It is no secret even among the most devoted of fans that Disney has a race problem. It is unsurprising, given that is was founded by a white, mid-western American man who was steeped in the values of his time. In addition, the Disney corporation flourished in the United States which has been built (quite literally) on the benefits of racism and the control of people of color. The facts are not debatable. They are empirical fact. Disney animation was a studio of white men, who told white stories with white characters, for white audiences. They did it well and made a lot of money doing it. If people of color appeared at all they were villains, caricatures, or comic relief.
We all know this. We tolerate it in older films because, that was just the way of things. Yes, the crows in “Dumbo” are racist caricatures, but they actually have the best song in the whole movie. it is best to avoid conversation around Native American representation in “Peter Pan” altogether. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that Disney started producing films with diverse casts. “Aladdin”, “Mulan”, “Pocahontas”, “The Emperor’s New Groove”, all featured animated characters of other races, though not necessarily diverse voice cast members. They also, for the most part, had white writers, directors, and animators. There were some bright spots in this era of Disney movies, but they were the exception. “The Lion King”, Disney’s one and only movie set in Africa and one of their most successful, featured animals instead of people, the lead character was voiced by white actors, and the soundtrack was written primarily by a white man with little to no actual African influences at all.
With the launch of Disney’s new CGI animated features, there has been a return to pattern. “Tangled”,”Wreck it Ralph” and “Frozen” are devoid of characters of color. Since then, Disney has responded to increasing calls to make their movies, ‘more inclusive’ by including random characters of color in minor roles. Most recently Captain Mattias in “Frozen II”. This feels exactly like what it is. A character with no real agency put in for optics. The addition of the Northuldra tribe is a much better inclusion. Not only are they based on the actual indigenous people of Scandinavian areas, they are key to the entire plot of the movie. I would like to say that Disney is learning, but I am still skeptical that they really understand the point of inclusion. This whole discussion, of course, leaves out Disney’s most controversial race based movie ever, “Song of the South”. This is where this blog entry is going to get very long. So settle in for the long haul or bail here.
“Song of the South” is a whole big ball of racist trouble and Disney knows it. They have locked it in the Disney vault with the intention of never letting it see the light of day. It’s depiction of the post war south is Confederate propaganda at best. The racism is obvious enough that it was called out as early as 1946 when the film was released. It has been called “one of Hollywood’s resiliently offensive texts” and “a nostalgic valentine to a past that never existed”. So, why are we still talking about it? A couple of reasons.
First, the music of “Song of the South” is good. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is not only a Disney classic, it is an Academy Award winner, and one of the American Film Institutes 100 best song in American cinema. There are people who know this song, who not only haven’t seen the movie but don’t even know it exists. However, as long as the song exists, people will ask the questions, “What’s that from?” Which is inevitably followed by, “Why haven’t I seen it?”
Second, “Song of the South”, with all it’s problems is the only adaptation of the folk tales of the enslaved people of the Antebellum South besides the Uncle Remus books. If it wasn’t for the work of Joel Chandler Harris, the white man who collected the stories, it is likely that these tales would have been lost to time. Like most oral histories, they fade from memory if not collected and written down. Harris’ own story is convoluted and his work was held up in his time by African Americans who valued the work he did. He was also condemned by white contemporaries for wasting his time. No one but Disney has ever put these stories forward outside their books. They are, in point of fact, the only uniquely Black stories Disney has ever told in its 92 year history. There is value to that. Scholars have compared the stories to Aesop’s Fables, but they have none of the cultural knowledge or acceptance. Those stories are more than the movie they are in and somehow need to be redeemed from it, told in an appropriate format, and given pride of place in the very small canon of non-native American folklore.
Finally, of course, we have Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain is Disney’s first and most classic water ride. It is a must ride at at least two of the three parks where it is built (I cannot speak to its popularity in Tokyo), especially in the warmer months. It is worth a FastPass to avoid the very long lines. People love it. It is beautifully crafted and uses all the best parts of “Song of the South”, namely the cartoon characters and the music. This ride is solely responsible for at least two generation’s knowledge of Bre’r Rabbit and friends. Changing it for any reason would bring uproar and then backlash. We are, as Disney fans, invested in nostalgia and tradition. Probably much more than we should be. In addition, changing a major Disney ride is no small feat. When Space Mountain was gutted and completely refurbished it was closed for more than two years, causing many guests (myself included) to feel robbed of a classic experience. Add that to the fact that the ride is the only way to cool down on a hot day, and there will be complaints that have nothing to do with the theme, only the inconvenience.
So, yes. Disney has a problem with systematic racism and a portion of it is us. As fans, we need to be able hold them accountable. This will mean losing some of the things we have grown to love and supporting them while they are making hard choices. It may mean that we lose something in the process, but we have to know that what we gain will be better. Not only for our sisters and brothers of color, but for us, and our world.
Literally minutes before this was scheduled to be published, Disney Parks Imagineering announced the rethemeing of Splash Mountain. The as yet untitled ride will be based on “The Princess and the Frog” and has been in the works for a year! It will mark several firsts. The first attraction to feature a character of color and the first major attraction to feature a woman. (Yes, I know about Snow White’s Scary Adventure and Frozen Ever After but neither could be considered major attractions). As I predicted when I wrote this, the backlash has already begun. Cries of “You’re ruining the parks!” and “Why do you cave in to social pressure” have popped up on the internet feeds. I would encourage you to support Disney in this. It is a big change to commit to. It will be a beautiful ride when finished, it is a natural fit for the space, and hopefully it will be a herald of things to come.
Artwork from the Disney Parks blog. All copyrights belong to Disney.