“Mom why are they all black?” My oldest daughter said with a confused and concerned tone. “Not brown like us but just all black, and no faces?”
The 1941 version of Dumbo in its day was an animation masterpiece. A feature length film with talking animals. Today we can see it for all its flaws. From questionable lyrics, to racist crows. Dumbo comes with a lot of baggage.
My daughter’s question started a discussion about animation, technology and even our country’s racist history. It’s not new to her. It’s a topic we’ve talked about many many times. Whether during homeschool, during our tour through the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. or while reading various books. We talked about how there wasn’t much diversity in movies in the 1940s, and when people who looked like us were in movies they weren’t always depicted nicely.
I get some people who ask me how we as a “Disney family” either 1. Can watch these old movies with racist undertones or 2. How I discuss them with my kids.
The post I had planned to write today was a review of the new live action Dumbo. But screw it. Let’s get a little dirty. This is important and something I’d love to chat with you about.
Wait, Dumbo is racist?
So first off, if you wandered in here and are thinking “Dumbo is racist? What?!” And are feeling a little sheepish right now, don’t. It’s ok, you’re reading this and taking the time to learn and that’s what’s important. What we are willing to do now. Not forever being ridiculed for our ignorance of the past.
Also, honestly, growing up I was clueless too. Not that Dumbo was on our most-played list or anything. But I was either bored with it, confused by it, or more in awe of seeing babies come from storks than anything else as a kid.
As an adult I was more clued into the racist undertones but since this movie wasn’t on our regular rotation it was more thanks to articles. For instance I didn’t know what in the world the men were saying as they build the circus tent. Even today I went back and watched it before writing this and I still can barely make it out. I replayed it several times, kept getting distracted by cute baby Dumbo working alongside his mama, so I finally searched to find the disturbing lyrics.
Unsure what I’m talking about? When the Casey Jr. train stops chugging along and the animals begin to file out of the “Song of the Roustabouts” has a scene with dark faceless, and featureless men. They look more like boxy robots than real people. And lyrics such as “Grab that rope, you hairy ape!” Lyrics which were wisely not included in the 2019 live action version directed by Tim Burton.
Later in the movie there’s a flock of crows that find Dumbo and Timothy asleep in the tree.
Also, call me dim, but though I immediately caught the vocal version of blackface (assuming the crows were drawn and voiced by white actors), I did miss that the lead crow is named “Jim Crow” (I don’t believe it was ever said in the movie, I’ve re-watched the scene a few times and haven’t caught it. It’s not in the movie credits but it is listed on iMDb that’s his name.
Jim Crow laws were laws that enforced racial segregation in the South. They began after the Civil War and continued through the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. They were finally abolished with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law outlawed discrimination in any type of public accommodation (source).
So Dumbo was released in 1941. Before the Civil Rights Movement began, arguably at the height of the Jim Crow laws. And they decided to name the leader of a jive-dancing, slang-throwing, jazz-singing group of birds Jim Crow and he’s voiced by a white guy. See how this can be seen as problematic?
I personally never saw the birds to be of low intelligence or lazy, as some critics will point out. But they were clearly written in the movie to depict a stereotype of black people at the time, and the main bird’s name is Jim Crow.
If you don’t have the movie and can’t see what I’m talking about for yourself, you may not get a chance. The scene will be cut from the Disney+ version of the film.
As a child I didn’t see the birds as depicting black people, because the black people in my life didn’t look or act that way. As an adult, I can see where the scene went wrong. But as a viewer, I’m glad that Disney decided to remove it from the streaming services. Kids around the world don’t need to see that without context on how or why it was wrong. As a mother, I’m glad we still have the original version because it’s a really really good lesson.
How can you watch this?
I watched it with Lil’ J for the first time when she was three. We had a nightly routine of twisting her hair and watching a new Disney movie together in my bed. When Dumbo came up the queue she watched the mama elephant with her strange-looking baby. The one quote I remember from her while we watched that first time was during the pink elephants song, when Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get drunk of champagne and start hallucinating. That’s when she said “Mom, this is freaking me out.”
I tried so hard to contain my laughter. I’d never heard her say anything like that before. But it sparked a great conversation about alcohol.
Now, about five years later we re-watched this version after seeing the live-action movie to compare the two. And she noticed the faceless men building the circus tent, and that really bothered her.
