Friday, 9 February 2018

Defending Disney - Part 5: Walt the Supposed Racist & Conclusion

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[<- Part 4: Walt, the Supposed Gender Bigot]

The claim that walt was a notorious racist and antisemite is even more prevalent than that of him being a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer. The evidence being some unfortunate racially insensitive caricatures in a handful of Disney cartoons, the movie Song of the South (1946) and more general claims of his rampant antisemitism, usually as an extrapolation of him having met Leni Riefenstahl or because Walt was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The MPAPAI certainly had its share of antisemitic members but was founded to combat fascist and communist influences, which was Walt's interest as he believed the 1941 cartoonist strike to be a communist plot to gain influence in Hollywood.
It could certainly be said that Walt Disney wasn't especially ahead of his generation when it came to racial sensitivity, especially in the 1920's and 30's, hence some racial caricatures did occasionally pop up in Disney cartoons since as far as he was aware society at large thought they were just funny. However actual hateful racism is practically impossible to find in Walt Disney. Even in the late 30's Disney had started to catch on that some caricatures might be hurtful, as a document dated February 12, 1937 reads:

"Because our cartoons have a world-wide release, we cannot use racial gags that might ridicule or belittle any nation."
Tips to Remember when Submitting Gags


Racist Caricatures

In regards to instances of racist caricatures in early Disney cartoons, there are only two main points I want to make, neither of which will be that the depiction of racial stereotypes in these old cartoons isn't racist. Mainly because I don't belong to the ethnic groups that are being depicted and as such I don't feel like I should make that argument, nor do I have to (although I would point out that I'm a Flemish Belgian, a group which also has a long documented history of being treated as undesirables and lower class citizens by French bourgeoisie. A status that only really improved after World War II).

Firstly, there's the point that just because someone is racist or harbors racist prejudices, that doesn't mean that person automatically aligns with the Nazis or the ideas of Adolf Hitler. This feels like one of the most obvious points I could possibly make surrounding this entire thing but nevertheless people keep conflating 'was Walt a Nazi' with 'was Walt a racist', as evidenced by baseless Nazi claims often being backed up by scenes from cartoons early in the lifetime of Walt Disney Studios, most of which conjured up long before World War II (once someone even tried to convince me of Walt's Nazism by showing me the notorious watermelon scene from Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941), which isn't even a Walt Disney production).

The second point is that a racist depiction in a cartoon doesn't automatically translate in their creators having hateful opinions of those ethnic groups. It's one thing to be unaware of the racial prejudices instilled by society that might result in a racist stereotype in a cartoon, but another entirely to extrapolate from that the person is also actively hateful towards the group depicted by that stereotype. Let's not pretend some unfortunate depictions of ethnic groups in a cartoon during a time when people didn't know any better is in any way in the same ballpark as genocide or its advocacy.

Mickey Mouse - The Opry House (1929)
Heck, it seems people even forget it was not Walt Disney who personally created all these cartoons by himself, even if he had final authority (Disney hardly drew anything himself after 1926). For example, one of the prominent caricatures that gets brought up as evidence of Walt Disney's antisemitism is Mickey elongating his nose and shortening his body to perform a traditional Hasidic folk dance in The Opry House (1929). However this cartoon's preliminary work was being done by Ub Iwerks while Walt Disney himself was on the other side of the continent in New York for three months overseeing sound recording on The Gallopin' Gaucho (1928) Plane Crazy (1929), and The Barn Dance (1929). Certainly all the animation at the time was done by Iwerks as Disney had lost his other animators to Charles Mintz. I mean it's a possibility the idea for the dance was solely Disney's, and he certainly had to approve it before its production concluded, but in all these expert analyses of usually minor details I miss the nuance that the Walt Disney Studio wasn't exclusively staffed by Walt Disney.

For the point regarding racism through ignorance vs hateful racism, my perspective is also colored by me having read a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories somewhat recently. While Lovecraft was a visionary when it comes to the horror genre, it also can't be denied that he in fact was an actual racist and the horror in his writing (fear of the unknown) was inspired by that.
In Herbert West: Reanimator (1922) for example, the narrator-protagonist and the titular Herbert West are constantly on the lookout for fresh corpses on which to test their reanimation solution. In Part III they come across an African-American boxer named Buck Robinson, "The Harlem Smoke", who has been permanently knocked out. The narrator goes on to describe him as follows: "He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life - but the world holds many ugly things[Source: HP Lovecraft - Herbert West: Reanimator].
That part was genuinely disturbing to me and reads as actual hatred towards African-Americans as an ethnic group (and it is far from the only or even the worst example). On the other hand we have only a select few Disney cartoons over a period of about 15 years where occasionally an ethnic stereotype appears, usually even sympathetically and often edited out when found to be hurtful. I don't see the level of hateful racism that I found in Lovecraft in for example the Big Bad Wolf trying to gain access to the house of the three little pigs by disguising himself as a Jewish peddler (which was later edited) and I especially don't see it in Song of the South (1946). Racially insensitive through the ignorance of the times, yes, but not hatefully racist to warrant accusing Walt of racism.

