That Movie Book – Week Five

I was so excited about this week’s theme. I had been looking forward to it all week, and even tried to explain my excitement to my new coworkers. I think I came across more as weird than enthusiastic, but live and learn.

This week’s theme was “A Weekend With Walt Disney’s Most Racist Characters”. Now I knew that Walt Disney was a bit of a racist guy, so I was interested to see which films made the cut. It was then that I realised that I hadn’t actually seen that many Disney movies when I was a kid. I strongly remember watching Robin Hood (the one where they’re all animals) a lot, and can vaguely recall a few others, but most well known Disney Films weren’t that popular in my childhood. Because of this I was super excited to watch some but was also lacking in planning, so the films we wanted to watch hadn’t downloaded by the time we wanted to watch them and we had to be a bit inventive.
The first on the list was Dumbo, because it was the easiest to quickly obtain. The story’s pretty straightforward: A baby elephant gets delivered by a stork to a circus elephant. Baby has really big ears, so is mocked by the other elephants and also circus visitors. Mum elephant tries to protect him and gets put in isolation, so baby elephant is lonely. A circus mouse tries to help him gain popularity so people will stop teasing him. He realises baby elephant can fly with those big ol’ ears, and they make a lot of money for the circus and everyone loves him. The End.
It was an ok movie. I mean there’s not much that could go wrong with it. I distinctly remembered the scene where Dumbo was a clown in the burning building, but I didn’t remember anything else from it. Apart from the Pink Elephants. Oh God those pink elephants. I think my brain rationalised them in the past that they were Heffalumps from a Pooh nightmare. It makes much more sense than a crazy interlude where you have crazy pink elephants that get smashed into multiple, smaller elephants that get squished into more elephants. Then one turns into a snake, then a belly dancing elephant, then two elephants again that set themselves on fire or something. Who the hell thought that would be a good thing to put into the middle of a children’s movie!? The trailer calls it “the most delightful Disney sequence you’ve ever seen”. I beg to differ.

It was suggested this week mainly because of the very obviously black crows. Ben and I both felt that it wasn’t that bad a representation, especially seeing the era the film was made. What was more offensive to us where the black guys setting up the circus tent. The ones that the animators decided to not bother with giving them faces. The whole scene made me a bit angry, because they had no faces, were shown working alongside elephants (doing what an animal could do, nothing more) and singing about how much they like workin’ hard for the circus. I don’t know if my viewing of that was coloured by the fact I was watching specifically racist movies, but I like to think I would have been disturbed by that even if I was coming to it normally. They gave all the animals more expressions than the black guys. The train had a face. But I guess black guys didn’t matter as much as the circus animals. Ugh.

Film number two was Song of the South. Black Dude tells stories that have fairly obvious morals about animals that live in a fictitious world . Tells them to young children, one of whom is the grandson of the plantation owner that the Black Dude lives on. I think the mother of the kid forbids him from spending time with the Black Dude after a while, but don’t quote me on that. The fact that Americans can’t buy or rent it made me intrigued, so I was eager to watch it. Also I remember going on Splash Mountain when I was a kid and seeing the Brer Rabbit and Brer fox on that so it would be interesting to see them in their original context.

This made me really uncomfortable to watch. First up it was boring and the acting wasn’t great in a way that seemed fairly common of Disney movies from that era. But the fact that all the black people where singing about how great it is to live as slaves kinda soured any positives I had. We’re also pretty sure Uncle Remus was blacked up to be darker, and the lighting of scenes made it so that all you could see were his teeth and eyes. It was pretty creepy. We watched it through the first of the Brer stories and had to turn it off. We kept going “but that wouldn’t have happened at all” or “that’s not how plantations worked” and feeling really disconcerted and not engaged enough to tough it out and watch to the end. I can see why it’s not freely available and don’t understand how people can look at it and think it’s not racist. Blows my mind.

I probably should have realised this, but watching racist movies makes me uncomfortable and feel bad for being in a fairly privileged position in society. I guess I didn’t think that through when I read what this theme would be.

Other racist films that we were recommended were Aladdin (Jafar looks distinctly more ethnic than good ol’ Al), Rescuers Down Under (the villain is a bit darker than the protagonists – stretching it a bit there?) and Peter Pan (red skinned Injuns). I downloaded them all, so I might end up watching the rest of them. However we want to watch all 5 films for the next theme, so that might take up weeknights as well to fit them all in.

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