Believe it or not, there are certain individuals who are actually under the naïve impression that racism in America and elsewhere has been eradicated and no longer exists. Although I can admit that the social situation has decidedly improved from what it was in the past, and things are constantly progressing for the better, it is by no means gone from our lives. As long as we have books, movies and other artistic media at our disposal to remind us how things used to be, it shall always remain in our consciousness.
Due to our cherished right of freedom of speech, people always have been able to perpetuate their racist views and opinions through their art. And not only is it allowed, it tends to be accepted by most. I am a longtime movie buff and have a lot to say about cinematic racism, which I do in subsequent posts. But for right now, I will confine my discussion to a specific series of films. This subject came up one day in conversation, so this is my take on it.
In case it has not occurred to you, get hip to the fact that film producer Walt Disney [1901-1966] was quite a bona fide racist. And he wasn’t subtle or secretive about it either. Of course, he produced high-quality family entertainment, but in all of the 86 feature films that he produced during his career, none of them deal with the real, black experience. I am not saying that the sin of omission makes him a racist, necessarily, but as I will point out, the way he went about it in his work certainly makes him qualify.
His only black-themed production (sorta), Song of the South (1946), is an antiquated, “Old South” movie that depicts blacks as happy-go-lucky, singing and dancing darkies. I finally got to see the film when it was released on DVD. One of the primary characters in the film is called Uncle Remus. There is no mention of Remus’ having any nephews or nieces. Then who’s uncle is he? Hattie McDaniel is on hand, too, portraying Aunt Tempy, who is also lacking of same. Are you aware that to refer to a black man as “uncle” is euphemistically derogatory? You can call a black man “boy” (also disrespectful) up until he’s about 50-years-old, then black senior citizens become “uncles,” you see. Moreover, the tale-spinning Remus refers to his story characters as, “Br’er Bear, Br’er Fox and Br’er Rabbit,” indicating that, as a poor, uneducated Negro, he is incapable of correctly pronouncing simple English words. I realize that the film is based on characters created by white Southerner Joel Chandler Harris, but Mr. Disney seemed all too eager to perpetuate Harris’ outdated, Southern attitudes in his film. I mean, did he have to include the story of the Tar Baby? Come on!
I am also familiar with Walt’s earlier Dumbo (1941), and although the sequence with the crows is humorous, it is blatantly racist as well. These characters, just like those from the other movie, are based on outmoded (even then) Negro stereotypes. Or more specifically, white man’s outmoded idea of Negro stereotypes of speech and manner, because the only time I have ever seen any black people behave that way is when white men have instructed them to do so, or more rightly, when they themselves are pretending to be black. These “black” crows shuffle around dancing and singing (as usual), # Well, ah be done seen ’bout ever’thang when ah see a elephant fly! # Well, ah be done seen ’bout ever’thang when white folks stop treating us merely as ridiculous comic relief! The inside joke is that as early as 1730 black people were described and referred to as crows. Walt apparently was aware of that. He even named the head crow “Jim”! Get it?
In his The Jungle Book (1967), too, Mr. Disney gives his dark animals, like Baloo the bear and the apes, “black” mannerisms in behavior and speech, although they, as well as the aforementioned crows, are voiced by white actors. Walt wouldn’t think of hiring black actors for those roles. That would be disrespectful. Besides, everybody knows that white men can impersonate and parody black people much better than we can ourselves.
I watched Disney’s So Dear to My Heart (1949) a while back, which I hadn’t seen in about 45 years, so I didn’t remember much about it. It’s a live-action film about a little boy (Bobby Driscoll) who raises a black sheep and subsequently enters him into the County Fair competition. When the lamb is first born, one of two, his mother rejects him, and Granny, Bobby’s guardian, played by Beulah Bondi, explains to her grandson, “That’s how they are sometimes, with twins, especially when one of ‘em’s black.” So she’s justifying the mother sheep’s behavior? I wasn’t aware that animals, too, exercise color prejudice, and with their own offspring, no less! It looks like a little directorial manipulation, don‘t you think? Then later Granny tells the boy, “I don’t fancy black wool. Never did.” She sounds like she’s trying to instill her own color bias to her child, just as the producers are impressing it upon their movie-going audience. The judges at the Fair are almost as bad. They certainly don’t award the top Blue Ribbon to the black sheep—something about black wool’s being worthless, undesired. It’s a wonder that they even allow him to compete at all. But as the animal star of the movie and to effect a happy ending, I suppose, the sheep is given a Special Award for being different. Wasn’t that white of them?
