Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Racism in Disney Films

The Portrayal of AAVE and African-American Speakers in Disney Films
by Adam Holwerda

For the second data collection project I chose to watch three Disney feature films and analyze the dialect spoken by a variety of characters. The three Disney films I viewed were The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and Fox and the Hound. I’m going to start my analysis with The Jungle Book, which was the first film I viewed.

The Jungle Book is mostly made up of speakers of the British dialect, with a couple American speakers sprinkled in. The only character who is voiced by a genuine African American is King Louie, the orangutan, leader of all the jungle’s monkeys. This is interesting for many reasons - first, it’s interesting that the only African American voice is for an ape who makes it clear that being a monkey isn’t enough - he wants to be human. Many have taken this as a direct corollary to the position of the black man in the United States during the time the film was made - 1967, when civil rights movements were still very much alive.

AAVE is utilized not just by Louie, but also by his monkey entourage, although it’s not clear whether those speakers are actually African American or not - most likely they are white speakers using AAVE to help bring them to the level of King Louie’s dialect. The monkeys, I might add, are portrayed as sneaky, mischievous kidnapping deviants. The movie also makes a point about the monkeys’ intelligence. For example, at one point King Louie says, “Have two bananas,” to Mowgli while holding up three fingers. It is not clear if this is meant to be a racist view of African American intelligence, but given the circumstances it can surely be taken that way. Also, King Louie and his monkey entourage often speak in jibberish, mixing in English phrases every few seconds. For example, in one scene King Louie is sitting on his throne, and he sings:

“Scobby doo hooby dees heebo does zub diddly ub doody moy. Wanna be a man man mon mon lorang worang utang utang.”

Following this, King Louie begins to sing a song to Mowgli.

“I wanna be a man, man-cub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I’m tired of monkeyin’ around.
Oh oobee doo!
I wanna be like you hoo hoo!
I wanna walk like you,
talk like you,
You see it’s true,
an ape like me
can learn to be
human too.”

Later in the scene, when Baloo the bear decides to infiltrate the monkey ranks, he shows up dressed as a monkey and sings:

“Da-zaap bon-ronee
Hap ba-dee dee-lap-da-non
Doot zaba-doo-dee-day
Doo-bam doo-boo-bee-bay
Bo-bom, za-ba-pa-panney!”

And, having proved his monkeyness by participating in their nonsense “language”, Baloo proceeds to have a jazz scat call-and-response-style conversation with King Louie - in the same “language.”

Louie: Abba-do-dee?
Baloo: With a reep-bon-naza!
Louie: Eh ba-daba doy
Baloo: Well-a-la-ba zini
Louie: War-la-bop, boor-la-bop
Baloo: See-ble-bop, dooney
Louie: Ooh, ooh, ooh!

The implications of this example are vast. If we equate the dialect the monkeys speak to AAVE, it shows the racism in the perception of what AAVE sounds like in its native location. In essence, the example illustrates the prejudice many white “standard” English speakers have against “black” English, as many believe it is unintelligible jibberish just like the kind the monkeys deliver in The Jungle Book.

Elsewhere in The Jungle Book, there are no other users of AAVE. And though the film is set in the jungles of India, per Rudyard Kipling’s original story, no one speaks Hindu or has any sort of eastern accent. All of the quadrupedal characters speak British English, and the only characters portrayed as particularly stupid, Baloo and the Vultures, use non-standard versions of the languages they represent, both having to do with lower classes.

The second movie I watched was Dumbo, one of the other movies my childhood memories picked out as having some kind of racist motive. So I picked it up and watched it. And was surprised to find, not ten minutes in, a very unexpected racist display. A circus train has just stopped, and the animals are getting off - the site of a new circus has been found. And then, a multitude of faceless muscular coal-colored black men pile out of a boxcar and begin pounding tent stakes into the ground. As they work, they sing a song.