"I think Dr. Lehman is correct when he says that many of the people who made the cartoons probably had no idea how hurtful racial images could be. I read thousands of pages of Disney studio documents when I was writing Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, including all the surviving story meeting notes from Walt's lifetime, and I found exactly one instance where someone on the Disney staff, a writer named Harold Helvenston, evidenced hostility and contempt toward black people, [...] The idea was that snapdragons would be presented as what Helvenston called "negro flowers"; Walt, to his credit, was uncomfortable with that idea"
Reply to Feedback to a Review of Dr. Lehman's 'The Colored Cartoon' - Michael Barrier

Floyd Norman

As for Walt Disney's treatment of minorities, I think it best to let people who actually worked with him take the proverbial microphone. Floyd Norman was employed to work on Sleeping Beauty (released in 1959), worked with Walt and became the first African-American artist to remain at the studio long-term. You can find his statement regarding the rumors of Walt Disney's racism and antisemitism on his blogpost entitled Sophie's Poor Choice [Here]. To learn more about Floyd Norman himself and his amazing contributions to the field of animation, you can also check out the biographical movie Floyd Norman: An Animated Life (2016).

"Not once did I observe a hint of the racist behavior Walt Disney was often accused of long after his death. His treatment of people - and by this I mean all people - can only be called exemplary."
-Foreword by Floyd Norman of Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? - Jim Korkis

Walt Disney with Louis Armstrong, who Walt invited
in 1966 to record an album of Disney songs:
"Disney Songs the Satchmo Way"

What's the Deal with Song of the South?

The FactFile video simply refers to Song of the South (1946), Disney's adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus stories, in turn based on African-American folktalkes, as a movie "so offensive that the Disney Company isn't going to let it be shown in public anymore", which struck me as a description so vague that the video's writer probably just included the reference without looking further into it, likely never having seen the movie and certainly never having read up on it. Song of the South is indeed considered a controversial movie but the reason why Disney is trying to bury it is primarily because they don't even want to deal with the debate whether it really is that offensive. 

By my estimation, Song of the South isn't offensive by being explicitly racist in a hateful way, but rather unfortunately racist through naïveté because it gives the Disney treatment to a subject that is still considered inflammatory even today, namely race relations during the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War. Its main setting is a plantation in, as the name implies, the American South, which by itself raises quite a few eyebrows. The framing device for the animated stories about Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear is that they are being told by Uncle Remus to help the kid protagonists (primarily a boy played by Bobby Driscoll, who would later become both the voice and model for Peter Pan (1953)) with their problems and teach them life lessons. Its prominent black community is portrayed very sympathetically, but they are also uniformly portrayed as happy with their lot in life and well respected by the movie's white cast. Essentially the movie is considered racist because it doesn't actually address racism at a time and place when and where it should have been impossible to get away from it, resulting in a 'racism is over' impression.

After the film's release, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP (who according to Neal Gabler (p.435) was earlier invited to work on script revisions but declined) telegraphed major newspapers with the following statement, albeit based on memos he had received from two staff members and not having seen the movie himself, also erroneously believing the film to be set in the Antebellum era (1783-1861) rather than the Reconstruction in the 1870's:

"The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in "Song of the South" remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, "Song of the South" unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts."

However if you just take the Internet's description of it, you would think Disney is trying to hide Song of the South because they are ashamed their founder made his own version of The Birth of a Nation or something equally offensive. In reality they simply want to forgo the debate of whether the movie is racist, over a movie that forgoes the debate about racism. Likely the primary reason why Song of the South did get a European release on VHS during the '90s was because without the historical context of slavery and the American Civil War, it really does look like just a regular wholesome Disney family film with at worst a prominent class difference. (1)

Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin (1975) (2)
While not without controversy itself (a lot of it also because of being judged by people who never bothered to actually see it), Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin (1975), a movie which is also based on the characters of Uncle Remus, actually went completely the other way and made the movie entirely about racism with even the character designs as a scathing satire of 1930's and 1940's racial stereotypes, with plenty of jabs at Disney's Song of the South thrown in. It was also better received for it by African-American audiences and even got an endorsement by the NAACP as being "difficult satire". Rabbit, here intentionally portrayed as a blackface stereotype with rabbit ears, goes with his trickster persona against the American Mafia. A recurring theme is that the movie's various black characters are either in an abusive relationship with, manipulated by or outright murdered by Miss America, a curvaceous woman seemingly dressed only in body paint in the colors of the American flag, an obvious metaphor for America's treatment of the black community. Of course Ralph Bakshi is decidedly not of the Disney school of animation or storytelling (as demonstrated by the film opening on the words 'Fuck You' followed by a joke on the suicide of 350 white people), which afforded him the ability to do hard social satire while Walt Disney cornered himself in family values. Disney accidentally created the impression race relations were fine during the Reconstruction Era, Bakshi however showed contemporary America its warts.

