In 2000, Jennifer Hyland Wang, then a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, wrote for Cinema Journal about how Forrest Gump earned its reputation as a "conservative" film: In the past, writers like Modern Fiction Studies' Thomas Byers had called it "aggressively conservative," and it had appeared in National Review's 1995 list of the 100 best conservative movies. In the process, she compiled an inventory of the ways in which Forrest Gump's plot reflects negative attitudes toward social change and seems to re-imagine the turbulence of the 1960s as mostly progressives' fault.
Blaming the Radicals
In Forrest Gump, proponents of social change are often punished or portrayed in a negative light. Forrest's childhood sweetheart Jenny, for instance, protests the war, joins in with the sexual revolution, and becomes linked to the Black Panther Party in her young adulthood. She then gets beat up onscreen by her boyfriend, a fellow radical, at the Black Panther headquarters in Washington; the Panthers simply stand by and watch until Forrest interrupts them and saves Jenny. Jenny later dies of a mysterious virus often assumed to be AIDS. As Wang puts it,
By evoking the threat of bodily harm to those women who did participate in political movements, the film limits the attractiveness of political change and vilifies the activism of the period. Progressive political movements, Forrest Gump asserts, did not help women make their mark but left their marks on America's women. ... The racial and sexual threat a 'political' African-American man embodies is grounded in the Black Panther's stance against the traditional American values that Forrest Gump eventually champions. By visualizing the danger of black autonomy to a white woman and by giving voice to the threats of Black Nationalism, Forrest Gump emphasizes the need to keep these bodies under white America's control.
In other words: Forrest Gump makes the Black Panthers look pretty bad.
The Butler, on the other hand, offers a more nuanced portrayal of the Black Panthers and their evolution. The Panther headquarters in The Butler is depicted as having rules written on the walls that encourage justice and respect ("always pay full price for goods"). White House butler Cecil Gaines's son Louis and his girlfriend Carol join the Panthers, and explain to Cecil and his wife over dinner that, yes, the movement does have radical political motives, but it also seeks to improve the community by providing childcare for low-income black families and free lunches to black children. (Cecil responds by promptly throwing them both out of the house.)
Later, however, the Panthers are asked to pledge that they'll kill in the name of their cause. Carol says she will; Louis, morally conflicted, says he won't. They break up.
The Virtue of Progress
In Forrest Gump, Forrest's loyalty, obedience, and innocence make him the undisputed hero and moral compass of the film. According to Wang, "Gump argues that eventually these conservative values," -- the ones often coded as "white," she points out -- "not the alternative 'liberal' ones explored in the 1960s, will survive the test of time." Thus, "Forrest Gump reestablishes the role of the white patriarch as the source of political and cultural renewal."