After an endless marketing blitz, Disney+ is here, and one of the most notable things about the streaming service is that subscribers have access to the entire “Disney Vault” — a catalogue containing nearly every movie made since the dawn of the Mouse.
That’s more than 80 years worth of movies, TV shows, and cartoons. Buried amidst beloved classics like The Little Mermaid and Cinderella, however, are some unpleasant surprises. Especially in Disney movies from the first half of the 20th century — there’s a whole lot of racism.
You might not remember the problematic bits from animated classics like Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, and The Jungle Book. But they’re there, and they’re embarrassing to revisit. The crows who sing “When I See an Elephant Fly” in Dumbo from 1941 are mimicking Black minstrelsy, and the lead singer of their trio is actually named Jim Crow!
It’s no secret that Walt Disney was a bigot. Meryl Streep made sure we all knew it back in 2014 during the press tour for Saving Mr. Banks. In the midst of that kerfuffle, Walt Disney’s grandniece, Abigail Disney, chimed in on Facebook: "If you are going to have mixed feelings about a family member (and we all do) take it from me, you really need to be as honest as possible about those feelings,” she wrote. Was Disney an “anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C'mon he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay “with your own kind” at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the 'King of the Jungle' number wasn't proof enough!!” Disney has been criticized especially for styling the orangutans in The Jungle Book as racist caricatures of Black Americans.
The examples go on and on. The Siamese cats in Lady in the Tramp are stereotypes of the sneaky, devious East Asian. Peter Pan has a song that’s straight-up called, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” sung by Native Americans. Even a movie like The Lion King, which features no people at all, has problems. What race would you say the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed are meant to represent?
Giving everyone access to old Disney movies is a pretty cool prospect for cinephiles and Disney lovers. There’s certainly value to revisiting these films, even the problematic ones, in the context of today. Disney appears to have addressed the racism lurking in its archives head-on, integrating historical notes and context into the platform.
As Abigail Disney put it on Facebook in 2014, “Damn, [Disney] was hella good at making films, and his work has made billions of people happy. There's no denying it. So there ya go. Mixed feelings up the wazoo." Same, girl. Quietly distributing Disney’s dirty laundry without using it as a teaching moment isn’t the right move here. The studio needs to address its history head-on.