Yet Song of the South's more questionable aspects should also be put into context of Walt Disney's intentions with it. As I said, it is no Birth of a Nation and it was never supposed to be. On the contrary, Disney intended for it to be a gesture of goodwill that promoted tolerance. This was after all a mainstream movie that in 1946 featured a prominent African-American cast with James Baskett as Uncle Remus at the center of it. A role for which Baskett in 1948 received an honorary Academy Award, which Walt himself campaigned for, becoming the first male African-American performer to receive an Oscar for a movie he himself couldn't attend the premiere of due to Atlanta being racially segregated. After Baskett's passing, his widow wrote a thankful letter to Walt that he had been a "friend in deed and [we] certainly have been in need". Disney had even attempted to do away with the biases of the film's crew (and himself) by recruiting Maurice Rapf as a counterweight during the writing process.

"One of the reasons Walt had hired Rapf to work with Reymond was to temper what he feared would be Reymond's white southern slant. Rapf was a minority, a Jew, and an outspoken left-winger, and he himself feared that the film would inevitably be Uncle Tomish. "That's exactly why I want you to work on it," Walt told him, "because I know that you don't think I should make the movie. You're against Uncle Tomism, and you're a radical.""
Walt Disney: The Biography - Neal Gabler p.434

I guess this is a sword that cuts both ways. By suppressing Song of the South, The Walt Disney Company is shielding itself from possible controversy arising from even the discussion of just how racist it is, which in the current hellscape of never-ending Internet outrage would no doubt result in the worst possible interpretation. However, by suppressing the movie they are also hiding away James Baskett's undeniable acting talent and historical achievement, as well as fueling the rumors of it being a massively racist movie by the fact that they even chose to hide it. The Disney Company's handling of the movie can ironically be best summarized with a quote from Uncle Remus himself: "You can't run away from trouble. There's no place that far."

In the context of Walt Disney's personal supposed racism however, I would disagree that Song of the South is a convincing argument. From the perspective of the ethnic groups historically segregated, oppressed, and even enslaved, the portrayal of them as happy with their lot in life and living in perfect harmony with their affluent oppressor can undoubtedly be considered offensive. However from the perspective of groups largely unaware of those struggles, which Walt Disney himself belonged to and which helped inform his bias, Song of the South is instead just a heartwarming story of acceptance meant to spread the wisdom of the Uncle Remus stories to a larger audience. It is obvious that Disney intended the latter. 

"Walt Disney was no racist. He never, either publicly or privately, made disparaging remarks about blacks or asserted white superiority. Like most white Americans of his generation, however, he was racially insensitive."
- Walt Disney: The Biography - Neal Gabler p.433


Antisemitism

"Our children, who are all enthusiastic Mickey Mouse fans, join with me in assuring you of our deep appreciation and we do hope that when you next come to New York, you will drop in and pay us a visit." [Source]

The above quote is from a personal thank you letter to Walt Disney for his gift of a dozen watches (surprisingly expensive Mickey Mouse merchandise) to The Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York in December 1935. Walt frequently contributed to Jewish charities: the orphanage mentioned above, the Jewish Home for the Aged, Yeshiva College, the Jewish Home for the Aged and the American League for a Free Palestine. 

Early years of Walt Disney Studios 1927,
including Friz Freleng (Bottom row, left)
It is speculated the rumors of Walt Disney's antisemitism (outside of his association with the MPAPAI, which did have antisemitic members and his meeting with Leni Riefenstahl) arose from disgruntled former employees who themselves speculated their Jewish heritage might have contributed to their firing. However several Jewish employees (including Art Babbitt, who hated Walt) disagreed that Walt was antisemitic. The list of influential Jewish artists and executives is so lengthy in fact that it would be extremely unlikely for Walt to not have noticed that he had staffed his studio with people he supposedly hated. This included some of his primary writers and artists (Joe Grant, Marc Davis, Maurice Rapf, Otto Englander...), production managers (Harry Tytle), even the heads of merchandising (Kay Kamen, George Kamen) and many more.

