When Childhood Classics Aren’t Innocent, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

A reader takes the thread into the 21st century:

I thought I’d add to the discussion a bafflingly homophobic portrayal in a far more recent film: School of Rock. The “gay” (well, gender non-conforming) kid in that movie was ridiculed and undermined at every turn. His love of Liza Minelli – an extremely lazy joke – was presented as a mark of bad taste by Jack Black’s character, the hero of the film. All the other kids “get” rock, while the sad gay kid doesn’t. In the end, the costumes he creates (because naturally, right?) are summarily ditched in favor of the school uniforms. The kid is the only one in the movie who is not redeemed or transformed by his experience in the band.

I remember coming out of that movie thinking the filmmakers would be embarrassed by this portrayal in a decade or so. I hope they are.

Another circles back:

Your reader who recalled Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis, Jr. impression may have forgotten that Crystal reprised the role when he hosted the Oscars in 2012. Did he get away with it? That depends who you ask: there were certainly many who expressed offense. On the other hand, Davis’ daughter defended Crystal. I think it’s plausible to argue that there’s a reasonable distinction to be made between blackface that is a generalized portrayal of a race and by definition insulting, and the portrayal of a specific person by a person who isn’t of the same ethnicity (or gender – was Will Farrell’s Janet Reno out-of-bounds?).

Anyway, as a fan of old movies who has been occasionally floored by the horrifyingly casual racism often found in them (the already mentioned Breakfast at Tiffany’s being the best example of this in my experience), I’ve enjoyed following this thread.

Another adds, “The reader who brought up Billy Crystal playing Sammy Davis Jr. 30 years ago probably hasn’t seen Robert Downey Jr. in the 2008 movie Tropic Thunder“:


Your reader is incorrect in writing that Billy Crystal wearing black makeup to play Sammy Davis, Jr. would never get away with it today. Fred Armisen wore black makeup to play Senator and then President Obama on Saturday Night Live from 2008 through the 2012-13 season.  After some initial criticism, which was largely based on a why an African-American actor was not playing Obama, no one seemed to care.

Another returns to the theme of childhood classics:

Having grown up in Wisconsin, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic series to my young daughter and discovered numerous passages that challenged me to stop reading, skip over, or explain. First, and astonishingly, Pa and Ma built the “Little House on the Prairie” in Indian Territory with the explicit intent of forcing the U.S. Army at Fort Gibson and Fort Dodge to expel the natives in favor of the white settlers. Then there is Ma’s constant racism and hatred of the Indians. And a schoolteacher whipping a child, Willie Oleson. And a fire-and-brimstone sermon threatening all with everlasting torture. And, in what must be one of the most amazing passages in children’s literature, Pa’s blackface minstrel show presented to the fulsome delight of the town and his family, singing:

Oh talk about your Mulligan Guards!
These darkies can’t be beat!
We march in time and cut a shine!
Just watch these darkies’ feet!

Throughout all this, I decided to read the text as written and answer any questions as they came. These episodes are offset by the deathly sick Ingalls family being saved by a black doctor, by Laura’s laughter at the sermon, by the individual and collective dignity of the Indians, and by the matter-of-fact truthfulness that all this was really a part of Laura’s world. But I drew the line at showing this illustration of Pa in blackface:

image (3)

One more reader:

I’d like to offer a limited defense of Dumbo’s crows. No one should dismiss genuine hurt, even if the filmmakers achieve it by ignorance and carelessness rather than malice. Privileged white filmmakers, particularly those working for Walt Disney, do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.

But I do think the depiction of the crows in Dumbo is more complicated. These are highly sympathetic characters. They are smart – much smarter than the childish Dumbo, smarter than the “bad” elephants and circus-master, and even smarter than wisecracking Timothy J. Mouse. It is the crows after all who devise the “magic feather” that allows Dumbo to realize his potential. It is not at all a coincidence that Dumbo, who has been judged by his appearance, consistently terrorized and humiliated, and separated from his only source of genuine love can only find true allies at society’s margins – these put-upon black crows understand his plight all too well. At the film’s finale Dumbo is flying triumphantly with these crows – his friends and most trusted supporters.

They are of course explicitly coded as African-American. It is painfully clumsy at times (but no clumsier than the revered “Porgy and Bess”). Their musical number is not minstrelsy but a fairly faithful song in the style of popular black acts like The Mills Brothers. The singers are African-American – Hall Johnson’s Chorus – and they perform earnestly, not mocking the style. The crows are a bit silly during the song (it is a children’s film) but none of the humor has any racial logic like the awful Native-American sequence in Peter Pan. The worst aspect is the dialect, which is clearly written by writers unfamiliar (or uninterested) with the way black people actually speak.

I think parents showing this film to kids need to spotlight the depiction and explain how it misses the mark. But I think we deprive today’s kids by censoring the film outright. A film ultimately about love and understanding of those who look different than us is too rare to abandon.