During the 1991 version of Cape Fear Max Cady repeatedly insults his opponents as "white", as if to make a distinction between them and himself. This always confused me a little, since ethnically he is ostensibly white, too. I also failed to otherwise see a racial context in the film and its conflict.

Now I might just be seeing it too naively or superficially. There sure is more to being "white" than just skin colour or ethnicity, especially in a US setting. So maybe Cady is using it more in a class struggle sense of distinguishing himself from the "white" upper class that Bowden is part of and that allegedly thinks to be better than him. In which way is he genuinely seeing himself as non-white? Or has he just used "white trash" as a general insult without a necessarily racial context at all? Though, it would still seem there is something more to that.

Basically, is there any kind of racial aspect to Max Cady's crusade and by extension the film, be it real, symbolically on a broader level, or just imaginary as part of Cady's delusions? Or am I just making more out of it than there is to it?

2 Answers 2


"am I just making more out of it than there is to it?"

Yes. You are reading modern identity politics into a movie that came along well before that.

I think Max just uses "white" as shorthand for "WASP." His victims are upper class, respectable people, who happen to also be Caucasian.

If there's anything racial about it, it's similar to the scene in The Commitments where a character explains that "Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. South Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin."


The thing is, the whole movie is covertly racist. This has protagonists and is aimed at a southern American public who still believes in "the lost cause".

Having said that, let's analyze some sequences:

  1. when the Judge defends Cady instead of accusing him, he quotes a sentence pronounced by a black educator (totally out of context), this scene seems trivial but in reality it already contains everything: the poor white man from the south crushed by a Yankee who instead of defending him accuses him: the judge happens to be a "friend" of the blacks. What does it mean? The government of the Yankees or those who love blacks is a threat, it's dangerous and instead of protecting you, it puts you in danger.

  2. The myth of the "white savior": the inspector who helps the lawyer's family is represented as brave, good and selfless: the classic southerner in Gone with the Wind style. A very important speech is when he talks about how southern men are used to living with fear of natives, slaves and governments. A speech as a victim and not as an executioner. In fact, this character will die as a Christian victim honorably defending the beautiful southern family. What emotions does it generate in the viewer? Fear and hate.

  3. The last sequence: when the family is about to leave with the boat, Cady comes out and is seen by two black characters. These two do nothing, it's hard to tell if they don't capture him out of fear or because they want Cady to win. In any case they are the only black characters and are represented as cowards or traitors: the choice is up to the viewer.

You didn't have these doubts about the character of the inspector, he is undoubtedly a true gentleman, kind and ready to die to defend you. If Cady had been black everyone would have boycotted the film because it would have been like a remake of "the Birth of a Nation" but portraying him as white no one would think the film is racist because De Niro is the protagonist and no black character is portrayed as explicitly evil . That's the point.

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