"Some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish."
- Joe Grant, himself of Jewish heritage

Composer Richard M. Sherman, a man of Jewish heritage who with his brother Robert B. Sherman worked on Mary Poppins (1964) (as well as The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967) and various other Disney movies), gave an interview in 2013 in the context of Saving Mr. Banks (2013), the movie about the development of the Mary Poppins movie. In the interview, he responds to accusations of Walt's antisemitism with the following:

"Let me tell you something, a lot of people talk about Walt in negative ways. There was nothing negative about Walt Disney", he says. "He was dedicated to doing great things. He reached for the stars all the time. He was a wonderful, wonderful boss."
- Richard M. Sherman [Source]

According to the Disney History Institute, there was also an incident where Walt fired one of his lawyers, who didn't like minorities, for saying something denigrating about the Sherman brothers.
Walt Disney, prior to being presented "Man of the Year" by
the Beverly Hills B'nai B'rith auxiliary, 12-9-1955. [Source]

To end this section, I would like to draw your attention to a picture discovered by animation historian Jim Korkis. B'nai B'rith International is the oldest Jewish service organization in the world, dedicated to fighting antisemitism and bigotry. Who did the Beverly Hills chapter of the organization have as their 1955 Man of the Year? None other than Walt Disney himself.
He further received the Distinguished Service Citation from the Kansas City B'nai B'rith Chapter and the Hadassah Recognition of Achievement, both in 1958 and both can be seen in the Lobby of the Walt Disney Museum. So while Walt is regularly accused of antisemitism, it seems the people who disagreed with that accusation were contemporary organizations that were founded explicitly with the purpose of combating antisemitism. Odd how the "fact" that gets spread is an unsubstantiated rumor of Walt attending Bund meetings, but we never hear of his contributions to Jewish causes even though the awards are there and the thank you notes for his charitable actions have occasionally turned up.

"So let me just say this: no respected Disney historian has ever uncovered evidence that Walt Disney was racist. And goodness knows, we've digged in every corner."
Cartoon Brew: Fact-Checking Meryl Streep's Disney-Bashing Speech - Amid Amidi


Conclusion

To sum it up: Paste Magazine has it right when the author says labeling Walt a National Socialist without proof is a stretch, but following it with Walt being 'at best' a Nazi sympathizer is hardly any better when the article goes on with trying to make that accusation stick anyway, especially with a title such as 'Walt the Quasi-Nazi'. The article is nothing more than a sensationalist attempt to paint a fallible perfectionist into a fascist propagandist based on post-hoc rationalizations, with much of the article dedicated to portions of The Disney Company's history Walt wasn't even alive for. Problems with corporate overreach are certainly deeply rooted and should be addressed. You don't do that by writing sensationalist clickbait articles where your focus is on singling out an individual deceased for 51 years and painting him as a fascist Nazi somehow responsible for it. 
To put Walt Disney in the same category as people who tried to wipe out an entire ethnic group is not only wrong and offensive to a person who can't defend himself anymore, it is downright irresponsible. We live at a time when white supremacists brandishing actual Nazi symbology (and somehow Tiki torches) are holding rallies in the streets. What better way to normalize their behavior than to claim the inoffensive cartoon movies and theme parks that billions of people grew up on were actually made by someone holding their values?
Furthermore this attitude of harshly judging even relatively progressive historical figures from the comfortable position of modernity is frankly off-putting and only an exercise in mental masturbation. It reduces the genuine struggles civil rights movements had to go through to acquire a semblance of equality. Historical figures who held the prejudices of their time shouldn't be cast as evil because they just happened to be born in a time period when those prejudices were still rampant, they should be held up as examples to us of how even good people can be flawed so we in turn can examine the faults in ourselves.

The truth is that Walt Disney was not a Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer or a fan of Adolf Hitler. Those claims are blatantly ridiculous. At absolute worst it could be argued he was largely indifferent (as he was to most political questions) to politics in Europe in general prior to World War II, and staunchly against the Nazis from that point on. It's hard to even make the case that he was especially racist or sexist outside of the general racial insensitivity of his time. The US Government evidently didn't think he was a Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer when they screened him and hired him. Jewish foundations with the explicit purpose of combating antisemitism screened him and honored him. The worst I have found of him is that his perfectionism was often very trying for the people he worked with, and he could be very volatile with his employees while under stress. Nothing I found indicates there's any merit to the popular image of him as a horrible racist, sexist of Nazi sympathizer.


Notes

1. Nevertheless I've seen people upset that Disney is still selling this racist movie on DVD, when to my knowledge it has never even had a DVD release even though there's demand for it.
2. The reason why I'm using an image of the seemingly-nude Miss America from Coonskin is because I fear an image of just the main protagonists, who appear to be blackface caricatures, would be more likely to be mistaken for an old Disney production by the casual visitor scrolling through this article, whereas I think an image of a woman with detailed breasts wouldn't be mistaken as such. Internet consensus is that Disney is more subliminal with its references to sex after all. Also a reference to boobs is the tits in terms of SEO. 

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