Saturday, May 1, 2010

Dumbo and Those Crows

Tonight I watched Disney's Dumbo (1941) for the first time in many years. I always get quite upset watching it because I was traumatized as a child by the abuse of Dumbo. I was always taught that I wasn't better than anyone else, so seeing someone teased for being disabled really stuck with me. Not that Dumbo was disabled at all, it was just that people perceived him to be that way. 
I really enjoyed the film again but reacted in the usual places: when Dumbo's Mom gets locked up and when Dumbo is humiliated by the clowns. I used to have quite bad teeth and was pretty poor as a youngster so I faced a lot of teasing from kids too. I think that's another reason why I identify with this film so much. 
I decided to rewatch Dumbo after coming across a clip on YouTube of the scene where Dumbo and his friend Timothy the mouse meet a group of crows. They sing a great song, "When I See an Elephant Fly". I was startled by some of the hateful comments on the video, mostly stemming from people being offended by the crows. Racist was the word most commonly used and this got me thinking. Are the crows in Dumbo really that racist?
Let me start off by saying, for census purposes I'm white, but if you think that means I haven't experienced racism you're incorrect. I grew up in a small town in Texas and went from being an innocent kid with friends of all types to becoming a melancholy teenager in a self-segregated high school. That impacted me a lot. I never fully understood the divide as I was happy to be around anyone who was a good person, but I did see and feel the hurt that it caused. It was part of the reason why I moved to an entirely different country by myself in the summer before my senior year of high school. In fact, I'd say it comprised a good 50% of the reason why I left. Small town mentality suffocated me. I'm happy to hear from friends and family who still live in the area that much has changed and progress has reached even that one traffic stop town. I'm sure that racism hasn't totally disappeared, but with the election of President Obama, things are bound to continue to improve especially for the younger generation.
Now back to these crows. It's obvious to anyone that they're meant to be a group of black men. They speak in the stereotypical fashion of a group of men during that time period and of that race as perceived by white America. It's a snapshot of 1941, however embarrassing. Despite this, there are a few things that make me believe that these characters are not meant to be racist at all. In fact, I believe that Disney, in his own eccentric way, was making a statement against racism. 
The crows are depicted at first as a boisterous group of men who seem just like everyone else in the film who tease Dumbo about his appearance. They're portrayed as cool, not as outcasts at all but one of those elusive groups of Bohemian hipsters. After a sob story from Timothy, they soon realize the error of their ways  and help the mouse to hatch a plan to rescue Dumbo's self-respect, career and mother. They also get to sing one of the best songs in the movie. At the end of the film, we see them flying with Dumbo as his friends and companions in a place of honor.

I doubt there were many feature films in the USA at that time which featured a group of black men saving the title character. I also find it interesting that while the white public were the main instigators of the teasing and hate directed at Dumbo and his mother, the "black" characters were exactly the opposite. They were the good guys, heroes, saviors. In 1941, Disney probably created one of the most progressive statements about racism in America without anyone even knowing it. 

I'm aware of the sad history of the crow analogy. Many black men in that time period were referred to as crows due to a black-faced character called Jim Crow. You can read about that in this article, which funnily enough, is preaching a different opinion than I am with this one. I'm not sure that Disney did this on purpose as part of the overall statement. I think again, making the characters crows who sound black was just a symptom of the time period with no malice behind it.
Overall, I still love Dumbo. I don't feel that it sends a message of racism. I feel it sends a message of solidarity and of hope. We are, after all, created equal. 
What do you think about the crows in Dumbo? Please let me know in the comments.


Anonymous said...

I just watched Dumbo for the first time with my daughter. I'd like to agree with you about how the choice of Black voices for the crows was obviously deliberate and possibly forward-thinking for the time.

I'm a Black mom with a biracial two year old and am always on the hunt for subtle racism she could be exposed to. But the crows were the heros of the story, and as mentioned, black heros in film were not so common during that time.

As for the dialect, their voices sounded like many of my dearest friends, not an exagerated characterization. They were not eating chicken and watermelon in the trees, or being lazy or criminal as stereotypes held. Instead after some playful teasing they became enlightened, and empowered the protagonist with the psychological encouragement of the "magic" feather. They saved the day!
I'll just say as racism in movies go, I've seen worse.

Jen said...

I'm so pleased by this comment because it's from someone who has the other side. It's easy for white people to comment on race. It really means a lot that you took the time to write this. When I was a kid, the crows were heroic to me and it upsets me so much that people take that innocence and mold it into something more sinister. Glad you and your daughter can enjoy Dumbo together! :)

kushibo said...

I just watched this with my girlfriend, who is a native from Japan and did not grow up with the history and stereotypes of Blacks that we in the US did.

As we were watching Dumbo (something neither of us have done since childhood) I mentioned how the crows and how they were subtly meant to depict Blacks and Black stereotypes.

I was anticipating the crows, since it's an oft-discussed issue, but prior to that we'd had a discussion about the circus workers who put up the big top and other tents.

Obviously I'd forgotten about them, but they were very clearly depicted as Black (or brown). The songs they were singing were reminiscent of the singing happy slaves of "Song of the South": they worked hard for little pay but that was the fate of their uneducated selves and they liked it (in fact, they throw their money away... on what?).

As I mentioned, my gf did not grow up with discussions about inherent racism in US media, and she had a very different take on this. The circus workers were singing a song that was subversively anti-corporate, talking about mean "boss man" being abusive.

Meanwhile, she noted, the crows may have been depicted with stereotypes with which she was unfamiliar, but they were actually positive characters. In Dumbo's world where he'd been ostracized by his fellow elephants, exploited by the circus conductor, and abused by the clowns, the only ones helping him were the mouse and the crows.

Sure, today we would see the crows as "Magical Negro"ish, but taken in the historical context before World War II, at least some among Disney and the animators may actually have thought they were engaged in positive portrayals.

Not defending anyone, just putting that out there.

By the way, does anyone here have information of Ned Washington, one of the main lyricists for Dumbo and other pictures, being at least partly of African American descent?

John Harvey said...

I can one up you for progressive depictions of black people in 1941. If you ever get a chance to see it, there is a Bela Lugosi movie entitled "The Invisible Ghost". I won't give anything away, but the character of Evans is black and treated with surprising dignity.

John Harvey said...

If you want a truly progressive movie from 1941, I suggest "The Invisible Ghost", which is a Bela Lugosi movie featuring Clarence Muse as "Evans". Even though Evans is a butler in the movie, he is portrayed with surprising intelligence and dignity. It is a fascinating and surprising movie.

Ethan said...

Dumbo or Jumbo Jr., could be seen as a character of mixed ethnicity that has to with racism.

African Elephants have large ears as where Indian elephants ears much smaller by comparison.

When Jumbo Jr. is seen by the other female elephants they are aghast at his appearance.

They are aghast because Jumbo Jr. is seen as being part African Elephant.

That is why they instantly look down on Mrs. Jumbo and Jumbo Jr.