Walt Disney is arguably one of the most influential figures (if not THE most influential figure) in children's entertainment in the 20th century. With such iconic characters as Mickey Mouse, and such classic films as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Disney has left behind the kind of legacy that filmmakers and cartoonists everywhere dream about. But was there a dark side to Walt Disney? Some believe that Disney was racist, and perhaps even a Nazi sympathizers, but do these charges have any merit?
Some of Disney's cartoons did have some pretty racial imagery. Take, for instance, the black crows in “Dumbo,” one of which is actually named Jim Crow. The crows use such jargon as “I be done seen 'bout everything when I see an elephant fly.” Racially stereotypical depictions are also seen in films like “Fantasia” (the centaurs), “Lady and the Tramp” (the Siamese cats), “The Jungle Book” (King Louie the monkey) and of course “Song of the South” (Uncle Remus). Some people might also point to racially stereotypical depictions in films like “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” but as these were made after Walt Disney's death, I won't include them.
Some of Disney's short cartoons also featured racially stereotypical illustrations. One well-known example includes “The Three Little Pigs,” in which the Big Bad Wolf is briefly shown as a Jewish peddler. Disney did not animate the sequence himself, but he did approve it. So with examples such as these, can we safely assume that Disney was racist?
It may provide little consolation to some if I were to propose that exaggerated racial stereotypes were commonplace in the early to mid 20th century, and were not necessary perceived as malicious. For instance, minstrel shows (in which performers appeared in blackface and took on exaggerated African American personas) were once popular with black and white audiences alike, and short films like the “Our Gang” (later known as “The Little Rascals”) series featured many racial stereotypes, but were in later years vehemently defended by the black cast mates.
I do not mean to suggest that racial stereotyping and minstrel shows amount to good, innocent entertainment. I deplore such things. But I do hope to put the issue into perspective by illustrating Disney's work given the context of its time period. Disney may not have seen racial aspects of his work as being “racist” because the entertainment world was a very different place.
James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in “Song of the South” (one of Disney's most notoriously racial pieces of work) was given an honorary Academy Award “for his able and heart-warming characterization” (of the title character). Disney himself campaigned personally for Baskett in the Academy Award race, and Baskett went on to become the first male African American ever to receive an Oscar.
Ultimately, you must look at Disney's body of work and make up your own mind as to whether or not the iconic filmmaker was racist. You can certainly make a strong argument that his work was often racially insensitive, but you could also argue strongly that some of his work glorified the occult or promoted freemasonry. Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.