I was finally noticing the crows that everyone has been upset about. But my kids didn’t. Big T was asleep by that time (it was a late movie night), and Lil’ J didn’t say anything about it, so I put a pin in that conversation for now.
Let me break down first 1. Why I allow my kids to watch these movies with racist undertones and 2. How we discuss them.
Why I let my kids watch Dumbo
The original Dumbo premiered in 1941. Back then the world was in the middle of WWII. The attack on Pearl Harbor happened at the end of that year. Black people were migrating north where they had the right to vote because in the South we still couldn’t. And even still, some states passed literacy laws to keep people from being eligible to vote. Schools were segregated. Towns were segregated. Interracial marriage was illegal. Things weren’t so nice for us. (source)
When you compare how things were for us then to now, we are sitting pretty. I had the opportunity to attend an integrated public school in Georgia. Go to a public college and private University. Earn scholarships. Work as a television reporter and anchor in 3 cities over a decade. And now I own my own business, working my own hours while raising my three kids and living in our dream house I put half down on. Yes, I have a husband and he helped but I’m just going to own this for a minute ok? I did that. A black woman. Praise the Lord I’m alive today and able to do that.
I am not going to forget what so many people before us had to do to get us to where we are now. I am also not going to ignore or erase the past or act like it didn’t happen. We can learn from this. Besides, the crows were the only characters that wound up being nice to Dumbo after hearing his story, and I think that is another lesson in and of itself.
Listen, if 2019 Dumbo was a duplicate of the past with all of the underage drinking and blackface I woulda snatched my kids and walked up out of that theater.
But we’ve had 78 years to learn, grow and evolve. And we can look back at mistakes and call them just that. A history lesson if you will. But I’m not throwing Dumbo, Peter Pan, Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, Pocahontas and… I’m sure I’m forgetting others in my fireplace to burn. But I don’t personally get myself too wound up about it because I’m giving my children context. And we can learn a lot with that.
As Aramide A. Tinubu well in an essay on NBC Think, we can learn from our past.
Unpacking how, why and when these projects were made would provide context for newcomers and those who haven’t seen these films in decades. It would offer an opportunity for growth, conversation and healing. But, by sweeping these issues under the rug, Disney suggests they would rather shut the door on their past atrocities than take the time and space to learn, grow and evolve from them. Sometimes doing what’s best for the generations that follow us means we must get uncomfortable, and expose our past faults and failures to them for us all to evolve.Aramide A. Tinubu
Now I’m not going to ridicule Disney for taking that part out of it’s streaming service. Without context for those who need it, it could do more harm that good. But let’s hope there’s room for that later on.
How we discuss racism in Dumbo and other Disney movies
This time my daughter’s question started a discussion about animation, technology and even racism.
Normally when we see a live action movie we watch the original first. But this time we went ahead and watch the 2019 version before the 1941 version. I figured one would help give the other more context and open up move discussion that way.
I always ask what they thought of the movie, favorite parts, least favorite parts. And we talk about how the two versions are the same and different. Lil’ J’s direct comment about the men building the tent sparked conversation for us. I ask her what she thought of them, why she thinks they don’t have faces, and why she thinks their skin looks like that. Then I try to do more asking than talking.
I ask if they know how long ago the movie was made (and give the answer if they don’t). Ask if they know what was going on in the world during that time, and how people acted towards one another. Ask if they think artists or writers working on movies may have thought differently or the same as everyone else. And we talk about now. I ask how things are now, what they notice is different. How they think artist now may draw the movie if they could re-do it.
Had she not brought that up I may have asked her what she thought about the crows. Since she didn’t think anything of it, and I wouldn’t expect her to, so I let it go this time. But I do want to There are so many layers to that that would require me to point out things like “white voiceover actor” “the bird’s name is actually Jim… Jim Crow”, “They were created to try to act like black people” all things that aren’t obvious to her right now. So I didn’t feel the need to discuss it this time, but I’m sure it’ll be a conversation we’ll have some day. And I’ll be ready.
Now I have an honest question for you. Did you ever see these scenes in the movie Dumbo as racist?
Ok so this got long. Instead of tacking the review of the live action remake to the bottom of this post I’m going to share that on Friday. Along with the glaring difference that stuck out about the two films, and if we think buying the new movie is worth it.