As I've mentioned numerous times on this blog, I absolutely love Disney animated features. From Snow White up until the mid-90s, it's hard to find too many "duds" among those films. They communicate on such a broad level. My four year old is moved. I'm moved. In the comic book workshops I've taught, I always recommend four people worth studying -- William Shakespeare, Walt Disney, Will Eisner, and Hayao Miyazaki.
Tonight, Kennedy and I watched Dumbo. Twice. It's relatively short (64 minutes). The last time I saw this film, I was too young to be socially critical. However, when the crows came into the story, I watched closer -- wanting judge for myself.
The crow characters in the film are seen as African-American caricatures; the leader crow voiced by Cliff Edwards, a white man, was originally named "Jim Crow" for script purposes, and the name stuck. The other crows are all voiced by African-American actors, all members of the Hall Johnson Choir. Despite suggestions of racism by some, many historians such as Zoe Pritchard reject these claims. (from Wikipedia)
From my perspective, I think a distinction needs to be made between "stereotypes" and "racist imagery." Were the crows stereotypes? Definitely. Did it use hateful and harmful racist imagery? I really don't think so. The stereotypes were generally more positive than the ones I see in contemporary pop culture. The crows were among the "good guys." From the ringleader to the clowns to that stupid boy who pulled Dumbo's ears, all the hateful characters were white.
Random side note: my daughter was on the edge of her seat during scene where Dumbo was taken from his mother. Kennedy enjoys films that run the entire emotional gamut. I think most kids do. Disney offers a "safe place" for good stories. Engaging and fun. When the crows sang, she tried to bee-bop along.
The crows were clearly part of "jazz culture" (which for 1941, was as hip as Disney could get). If a new version of the film were made and they need a group of streetwise marginalized youth, to be faithful, you'd probably pull from rap and hip-hop culture. How do you communicate those images without relying on some visual cues that might be deemed as "stereotypes." If it feels honest, you won't notice. If it's overdone, you'll cringe.
Jazz is something America can be proud of. I'm not uncomfortable with black crows being used as Disney's nod to jazz culture in the early '40s. Maybe I'm missing something here, but I'll take this over Speedy Gonzalez. Your thoughts?
Off the race topic. When Dumbo visits his imprisoned mother and she cannot reach him due to her chains, so instead, she gently rocks him with her trunk -- I was nearly in tears.