‘Children Of Giant’: Documentary Explores Racism In James Dean Classic

James Dean is revered as a movie icon who was taken far before his time, but a new documentary explores in depth just how ahead of his time Dean really was.

Children of Giant, the PBS documentary created by Austin filmmaker Hector Galan, taps into the racial divisiveness facing Mexican Americans in the small town of Marfa, Texas, in the 1950s. Marfa could be representative of any town in the southwest, but what made it a standout was the fact that it was the backdrop for what would become James Dean‘s final film, Giant, a cutting edge flick that was exploring similar themes many decades ago.

In performing research for Children of Giant, Galan discovered that the final James Dean film may have just been the catalyst for change in the tiny Texas town. The documentary, filmed nearly sixty years after Giant, analyzes the making of Dean’s swan song and the legacy it left behind.

Featuring interviews with residents who portrayed extras in the cast and worked on the crew for Giant, the documentary revolves around how many of Giant‘s racial themes mirrored the racism that was occurring in the lives of Marfa’s Mexican American residents. Though all three of Giant‘s lead actors — James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor — are now deceased, the documentary is a reminder of the timelessness and social relevance of the type of characters James Dean played.

In the film Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean portrayed an angsty, emotional teen dealing with issues that are still prevalent in today’s world, such as peer pressure and bullying. In East of Eden, Dean acts out the perpetual tale of a young man trying to win his father’s approval.

James Dean was killed September 30, 1955, in a car accident prior to the release of Giant. Dean was the first actor to be nominated posthumously for an Academy Award for his role in East of Eden. His phenomenal acting, willingness to take on socially charged roles, and young death sealed Dean’s fate as a pop culture icon. It is, perhaps, the very reason that documentaries such as Children of Giant are relevant to this day.

Many feel the final Dean film was similar in racial overtones for Mexican Americans as that which was being experienced by the country’s African-American community, though the plight of the Mexican American was less known. It is difficult to know if Giant hadn’t utilized the talents of James Dean if the film’s impact on the Mexican American community would be as significant. Children of Giant gives a voice to the people who worked with Dean to achieve the goal of promoting awareness.

Children of Giant airs on PBS tomorrow night. Check your local listings for times.

[Image provided by James Dean Official Webpage]