Pleasantville: A Brief Film Review and Why Its Racial Undertones Are Still Relevant Today

Pleasantville (1998)

If there were ever a more potent love letter to the 90’s and 50’s, the 1998 film Pleasantville would be it. Centered around a brother and sister who are transported to the transient world of a black and white 1950’s TV sitcom after a rather strange encounter with a TV repair man, this film brings a lot of the important elements of each decade to life with its imagery, colorization and dialogue. Honestly, this film is great satire that touches on a lot of societal problems that are still relevant in our world today. Specifically, the issue of race. Before I get into the racial undertones in this film, I’ll start with a brief synopsis.

Pleasantville, written and directed by Gary Ross, is a very unique film about teenage siblings David and Jennifer, played by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, who find themselves transported to a 1950’s sitcom called “Pleasantville”. Before they make their rather interesting transition into the world of Pleasantville, the film begins with TV advertisement for a marathon of the show and then cuts to David and Jennifer’s 90’s high school. What is so interesting about this beginning is that it highlights the struggles of society in the 90’s as we see the main character, David, sitting in his classes where teachers are discussing how hard it will be to find a job after college, how rampant STD’s are and how global warming is posing a real threat to the planet. After this, we are immediately see David watching an episode of Pleasantville at home while his mother argues with his father on the phone. Here is where we see David’s broken home life and why he has such an interest in this show.

David (Maguire) and Jennifer (Witherspoon) inspect the TV after the repair man leaves.

Later, we see David at school talking to his friend about the Pleasantville marathon and the contest attached to it. As they talk, Jennifer is seen talking to her group of friends discussing how nerdy her brother is. Minutes later, the most popular boy in school approaches her and asks if she would want to watch a concert on MTV at her house. That night, David and Jennifer prepare for their TV watching festivities and get into a huge argument about who gets to use the new living room TV set. After breaking the remote, a mysterious TV repair man suddenly comes to their door and gives them a replacement remote that will “put them right in the show”. The repair man leaves and, after testing the remote and realizing it works, David and Jennifer argue again as they both try to snatch the remote from each other as an episode of Pleasantville plays in the background. After fighting with the remote for a few more seconds, Jennifer accidentally hits a button and they are instantly transported to Pleasantville. While there, the TV repair man pops up and lets them know where they are and, after accusing them of being ungrateful, says he won’t take them home until they’ve learned to appreciate what he’s done for them. With this in mind, David suggests that he and Jennifer act normally and not deviate from the frame and setting of the show. But, with naturally curious minds, the two inspire change in some shape or form, which leads to certain things and people turning from black and white to color. This theme of change is very prevalent to acts 2 and 3 of this film and eventually lead to a tear jerking ending that I dare not ruin for you.

Jennifer and David discover they have been transported to Pleasantville.

So, I bet you’re wondering, how does this film about two people being transported to a 1950’s sitcom have anything to do with race? Well, this aspect of the film takes the form of a subtle metaphor. When Jennifer and David question things and incite change outside of this small minded and “simple” world, people and things begin to change to color. When this begins to happen, the residents of Pleasantville sort of ignore it. They wonder what’s going on but take stock in the hope that it will go away soon. Then, they end up getting really confused, scared and then angry. This leads to people who are in full color being ostracized and even harassed. There is even a scene in the movie where a store has a sign in the window that reads “No Colored’s Allowed”. This scenario, which takes place in the 2nd and 3rd acts of this film, is really just a metaphor for the things that actually took place during the Civil Rights movement. Signs like the one I just mentioned were put up in stores, black people were not allowed anywhere near white people for the most part and segregation caused white people to resent black people for wanting equal rights. For the longest time in American history, things were only done one way and the predominantly white society was happy with their way of life. When this was challenged by a group of people they did not know or understand wanting equal rights and privileges, tensions rose to their peak and violence quickly ensued. This unfortunate blight in our history is displayed quite well in Pleasantville. When the still black and white citizens of the town became angry and confused about things turning to color, they almost immediately resorted to violence and labeled the “colored” people as enemies.

David and Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) sit before the Pleasantville City Council.

The way the citizens of Pleasantville were so reluctant to accept the changes going on in their town and how people of power, specifically the mayor, campaigned for the eradication of these changes through strict legislation happens on a certain scale today. With every police involved shooting, or questionable death of a black individual in police custody, the country seems to be divided more and more. Almost exactly like what eventually ends up happening in Pleasantville. The minute these shootings occur, individuals take to social media and display their intolerance in a similar way that the citizens of Pleasantville did in act 3 of the film. One example to further explain this point would be all of the Twitter rants that users wrote about how a black man should not run this country. This particular tweet I’m referring to is a lot more inappropriate but I am paraphrasing.

News articles about the Trayvon Martin Case.

Along with this, all of the coverage that the Trayvon Martin case received also brought out the severe racial hatred a portion of the country has toward minorities. Although this case is quite old, I am referencing it because it is probably the most relevant to the racial themes in Pleasantville with how “minorities” and “change” are viewed. This case pretty much skyrocketed the term “thug” as it pertains to describing young black men and brought to light how black people are are perceived as being at least 8–10 years older than they actually are in the eyes of others. When you take both of these factors into account and tie them into the thought processes of individuals who are used to a certain way of life and rely on racial stereotypes, you get people who turn their confusion and fear into hatred and anger. This is exactly what ends up happening in Pleasantville. When this case first broke, so much hate stemmed from it on both sides of the fence. So much so that whether people sided with Martin or Zimmerman, so many people acted just like the rioting citizens in Pleasantville that wanted to protect themselves from their perceived “threat”.

Betty Parker (Joan Allen) is stalked and harassed by local boys in town.

Unfortunately, there are way too many shootings for me to draw comparisons from with this but I think the point comes across the same way no matter which one I bring up. What this seemingly omniscient film shows us is that, when comfort zones are disrupted and major change occurs, most people immediately allow their emotions to take over and block their ability to reason and empathize. There is an old saying that states we always fear what we don’t understand. Pleasantville really brought this to life by showing the extremes fear can be taken to and how it almost always leads to severe destruction.

Jennifer (Witherspoon) fights with Skip (Paul Walker) when he and other boys try to burn books from the Pleasantville library.

This film does delve deep into a very dark part of any society but also ends on a fairly positive note. Not to ruin it for those of you who have not seen this movie, but the way it ends is kind of an ode to what we hope situations like this could end like. All I’ll really add to the resolution of this film is that although it ends in a dream-like state, it does show how the turn of events really changed David and how it’s given him insight beyond his teenage mind and overall youthful view of the world.

David prepares for his journey.

Pleasantville is an amazing film whose themes can speak volumes to the current state of our society today in one way or another. This country is no longer the “Leave it to Beaver” America it once used to seem like or the extremely hateful America it used to be during radical portions the Civil Rights era but, we are a country that exists somewhere between these two extremes. Our society still struggles with change, whether it be related to race, the LGBT community or political reform, but there is still hope that we can have the more realistic dream-like ending Pleasantville has.