Dear Lifehacker, One of my favourite animated movies growing up was Disney’s Dumbo. My daughter just turned four and I want her to have the same magical experience watching it that I did. However, as an adult, I’m not entirely comfortable with the somewhat racist depiction of the anthropomorphised crows. Do you think I’m overacting, or should I censor this type of stuff from an impressionable child? Thanks, Inclusive Parent
For those who somehow missed this film growing up, you can see some of the offending clips in the video below:
So are these silly cartoon hi-jinks racist? Yeah, probably.
The group of crows that assist the titular elephant in Dumbo are certainly controversial. When the movie was made in 1942 racism was still running rampant in the US and African Americans were strictly segregated from whites via the deeply discriminatory Jim Crow laws.
Meanwhile, the main crow character in Dumbo is literally called Jim Crow and was voiced by a white man (Cliff Edwards) “talkin’ jive”. This is basically the animated equivalent of a minstrel show. If that’s not racist, I don’t know what is.
On the other hand, the crows are among the few decent and intelligent characters that Dumbo meets on his journey. They genuinely care about Dumbo’s plight, engage in witty wordplay and make their own decisions throughout the movie. There’s certainly no hint of the servile Man Friday or “magical negro” in these characters. They walk to the beat of their own drum and don’t get pushed around by anybody.
Plus, the rest of the crow gang were actually voiced by African Americans which was exceedingly rare for the time. Their memorable song When I See an Elephant Fly was performed by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. (Mind you, this could have been preemptive damage control to ward off criticisms of racism.)
In any event, it can’t be denied that the crows in Dumbo are problematic. They’re also a product of their time which is something we shouldn’t shy away from or pretend didn’t happen.
Our advice is to watch Dumbo with your little one and enjoy it. When she’s a bit older, gently explain why the crows might be deemed offensive by some people and why. In most cases, communication is vastly preferable to censorship.
On a semi-related note, you might want to skip the whole ‘Pink Elephant’ bit. While it’s not racist, that shit was designed to give kids nightmares.
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