While watching Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) again a while ago, I was made aware of a scene of metaphorical racism this time. Remember the scene of Alice in the garden of talking and singing flowers? They are getting along fine with her until they realize that Alice is a “Nook” (Not Of Our Kind), not a flower like themselves. Then they start to jeer at her and ostracize her because they do not associate with “weeds” and promptly kick her out the garden. So it’s not enough for people to be prejudiced, Disney is now attributing the human practice of discrimination to the innocent plants as well! This little episode is certainly not in Lewis Carroll’s original story. It’s strictly Disney.
As in the previous movie, are these proper messages to present to impressionable youngsters? It’s pretty much telling them that it is okay to discriminate and be bigots by encouraging them to disassociate themselves from anybody not like themselves and that the color black is somehow inferior to white. The fact that an obviously-white chorus of voices was used for the flowers adds to the purposeful intent of the scene, even though Alice herself is a little white girl! But I have learned that discrimination by whites often transcends skin color. What’s amazing is that they have cleverly conveyed their racist views without using any black people, but plants and animals instead to make their point—a brilliant ploy, in my opinion.
Unreasonable discrimination and ostracism is also displayed with the circus elephants who ridicule and shun little Dumbo, one of their own, just because his ears are larger than normal. Nowadays this would be considered bullying. Walt even makes light of excessive alcohol consumption. The circus clowns, as well as Dumbo and his friend Timothy Mouse, all get plastered one night and it’s all an amusing joke. I wonder how many impressionable youngsters watching the film want to get very drunk themselves so that they, too, can experience “Pink Elephants on Parade“? I have heard of many children being greatly distressed and even traumatized by the scene in Bambi (1942) when the fawn’s mother is murdered by an dispassionate, merciless hunter. So although killing innocent animals is a common real life occurrence, Disney didn’t have to depict it in a family-based cartoon, as if he condoned it or considered it no big deal.
And whereas Disney seemed not to mind teaching his young viewers to discriminate, he chose to honor parents’ purported desire to keep sex education out of his movies. Baby Dumbo is actually delivered to his mother by a stork! And then except for Dumbo, all the other elephants in the film are female. So who is Dumbo’s daddy? Did he just happen? His mother named him Jumbo Jr., but we never get to meet “Jumbo Sr.” The crows, on the other hand, are all male. So of course, there can’t be any reproductive hanky-panky going on if like animals are all the same sex.
Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959) features a horde of male leprechauns, but nary a female in the bunch. So how did any of them come to be, and how do they reproduce? That’s right, Walt, teach us all how to bully and hate each other, but don’t you dare depict something that suggests anything sexual! Even in the Princess fables (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the rest), in which “they lived happily ever after,” the movies all end before the lovers consummate their marriages. But we don’t get to see that, do we? We don’t know if they ever do.
Similarly, in his Peter Pan (1953) there is sexual segregation in Neverland with the Pirates and the Lost Boys. Walt made all the male pirates physically unattractive so that nobody would desire them sexually or each other, and the Lost Boys are all too young to do anything. Since the Chief of the Indian tribe has a daughter, Tiger Lily, he did give us another woman, presumedly her mother. There is rampant jealousy among the other females in the story, which suggests a certain sexist attitude about women. All the girls apparently are in love with Peter and resent each other. Tinker Bell hates Wendy, the mermaids don’t like her either, and Wendy is jealous of Tiger Lily. It shouldn’t even matter, when Peter isn’t giving any of them any action!
