Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

Well, here we are. Four movies in, and it's now time to talk about the elephant in the room. No, not that one. Well, yes that one, but the other one too.

Many people remember the black crows in Dumbo, distinctly depicted by many Black stereotypes: jive talk, incessant smoking, their clothing style. While the first black voice actors used in a Disney animated film provide voices for most of the crows, the leader of the flock, nicknamed "Jim Crow" during production, was voiced by a white actor. Talk about a double slap in the face.

Controversial as they may be, the crows also happen to have the best musical number in the film ("When I Seen an Elephant Fly" -- see clip). And while at first they are quite skeptical, after some convincing from Timothy, they rally around Dumbo and encourage him to fly. Generally their characters are seen positively in this film. But does that really make up for the obvious stereotypes used here?

Personally, I think the crows bother me less because of another example of racial stereotyping in Dumbo that happens earlier in the film. In "The Song of the Roustabouts," faceless black men are seen setting up the circus tent alongside Dumbo and the other elephants. The lyrics include:

We work all day, we work all night
We never learned to read or write
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts

We don’t know when we get our pay
And when we do, we throw our pay away

We get our pay when children say
With happy hearts, "It’s circus day today"

I wonder if this would have even caught my attention if I hadn't had the subtitles on while watching the movie. (In the featurette on the DVD, there was not one mention of this scene!)

What irks me the most is that the men's faces are not even drawn. They have large, smooth shadowy bodies - making them appear much more similar to the animals they work alongside. Their harsh working conditions and lack of dependable wages have a all-too- familiar echo, and yet they sing about how happy and content they are. What could Disney have been trying to communicate by including this scene in the film? Was it an embarrassing attempt of pretending that it really was okay to treat blacks just like animals? That they in fact enjoyed it? Perhaps they figured that we wouldn't notice or care so much, since the focus of the scene still remains on Dumbo with his mother. With other controversies in Disney films relating to racism resulting in edits, cutting scenes, or flat-out censorship (Song of the South ring a bell?), I wonder why this scene was kept in.

It's likely that we call more attention and critique to racism present in Disney films because of their timelessness. No doubt other films produced in the 1940s portrayed similar stereotypes, but what other movies from that era are still watched as widely as Dumbo today? In this film is preserved some of what we would perhaps like to forget in regard to history's attitude towards race. Still, throughout Disney films, even more current classics, racial stereotyping continues to exist. Could this be related to the types of people who continue to dominate in the animation industry? (We have yet to see a Disney or Pixar movie not directed by a white man. Note: I haven't actually verified that, but I'm pretty sure it's true. Someone feel free to correct me.)

People may proclaim that "Disney is racist" and because of that one should never watch any Disney movies, especially not ones including such overt examples like Dumbo. I disagree. These movies may include controversial and offensive content, but they are not wholly evil. Just looking at the first few movies I've written about, there are still redemptive messages being told. Also, too often we Christians are quick to condemn culture, not taking the time to use it as a teaching moment or an opportunity for dialogue, or to appreciate what value they do possess.

The discussion about racism in Disney films has only begun. Let's be civil, but let's be honest. What are your thoughts about these scenes and characters in Dumbo? Do you think the presence of racial stereotypes should result in choosing not to watch these movies at all? How have you handled this situation with your kids?


  1. Wow Laura. You're always so insightful. It's funny because as a kid (who spent a few years in the South) I never noticed there were racial stereotypes in this movie, but I also haven't watched it since I was 10.

    It's interesting how many dots we connect as adults that didn't make sense as children. I feel like it's subtle enough that I never noticed it, but I wonder if I could handle it as an adult - noticing the problems....

  2. I never would have even thoughts about this, also prolly because I was so young last time I saw it. I love the realness of what you say, that we as Christians can still teach and learn even with something offensive. We don't have to condone in it, but we also don't need to condemn the movie. I want to rewatch the whole movie now.