”Hike, ugh, hike, ugh hike, ugh, hike
We work all day We work all night
We never learned to read or write
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts
Hike, ugh, hike, ugh hike, ugh, hike
When other folks have gone to bed
We slave until we're almost dead
We're happy-hearted roustabouts
Hike, ugh, hike, ugh hike, ugh, hike
We don't know when we get our pay
And when we do we throw our pay away
When we get our pay we throw our money all away”

In case it is not clear why the song sung by these faceless black men is of any importance, take note of the references to slavery in the second, third, and seventh lines - while the one in the seventh is the most severe. Also, it portrays these big black “slaves” as “happy-hearted roustabouts,” content in their place - as beasts of burden, animals. The last three lines reinforce quite savagely the portrayal of the intelligence of these men. They’re not smart enough to know to keep money, and spend it on frivolous things - alcohol, perhaps, or women - although that assumption may be going too far. What we do know is that they are still working, because they have no money, and because they are happy to work. We also know that the man they work for is the Ringmaster, a white fat man who carries a whip. Whether these were all incidental details or intentional ones, this scene still sticks out in my mind as one of the most deplorably racist scenes in any childrens’ media.

The interesting thing about this song is not that it is overtly racist, but that it is routinely passed over by scholars seeking racism in the film in favor of the crows that show up later in the movie. This may be perhaps because the song is partly lost in the thunderstorm the workers work in, and perhaps also because the singers seem to use “standard” American English in their lyrics, except for the “hike, ugh, hike, ugh,” lines interspersed.

The crows, who show up near the climax of the film, as Dumbo starts to understand his giant ears help him fly, are black, dressed in 1920’s Harlem Renaissance garb, and speak the part.

"Uh, what's all the rookus? C'mon, step aside brothuhs, uh, what's cookin' around heah? What new? What fryin', boys?”

This is the line of Dandy the Crow, or Jim as he’s sometimes called, as he scatters his brother crows to take a look at the elephant perched on the high tree branch (a feat achieved by Dumbo through a night of drunken hallucinations and a Fantasia-like musical number.) Now, what follows is a musical number in which the crows sing a song including the lyrics, “I be done seen ‘bout ever’thing, when I see an elephant fly.” The grammar usage in that particular phrase isn’t one most Americans would consider especially proper or correct, although it might have been for the group of blacks represented as crows.

The interesting thing about the crows in Dumbo is that they don’t seem to be caricatures of black people, but rather characters. This is illustrated clearly simply in the fact that there are five of them, and each one is different - physically, personality-wise, and voice-wise. If the crows were to be represented as caricatures, they would all look pretty much the same and would act the same too - just as the monkeys in The Jungle Book do. Not only that, but they prove they’re characters by simple virtue of their actions. At first mischievous and insulting, the crows are then berated by Timothy the mouse and finally see what they’ve done to Dumbo. And they shed tears over him, and they then become his friend - and an instrumental part of his learning to fly. They’re portrayed positively, and don’t seem to fall into any stereotypes other than their looks and their speech. In comparing the crows in Dumbo to the monkeys in The Jungle Book, it’s interesting to note that the racist stereotypes are more prevalent in The Jungle Book, a film that came out some 26 years later than Dumbo, which was released in 1941. However, the scene involving the black circus “slaves” is probably more offensive but just less visible than the scene in The Jungle Book with King Louie.

The final movie I watched was probably the least helpful in the creation of this project, although it had its merits. The Fox and The Hound, which was released in 1981, is the story of a young fox and a young dog that become friends but later have to exist as mortal enemies....yeah, yeah, you know the drill. There is a speaker of AAVE in this film, although the AAVE used is a much more watered down version than I saw in either of the other two films. Big Mama, an owl, is voiced by Pearl Bailey, and is the only other real AAVE speaker in any Disney film since (not including The Incredibles, which is Pixar after the Disney/Pixar separation). Perhaps the only real point I can make about Big Mama is in comparison to the other two movies that I watched.
Big Mama is portrayed positively, almost saintly, as she seems to always be doting on the young fox, Tod, even so much as to match him up with a female fox toward the end of the film. She also has dialogue with two other birds who, while sharing a lot of screen time, don’t actually end up having anything to do with any of the film. Her “black” speech is watered down, but you can catch a lot of the differences in her speech from the “standard” white speech of Tod, Copper, and Widow Tweed, and the fact that she’s being played by a black voice actress is not lost.

