a consummate actor and “all-around stand-up guy” who has advocated for gay rights and environmentalism. Though Deggans did not note this, Hanks also backed the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. Last year, he and wife Rita Wilson supported Michelle Obama’s “We All Vote” initiative, which aggressively pushed voting-by-mail during the 2020 presidential election. Hanks also ranks among Hollywood’s most charitable celebrities, supporting AIDS research, clean energy, and arts education. It’s fair to say he has contributed quite a bit to the progressive cause.
That’s wonderful, writes Deggans, but again – not enough. What matters to Deggans is that Hanks “is a baby boomer star who has built a sizable part of his career on stories about American white men ‘doing the right thing.’” It’s unclear how this is a bad thing; it’s also unclear how a man who makes a living as an entertainment critic is unaware that approximately 99% of contemporary TV and movie villains are white males (the remaining 1% are space aliens or the living dead). Hollywood depicting white men doing the right thing is a refreshing change, not the norm.