Walt’s writers also have the Indians behaving as they do in all the other Hollywood films made about them. There is that typical drum beat that accompanies every scene that involves them, along with the whooping war dance that they always do. And just like the other ethnic groups in films, they don’t speak in whole sentences, only utterances of “How!” and “Ugg!” What the hell is ugg and who actually says that? Well, I did a little checking and found out that hau is a greeting in several tribal languages, and uggs are a kind of moccasin boots worn by some American natives. The word is short for ugly, and I suppose the ones who call them that consider the footwear to be unattractive. But even so, how does ugg by itself come up in regular conversation? The actors doing these voices, too, are, of course, white. I wish that Disney had been more responsible by teaching his viewing audience of children how people other than white really are, instead of perpetuating false and unrealistic stereotypes all the time.
This next is an overlooked nugget. Walt even managed to slip in an ethnic epithet with a line from Mary Poppins (1964), one of my favorite films, by the way. When Mary and Bert and the kids and the chimney sweeps are all up on the rooftops doing their “Step in Time” number, Admiral Boom looks over and sees these people with black soot on their faces and utters the illogical line, “We’re being attacked by Hottentots!” Really, now, Hottentots?! How and why would a Negroid African tribe be romping on the rooftops of London? The admiral should know damned well that they are British sweeps, having seen them many times before, I’m sure. Of course, they probably justified it by saying that Admiral Boom is delusional and only imagines that he is seeing Hottentots. So he can be addlepated, and therefore racist, at our expense then.
You’ll notice, too, that although they aren’t, the “Hottentots” are “attacking,” because isn’t that what black gangs are known to do, take undue aggression upon unsuspecting, undeserving white folks? What is a seemingly-innocent comment, under the surface is loaded with racist vitriol. Now add to the pot that these are all white actors done up in literal blackface! And what are these chimney sweep characters doing? Singing and dancing! So Disney has managed to sneak in an elaborate, jimcrovian minstrel show sequence in its original form. It has already been established that they are supposed to be black by that Hottentot line, right? Wait! Aha! I first thought that the line was pointless and was put in there only for Disney and his scriptwriters to get in their usual racial dig. But now I realize that it’s in there for a reason. It helps set up the scene and justify the minstrel act. And I expect that you viewers, especially the innocent children and the clueless adults, too, are none the wiser. “My, what a cute, fun number that is!“ See how fiendishly-clever he was?
I just saw one with which I was totally unfamiliar and watched it out of curiosity. I wanted to see if Walt was up to his old tricks. I guess the poor man just could not help himself. Dick Van Dyke starred in another Disney vehicle two years later, entitled Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966), which is, of course, a reworking of Robinson Crusoe. Dick is a Navy pilot who gets stranded on a tropical island for several months. He eventually discovers that he is not alone. There is a chimpanzee there with him and later an exotic “native” girl shows up in the guise of Nancy Kwan. They provide a nonsensical reason why she is there, and I suppose they made “Friday” (or “Wednesday,” as this Crusoe named her) to be a woman instead of a man, in order to add some surface heterosexism to the scenario.
It shouldn’t have mattered in either case, because as usual with Walt, there is no sexual activity of any kind going on anyway. In fact, the first night that Robin and Wednesday are together, he graciously allows her to sleep inside the shelter that he built, while he chooses to sleep outside in a hammock, in the pouring rain! I mean, come on! It would make sense that they both are very horny, therefore the temptation would be too great if they shared a bed together. But even if they did have sex, who is going to know or care, since they are there alone? But we, the viewing audience, would know, wouldn’t we? They know how judgmental we can be. I’ll bet that Floyd, the chimp, would be getting his if he had the opportunity.
Later when Wednesday’s chieftain headhunter father (don’t try to make any sense of it), played by Akim Tamiroff, shows up to reclaim his daughter and get her married off to somebody, of course, Robin is the most-likely (the only, actually) candidate. But Crusoe adamantly declines, offering some lame excuse about his not being good enough for her or that it wouldn’t work out or some disclaimer. I’ll just bet if she was some lily-white, blonde bimbo, he wouldn’t be so dismissive of her. They probably cast a non-white person on purpose, just to justify Robin’s refusal. When he is finally rescued by helicopter, he opts to take Floyd with him instead of the girl! The story is credited to “Retlaw Yensid,” by the way. I wonder who that could be?