The point I was going to make about Big Mama is that she seems to be almost too perfect a character. Virtuous in every way, always patient and kind, never angry or sad or selfish (or even aware of any kind of self-interest), always wise and dignified. In fact, she’s not really a character at all, but a cardboard cutout of an angel. Cupid, if you will. Compared to the other characters voiced by black actors in the other two films, she’s a glittering idol of what portrayals of “black” characters “should be.” A way for an industry previously ridiculed for its treatment of black characters to dodge all criticism and deny all intentions of harm.

Trouble is, this idea is extremely flawed. When, as a filmmaker, you have a black character, and water down their natural speech to make it sound more “standard,” and give them lines that make them smarter than other characters, and portray them in a way you’d never portray a hero or heroine - as a pillar of virtue - your black character never has a chance to become anyone of any importance. A guardian angel, a watchful friend. But not a hero, and most definitely not a villain. This “character” you’ve created has no motivation. He has no will, no heritage, no way to break out of the box you’ve painted him into. He ceases to be a character, after all, and becomes simple scenery.

In effect, The Fox and The Hound is an example of racism simply because it so clearly isn’t. In reaching to avoid all criticisms, the portrayal of Big Mama as a progressive one, in accordance with black “point of view,” becomes one that is completely false, but perhaps in the opposite direction. But does it matter? If the symbol of a group of people portrays that group incorrectly, isn’t that racism? I say it is.

That is why I believe the crows in Dumbo, the film released in 1941, are the best non-racist example of blacks alive in Disney films today. Their language is authentic, their personalities differ, and they operate under the rules that govern what it is to be a “character.” They have faults, display empathy, and are self-motivated.

Based on the language of the AAVE speakers in the three Disney films I watched, I uncovered deep racial themes and stereotypes, and was able to piece together a pattern of the portrayal of black characters in Disney films through time through their speech, starting with the WWII era film, Dumbo. And I hope you enjoyed reading my findings as much as I enjoyed doing this project.

NOTE: The posting of this paper is as much for you to see how interesting the topic I chose ended up being as it is for you to see how good of a paper I wrote, so that I can tell you what grade I get on it later. If it's a bad grade, I don't know what else I could have done.


Anonymous sara said...

good one bro. i might have re-arranged the presentation of the three movies to end with the most relevant one as per your conclusion. You also should have mentioned Jin Crow as a racist slur...so even if the crows were Characters, not caracitures, they were still built off the jim crwo stereotype ev en so far as to use the same name.

next topic, sexual inuendo in disney films. or even sexism. i think it's facinating the stuff that slips into childrens media. like brainwashing.

love you

11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very interesting paper!

just one little thing -
the lyric is technically " “I be done seen ‘bout ever’thing, when I see a elephant fly.” no "an elephant fly."

11:47 AM  
Blogger Supermouse said...

Hi, I'm a random internet stranger...

I was just singing along to Bear Necessities when the monkeys scene occurred to me as being at the very least dodgy and distasteful - I found this article by a search for 'Jungle Book, racism'. It was fascinating reading, thank you. Well written and thought provoking.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

...I am currently working on a similar topic... thanks for the input! But: Isn't the speaker of king Louie an Italian-American called Louis Prima?

2:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jungle book is quite racist, nobody mentioned when mowgli was first abducted by the black talkin monkey, Baloo calls him a flat nosed , something eyed, flakey, something arather. How you gonna call a monkey flakey (ashey same thing). Also that one elephant in the patrol is obviosly stoned to the bone and has the munchies, seriously folks.

4:50 PM  

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