Racial Concerns Made Dave Chappelle Turn Down The Role Of Bubba In Forrest Gump

This post contains spoilers for "Forrest Gump."

"I gotta find Bubba!" This, no doubt, was the thought in the mind of casting director Ellen Lewis before she settled on actor Mykelti Williamson ("Heat") for the role of Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue in "Forrest Gump." It's also the cry Gump, played by Tom Hanks, makes as he goes running back into the jungle to save his friend Bubba during the Vietnam War. Yet before Williamson landed the part and donned Bubba's lip attachment, controversial comedian Dave Chappelle — then a relative unknown — was in consideration for the part.

According to Comedy Hype, Williamson suggested they dumb down the character of Bubba, who was smarter in the Winston Groom novel on which "Forrest Gump" was based. The idea was to put Bubba and Forrest on more of a peer level, IQ-wise, so they could relate better. However, Bubba ultimately fares worse than Forrest in that he loses his life and his stake in the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (which continues to thrive as a real restaurant chain).

In 1994, Chappelle's best-known film role was in "Robin Hood: Men in Tights." (He would go on to co-star with Williamson in "Con Air" in 1996, and with Hanks in "You've Got Mail" in 1998.) In a stand-up comedy set, Chappelle once said Eric Roth's Oscar-winning "Forrest Gump" script "stunk," and he was characteristically blunt in his assessment of Bubba and Forrest: "Who could be dumber than Forrest Gump? His Black friend, that's who. No matter how dumb a white dude is, they always gonna find a n***** that's dumber."

Chappelle also observed that, with Bubba, "you know he's gonna get killed 'cause he's too cute."

The inevitable backlash

Even before it triumphed over "Pulp Fiction" and "The Shawshank Redemption" at the 67th Academy Awards, "Forrest Gump" faced the kind of backlash that is inevitable for any popular film. That continues to this day, so Dave Chappelle was far from alone in his criticism of the movie. (Chappelle himself has also faced backlash in recent years for some of the jokes in his Netflix comedy specials, which have leaned into what the National Black Justice Coalition called "lazy and hostile transphobia and homophobia.")

Love it or hate it, "Forrest Gump" was a moment. The movie dominated the box office and the Oscars, becoming the second-highest-grossing film worldwide in 1994 — after "The Lion King" — and winning best picture, best director for Robert Zemeckis, and best actor for Tom Hanks among other awards. It was quotable, with even other '90s films like "Fight Club" getting in on the action, recapitulating the line, "Run, Forrest, run!" Its two-disc jukebox soundtrack also went multi-platinum, selling 12 million copies, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Viewed through a modern lens, there is any number of things that can and have been criticized in "Forrest Gump," and Bubba's arc, which arguably conforms to outmoded tropes like Black Dude Dies First, is one of them. For his part, Mykelti Williamson said in a 1997 issue of USA Today that he "couldn't get a job after Forrest Gump," until he appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and demonstrated how a lip device had helped him transform into the character.

Given its pioneering visual effects and famous insertion of Tom Hanks into archival footage with U.S. presidents, it probably won't be long before someone decides to make a deep fake with Dave Chappelle as Bubba in "Forrest Gump."