The original “Mickey Mouse Club” on TV was completely devoid of People-of-Color. I learned that as many as a million youngsters were seen and auditioned for the job–but not a single black, Latino or Asian in the bunch! How could that be? Unless they put on the casting notices, “Nonwhites need not even apply.” Maybe there were no ethnic youngsters talented enough to make it as a Mouseketeer? Yeah, right. And I’m sure that Disney searched high and low (not) to find some, too. One of his later shows was called “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color,” but there were never any colored people on that show either.
Should I be too naïve to suppose that all these things I have cited just happened incidentally without any deliberate intent on Disney’s part? But if I noticed it, I am not so arrogant to assume that nobody else in the world has picked up on it, too. I refuse to believe that Disney and his creators and advisors had no clue to what was going on. They all had to have known what they were doing, but chose to go along with it anyway. Why I put my complaints and observations primarily on Walt’s shoulders is because of the fact that Walt was the final say-so in everything that he produced. Nothing got published without Walt’s approval. So then, I will have to assume that everything in his pictures is intentional and acceptable, besides.
Movie buff and critic Leonard Maltin is a major Disney fan and commentator. He’s even written books on the subject. I own his The Disney Films, where he critiques and analyses every Disney film. But nowhere does he comment on the racial aspects that I have just laid out in this article. I take him to be a smart guy. Could he be that oblivious to what is going on? I would love to meet him, so that I could ask him.
I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike Disney or his films. On the contrary, I have been a big Disney fan all my life. But that does not negate my observations and assessments of his racism. I just calls ‘em as I sees ‘em, that‘s all! But I do support everyone’s right to their own artistic expression, even if I don‘t personally agree with the content. It’s a good thing, at least, that Walt’s white supremacist and homophobic attitudes died with him, and since then the Disney Corporation has become a product of progressive modern times and positive diversity.
In fact, just six years after Walt’s death, we started seeing black people turn up in his movies, in normal, non-servile roles. The Biscuit Eater (1972) starred Godfrey Cambridge and Beah Richards. Then the next year John Amos and Roscoe Lee Browne starred in The World’s Greatest Athlete. They produced a live-action Cinderella for TV in 1997, which featured an ethnically-mixed cast. Brandy Norwood played Cinderella, Bernadette Peters played her stepmother, whose daughters, one was white and the other, black. Whitney Houston was the Fairy Godmother, Victor Garber and Whoopi Goldberg played the King and Queen, and their son, Prince Charming, was played by an Asian actor. Also in 1997 the Disney Studios produced an animated feature of Hercules for theatrical release. The Muses characters, who serve as a Greek chorus, were drawn as and voiced by black women singers, I suppose to give it a more soulful interpretation of the hip, modern music by Alan Menken.
If that weren’t enough, a more recent animated feature from the Disney Studios is The Princess and the Frog (2009), and whereas every fairy tale princess has always been a white child, this time she is depicted as a Negress! Old Walt must be rolling around in his grave! But don’t worry, Waltie! You can rest easy. I have seen the film, and although it’s well-made, entertaining and funny, it also has definite shades of your racist agenda, you’d be pleased to know. I would have hoped that at long last their first predominately-black feature would reflect modern times with a typical present-day Afro-American family. Instead, the story is set in Jazz Era New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
Our heroine, Tiana, is a lower-middle-class waitress who dreams of owning and operating her own restaurant some day. Her mother is a freelance seamstress who works for a rich, white local bigwig, and whose daughter is a pampered “princess.” Its being set in New Orleans in the 1930s puts the characters in a certain social class distinction with the speech pattern of the time, and gives the writers a reason to use voodoo as the device for the story’s magic applications. In fact, the villain of the piece is a powerful voodoo practitioner, who looks very much like a charming pimp. Think Sportin’ Life with an evil streak. Maybe I am being too critical in saying that the film has racist undertones, but if this were only one black feature out of many others that have come out of the Disney Studios, I wouldn’t need to cite it as epitomizing their usual production values. But until we get a wider variety of the black experience, this movie will still be considered by some as exploitative and stereotypical.
