Walt Disney and the Dumbo problem

On 12 November 2019, Walt Disney will launch its online streaming service Disney+ in the USA, with other markets scheduled to follow soon afterwards. The new service will offer viewers a one-stop shop for the company’s long history of film and television productions, as well as those of companies now purchased or absorbed by the entertainment giant in recent years including those of the Muppets, the Pixar Animation Studio, Lucasfilm Ltd, 20th Century Fox, and Marvel Studios. One Disney production that will remain resolutely out of public view, however, is the studio’s notorious 1946 Song of the South. Directed by Wilfred Jackson, this live-action/animated blend generated controversy on its release for its depiction of African-American history and culture, including stereotypical and racist portrayals of black people in 19th century America and its unclear historical setting that implied black slaves may have been satisfied with their lot at the time. Disney stopped distributing the film on home media in the early 1990s and has not since re-released it on any format.

This decision is predictable but unfortunate. The erasure of the evidence of racism does not prevent racism, and within a historical context Song of the South is a milestone of both American animation and the representation of African Americans in cinema. Indeed its star James Baskett was the first-ever male African-American actor to win an Academy Award (Hattie McDaniel was the first woman, for Gone With the Wind in 1939). Any sort of limited release, either online or on physical media, accompanied by an introduction providing cultural and historical context, would be preferable to the current embargo.

More surprising was the announcement by the company that the Disney+ release of the 1941 animated feature Dumbo would also be affected, with a key sequence excised from the online edition of the movie. A recent article by The Guardian noted that ‘the Jim Crow scene from Dumbo (1941) will also not be available on the streaming site. In the original animated version of the film a murder of cigar-smoking crows had a leader called Jim Crow – the Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the south – and are largely considered to be thinly veiled racist caricatures.’ Not releasing a film at all is frustrating, but actively transforming a pre-existing film for release is far more problematic. As a viewer and fan of Walt Disney animation, I find the continued censorship of Song of South annoying. I find the editing of Dumbo to be unacceptable. Here are five reasons why.

The preservation of history

I believe films, like most art, should largely exist as fixed texts. Once released to a public audience, a film’s theatrical edit should remain fixed and available to that audience. While filmmakers may wish to return to that film and re-edit it, that additional revised version should not replace the original release. For example, while there are subsequent director’s cuts and extended editions of Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, The Thin Red Line, and all number of alternate versions, the original and most widely distributed editions remain available. The theatrical cut of Dumbo has been available for almost 80 years; making it unavailable while an edited-down alternate is released denies audiences the opportunity to see the original text. Furthermore, it’s Dumbo for goodness sake. It is one of the most significant feature films in the history of American cinema. There are some things with which we should not meddle.

The ownership of racism

The depiction of the crows is a racist one – that cannot be reasonably denied. They are performed with most of the hallmarks of pre-existing ‘yes masser’ stereotypes, and their design reflects earlier cruel depictions of African Americans in early animated shorts. This in mind, it still feels a poor choice to excise them from the work. One does not confront or learn from racism by hiding it: Warner Bros has had considerable success re-releasing old animated shorts with far more overtly racist elements, and these re-releases were accompanied by text descriptions or video introductions by the likes of Leonard Maltin or Whoopi Goldberg advising of the racist content and contextualising them in Hollywood history. This tactic, by far my preferred option in these cases, educates rather than hides. The contemporary audience can actually learn something.

Respect for artists

The supervising director of Dumbo was Ben Sharpsteen, who died in 1980. The sequence directors were Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, and Samuel Armstrong – all of whom are also deceased, as are writers Otto Englander, Joe Grant, and Dick Huemer. There is literally nobody left alive who made Dumbo that can give any kind of approval on the creative side to cut the crows out. It does not in any way remove Disney’s right to excise the relevant segments of the film, but it does absolutely make it a censorship decision and not a creative one.

It’s complicated

As I noted earlier, the racism of Dumbo‘s crows is far from Hollywood animation at its worst. They are a complicated set of characters: they certainly have the look and delivery of racist caricatures, but there also the only characters in the film outside of Timothy the Mouse who actually support and believe in Dumbo. They do not mock him cruelly, and they are the ones who support his ability to fly. They also sing the film’s most famous musical number. They appear negative, but perform positively. In a sense, and as the saying goes, removing the crows throws out the baby with the bathwater.

The film won’t make sense

And here’s the kicker: the crows appear in the most critical scene of the film. It is here that Dumbo learns that he can fly. He receives one of the crow feathers as a gift, and Timothy declares it a ‘magic’ feather that will give Dumbo his powers of flight. Without this scene in the film, the narrative shift abruptly from Dumbo and Timothy accidentally getting drunk on champagne to Dumbo flying in the circus tent during a clown performance. Events no longer make sense and the narrative is ruined. So badly would the edit destroy the film, it would honestly be preferable to keep the entire production in the vault next to Song of the South – and that would be truly untenable.

I recognise that Dumbo presents a problem for a race-sensitive current-day Disney, and I also recognise many may find the crows actively unpleasant and hurtful to watch, but no one ever fixed a problem by hiding from it. For this viewer the educational opportunities in challenging racism outweigh the easier fix of simply removing the racist material. I hope Disney reconsiders its currently announced plan, for the sake of honesty, history, and the chance to actively engage in a dialogue with its present-day audience.

One thought on “Walt Disney and the Dumbo problem

  1. I’m not 100% sure that I ever saw Dumbo rather than reading an adaptation, and in either event, that was nearly 50 years ago – but even so, I still remember a crow explaining to Timothy that they used the ‘magic feather’ when teaching their fledglings to fly, and that it was this that gave Dumbo confidence, and that he later drops it and has to be told that he doesn’t really need it.

    If you take out the magic feather, not only do you remove an important dramatic element and possible teaching tool for parents, wouldn’t that’d leave the impression that the way to learn to fly is by getting drunk?

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