Friday, 20 June 2014

Article: 'Fantasia' and Racism Reparations in Old Cartoons

While I was reading the Amazon page of Disney's Fantasia on DVD, I was surprised to find many excoriating user reviews. Apparently, the original 1940 cut of Fantasia had a small sequence where a 'white' centaur is groomed and waited on by a subordinate 'black' centaur. 

Fig. 1: The offending centaur. Image from YouTube.

From 1969 onwards, Disney removed the centaur from all commercially-available editions of the film - including the VHS version that I saw as a child. A progressive triumph over racism, right?

Well, the Amazon reviews were actually condemning the DVD of Fantasia because of the centaur's absence:

'Please be careful when buying this DVD. The package says it's 'uncut', but it really isn't. Disney felt they needed to censor some scenes because they might offend some black people. I'm a black person, and I'm more offended by Disney lying to me than the scenes. I hope someday in the future Disney will think I'm mature enough to own a real uncut version.'

I guess it's a positive thing that Disney is ashamed of the unscrupulous content of its older films. However, this censorship is an example of the worst way to deal with a problem: Don't mention it, and deny that it ever existed. As Amazon user T. WRABEK says: 'History does not benefit from censorship and political correctness. It was what it was, and whitewashing it changes nothing and shuts down an opportunity to open discussion.'

I'd be very impressed if Disney ever decides to release the 1940 cut to the public as-is. I think that a huge media corporation admitting its chequered past would be something to be admired. Plus, I'll bet that any number of college students majoring in African-American studies, social studies, media studies, anthropology and film history would relish the ability to use the original unaltered cut of Fantasia as a Primary Source in their papers.

I can sympathise with Disney's censorship decision inasmuch as Fantasia is an animated feature for children. However, Fantasia isn't the only Disney film to feature racist overtones. Remember Peter Pan's idiotic, monosyllabic 'Indians'? Those still exist on the DVD version.

Oh geez...

Aladdin and Mulan get a lot of flak for stereotyping Arabian and Chinese people. The Jungle Book's orangutan characters have been criticized as stereotyping black people, as has Dumbo's jive-talking crows - of which one is named Jim Crow. All of these films are commercially available in their original forms.

If I ever have children, I don't think I'd have any compunction with showing them these films that I once enjoyed. I'd probably think twice about Peter Pan, but I think that any kid who understands the significance of the Jim Crow laws is probably too old for Dumbo to influence their racial prejudices. If I harbor any kind of seething racial hatred, it probably wasn't sparked by a childhood viewing of The Jungle Book.

What about other things that could be considered inappropriate for young eyes? Pinocchio has children smoking giant cigars, and another of Fantasia's segments has a drunken Bacchus stumbling around guzzling red wine. I don't personally feel that children are so impressionable as to be corrupted by such imagery, but I'm not quite sure what Disney's moral stance is.

As long as he's not black, it's okay.

Maybe removing a few seconds from Fantasia is simply easier to do than cutting entire scenes from Peter Pan. If this is the case, then is Disney's policy 'we'll be politically correct as long as it's not too difficult'? If Fantasia is indeed censored for reasons of moral principle, then why doesn't Disney apply the same principle to its other classics?

Disney's ultimate censorship move is flat-out refusing to release their infamously racist 1946 film Song of the South - which has been mostly unseen since its final cinematic re-release in 1986. Disney seems to be trying to sweep this one deep under the rug, but Song of the South has ironically achieved high notoriety for being 'the censored one'. 

Maybe Disney could release Song of the South discreetly, without marketing it to kids. Or they could give it a higher rating. There are many petitions calling for its release, some of which have thousands of signatures. Forget Fantasiathis is potentially the Primary Source Holy Grail. I personally want to see it - if only out of a contrarian, teenage-ish curiosity to see what they don't want me to see.

Song of the South won an Academy Award for its oft-covered song Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah. Nobody forgets that the movie exists; they just know that there is a classic childrens' song out there that has been disembodied from a film that they are not allowed to see. 

The song even plays on the Disneyland 'Splash Mountain' ride and exists on many Disney compilation albums. I guess they just avoid any Song of the South connotations by nixing any of the film's imagery on the album covers and liner notes.

The Walt Disney Company denies the existence of this man. Image from YouTube.

Going back to Fantasia: Racism aspects aside, the removal of the black centaur footage created a domino effect that harmed other elements of the film. An anonymous Amazon reviewer writes:

'Circa 1969, the seemingly racist shots of a black centaurette (similar to Our Gang's 'Buckwheat') attending on the white centaurettes were cut from the film, resulting in a 'jump' in the music. Subsequent releases to video have used optical tricks to remove the appearance of black centaurs, so that the original music track scans properly...In this 'restored' version, these optical edits are still glaringly obvious - e.g. an optical zoom to avoid the black centaurette shows you the film grain up close, and in another shot a green bush magically slides across the ground by itself!'

A new soundtrack was recorded to accommodate the film's new run-time, and a much-beloved narration by the reportedly dulcet-toned Deems Taylor was replaced by a new one from a guy with a much more irritating voice.

Films are like carefully made machines with many gears that interlock in cooperation. This bumbling mess sounds like a trying-to-make-it-better-but-only-making-it-worse comedy sketch: Oops, I dropped a glass of wine onto the rug while cleaning! Oops, I knocked over a lamp while scrubbing the rug! Oops, I stepped on the lightbulb shards!

Disney isn't the only animation studio to have made racist cartoons. What about the old Warner Brothers cartoons? With lecherous French stereotype Pepé le Pew and Cucaracha-singing Mexican stereotype Speedy GonzalesThose are widely available on DVD.

Well, the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVDs address this problem with the most perfectly-worded disclaimer I've ever seen:

'The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were false then and are still false today. While the following does not represent the WB view of society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as to claim these prejudices never existed.'

Speedy does it right.

Fantasia was a product of its time, and it always will be. Retroactively changing it to claim otherwise makes no sense. I wouldn't care if Disney had deleted Fantasia's controversial scene prior to its 1940 release; but once a film comes out, it belongs to culture. It's 'out there', and people will remember it in its intact form.

Maybe Disney could release Song of the South and an uncut Fantasia on DVD and preface them with a similar disclaimer to the Looney Tunes one. Or they could include short cartoons where Mickey and Donald explain the questionable material in kids' terms. Disney films aren't averse to depicting difficult truths - just about all of them have a scene in which one (or both) of the main characters' parents tragically die.


Further Reading

For more of my 'articles', you can see my posts entitled 'Four Directions of Bond' and 'The Hobbit and the Phantom Menace Effect'.

For more about animation, you can see my posts about Sita Sings The Blues and Princess Mononoke.

Screengrabs: Fantasia, Peter Pan and Song of the South were produced by Walt Disney Pictures. The Speedy Gonzales short Gonzales' Tamales was produced by Warner Bros.. The UK Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD was distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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