Actually, I am pleased to report that now that Disney has been bought by Dreamworks/Amblin, the mega-studio owned by David Geffin, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Stephen Spielberg, the diversity factor has improved even more. I am pretty sure that Walt would have had nothing to do with some of the productions that the company is putting out these days. Just opened recently is Queen of Katwe (2016), which is set in Uganda and features mostly black and African actors. It’s about a young girl training to become a world chess champion. I cannot assess it right now, however, until I see it.
By no means was Walt Disney the only animation company that produced racist cartoons. Warner Brothers, Walter Lantz and others, I’m sure, made their contributions as well. I remember seeing them on TV when I was a kid. Without any moral social conscience, they often depicted grotesque, derogatory, black caricatures. There exists a Snow White parody cartoon by Warner Brothers entitled, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), which is the epitome of racist stereotype imagery. (You can find it on YouTube.)
I have visited Disneyland in California twice and Walt Disney World in Florida three times, so I have had ample opportunity to be made aware of the strong Caucasian influences that pervade the theme parks as well. It’s a feeling, a certain ambience, if you will, maybe it’s just because I am more attuned to it. For example, there is an attraction there called Imagination. Tourists ride through a tunnel in cars, just like many of the other rides, and they give you a silly, repetitious song about “use your imagination…” and imagination this and imagination that. But here’s the thing. The entire decor from beginning to end is done all in solid white! There are all different kinds of patterns, designs and shapes, but everything is white, just the same. They sure didn’t use much imagination when they were picking out the paint and the color scheme for the thing! I mean, why all white? You know, using many different colors on that ride would have worked just as well. Paint costs the same no matter what color you choose. Now, am I being overly-paranoid, or are the Disney people trying, however subtly, to tell us something? It couldn’t be just coincidental.
The underlying message that I get from that is that as long as you are white, you can do anything you want to do. And that is how many of them still think anyway. It’s subliminal racism, in my opinion. In contrast, the Imagination ad for Kodak during one of the attractions at the Disneyland Park in France takes another approach. It is a series of Kodak moment scenes. Along with the obligatory white representation, one depicts a little black boy playing with his dog, and another shows a little Asian girl in a home setting. So at least Kodak and the European executives have used their imagination by utilizing some racial diversity in their commercial ads, unlike here in America. In all fairness, though, since it’s been 28 years since I was last at Walt Disney World, I suppose it is possible that they might have gotten with the times by now and updated their prior approach.
In defense of my use of racial situations taken from literature, movies and TV, I consider them valid examples, due to the fact that even fiction is based on truth and reality, and cinematic art is, after all, a reflection of real life. No one can be expected to experience every place and culture outside one’s own during the course of a lifetime, so we have movies and books to illustrate these things. If not totally realistic at all times, there is always some validity in their depiction of life. Remember that even when something is unrealistic, there is an underlying reason for it. At least it is representative of a certain mindset by the scriptwriters and directors. As I illustrated with the Disney films, they must find some credibility in those situations for them to write about them. So when someone tells me, “It’s only a movie,” I counter with, ‘Yeah, but somebody thought it up, didn’t they?’ The dialogue uttered and the actions depicted are always from someone’s deliberate consciousness. In other related blogs I have set out to educate and create awareness about racism and other social issues that you may be oblivious to or otherwise take for granted.
You know, with the recent controversy about The Interview, I find it interesting that, to my knowledge, nobody has ever threatened the Disney Studios with terrorist aggression for making all those racist movies that I just cited. But even if someone actually did at any time, their protests were apparently ignored, because we still have all of these films at our disposal. It appears that nowadays the general public is not so tolerant about things that were accepted in the past, and that’s a good thing in many respects. But they have taken it too far the other way now. Today one can hardly do or say anything without it being scrutinized and criticized. Those people need to lighten up a bit, get a sense of humor, not take everything so seriously.
[Related articles: Black History, Parts 1-5; Cinematic Pros and Cons; Color Issues; Some Racial Observations and Assessments; Stereotyping and Profiling, Racial and Otherwise]