As a kid growing up, I gathered quite the collection of Disney movies on VHS, as well as a good deal of “hand-me-down” movies from my older siblings. When I say hand-me-down, I mean any movie collected before 1994 that were originally bought for my siblings, but kept for me. Among this box of Disney gold was the classic 1940’s film, Dumbo. The movie Dumbo is about a young circus elephant named Jumbo Jr., who was cruelly nicknamed Dumbo by four other elephants. He is ridiculed and picked on for his comically large ears, however those who mocked him are stunned into silence once they see his ears actually give him the ability to fly. By flapping his ears like wings, Dumbo is able to (literally) rise above the hate and show everyone what he is capable of. Until my re-watch recently, I hadn’t actually remembered much about the movie, other than the fact that there was an elephant named Dumbo who could fly like a bird, and a mouse named Timothy who played up the trope that elephants were afraid of mice. Seeing this film now made me realize that the woman bell hooks quoted was right in saying, “I could get pleasure from movies as long as I did not look too deep” (hooks, 121). Despite the film’s overarching “feel good”, “overcoming your obstacles” story, there are many problems with ingrained, subtle racism that kids (and most likely parents) don’t even realize is happening; they just take it at face value, much like I did when I was still young and naïve.
In the first ten minutes of the film, you see Dumbo being delivered by the stork to his mother, Jumbo. At first, the four other female elephants are fawning over the little baby, calling it a “proud day” and exclaiming how precious Dumbo is. However, upon realizing how abnormally large his ears are, they instantly change their viewpoint and begin mocking the infant and alienating him, much like segregation in the 1880s until, well, essentially the present.
This whole scene is subtly teaching kids that it’s okay to gang up on and make fun of those different than you. When Jumbo smacks one of the other elephant’s trunks away from her kid, she immediately played up the victim card and Jumbo “had a temper” just for protecting her child. The four elephants who so openly and overtly mocked Dumbo suddenly become innocent, and nothing they’ve done or said in the past few minutes was their fault, it was all on Jumbo and Dumbo. It’s not just these four animals that do harm to Dumbo, either; nearly everyone throughout the movie makes fun of him for something he can’t help.
Almost directly following this scene, you see the train come to its next stop along their circus route. Men and animal alike pile out of the train cars to set up the camp in a torrential rain. You’d normally think nothing of this, with the seemingly uplifting work song despite the crappy weather and everyone working together to set up their tents. However, looking closely at the scene, there is not one single white or otherwise character doing any menial labor; they’re all depicted as dark-skinned, possibly African-American men. With the way the audio is formatted within the film, you almost don’t catch the lyrics to their “happy” song; but with the help of the internet, you are able to see that the song isn’t anything but a jab at slavery: “We work all day, we work all night/ We never learned to read or write/ We’re happy-hearted roustabouts… When other folks have gone to bed/ We slave until we’re almost dead/ We’re happy-hearted roustabouts…” and so on, going on to describe the type of work the “boss man” makes them do and even throwing in some name calling at the worker’s expense. It’s almost as if Disney is sending a message to black spectators, as if saying, “don’t forget, we own you”. “…films often work to add to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among Blacks, feelings that have their origin in the heritage of colonialism and imperialism” (Hollinger, 200). Even the term they use, “roustabout”, is offensive in this context, as it’s defined as “an unskilled or casual laborer”. Pairing this term with the image of black men working and the lyrics of the song, you are left with heavy implications and clear, overt racism.
As you can see, despite the heavy connotations with the song, the music is upbeat, making it less likely for the average viewer to read into the scene and pay more attention to the visual cues with the construction of the circus. With the visualization of these black men pounding stakes into the ground among other hard tasks during less than appealing weather, coupled with this song, it’s not difficult to connect the dots to the past tradition of owning slaves in America.
This wasn’t the only nod towards racism in the film either. Later, we meet “The Crows”, a group of five blackbirds who act in a manner that offensively portrays stereotypes normally assigned to African-Americans. Only the leader of the group, Jim Crow, is named; the other four are merely referred to as “brothers”. These crows act as the long-sought comic relief of the film, giving the viewer a break from the serious prejudices set against Dumbo in the first fifty minutes of the film. Whenever black actors or actresses were portrayed in film, they were always put into supporting roles, usually with the sole purpose to make the main protagonist(s) realize something and help them achieve a goal of sorts. In the case of Dumbo, these crows are here to encourage Dumbo to fly in their own way, which basically just makes fun of him further through a long-winded song and dance number.
The way these crows talk, act, and how they are dressed all coincide with existing stereotypes against African-Americans. Even the name, Jim Crow, is a “hilarious” nod towards both a nickname for blackface and the Jim Crow laws, southern statutes that legalized the segregation between blacks and whites in the 1880s. There is also the issue of Jim Crow being voiced by a white actor, while the rest of the crows were rightly voiced by black actors. It’s as if Disney would rather have some white guy do his best “black impression” than to put an actual black actor in a position of authority.
While Dumbo may seem like a children’s Disney classic, it really should be looked at critically. With the blatant racism laced throughout the film, it’s not really a suitable kid’s movie. Children see movies and don’t really think about the connotations or effects a movie could have on society. Yes, children do understand things to a certain extent, however they don’t fully grasp these complex concepts. They see these (mis)representations on screen and learn from it, showing them it’s okay to make fun of someone or that covert racism is acceptable. I know when I was a kid, I didn’t question it, so there’s some good chance others wouldn’t either. Anna Holmes cannot express it better in her article: “…The white default—in books, as in other forms of mass media—is learned and internalized early, including by children of color” (Holmes). Children, especially young children, are impressionable. Whatever they see, they take in as normalcy and can further perpetuate harmful stereotypes and prejudices if we’re not careful.
Hollinger, Karen. (2012) “Feminist Film Studies and Race,” 190-204
Holmes, Anna. (2012). “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games.” The New Yorker.
hooks, bell. (2002). “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, 115-131.