Was Walt Disney a racist?

The LA Times has an essay written by Neal Gabler, the author of the recent book “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” who takes on the question of whether Walt Disney was a racist – a charge that is sometimes leveled against him. Since he began making motion pictures, “The Princess and the Frog” due out in December is the first African-American princess.

Neal writes about the charges of racism origins and uses the example of Walt’s attempts to make sure his 1946 “Song of the South” acceptable to African Americans and Walt’s reaction when it failed.

But Walt anticipated these criticisms and actually went to great lengths to make the film as racially sensitive as he could. He hired a Jewish left-wing screenwriter, Maurice Rapf, to do a draft of the script because, as he told Rapf, “You’re against Uncle Tomism and you’re a radical.” Before signing Baskett, he approached the black actor, singer and leftist activist Paul Robeson to play Remus and asked him to review the script. And he sent the script to a number of black notables for comment, including the actress Hattie McDaniel; the secretary of the NAACP, Walter White; and, via his friend producer Walter Wanger, Howard University scholar Alvin Locke. Walt even did something that he had done on no previous film: He invited White to the studio to work on revisions with him. White begged off, saying he was too busy. In short, Walt did everything he could plausibly do to get input from the black community. The usually peremptory man was anything but peremptory here.

Yet Walt was more politically obtuse than he was racially obtuse. When the film opened, he was stunned by the firestorm of protest from African Americans who thought it was condescending and demeaning, among them Walter White, who complained to the New York Times that the black-white relationships in the film were a “distortion of facts.” Former admirers, like the producer Billy Rose, condemned Walt as well. One group, the Theatre Chapter of the National Negro Congress, picketed theaters where the film was shown. Walt came to blame the black actor Clarence Muse, ironically one of those he had solicited for suggestions. Muse, he said, had wanted the role of Remus, and when he didn’t get it, he turned to black newspapers to attack the film.

But remarkably for a man who took everything personally, this disappointment did not sour Walt on race relations the way the strike had soured him on unions. He successfully fought to get Baskett an honorary Oscar when Baskett fell seriously ill shortly after the film’s release, and he was especially solicitous to Baskett’s family.

10 thoughts on “Was Walt Disney a racist?

  1. I pleased to hear that Walt Disney may have been more sensitive to race issues than Iâ??ve previously given him credit for. The excerpt may also answer my question as to why it took over forty years after Song of the South before Disney made another excursion into representing black people in his productions, well after his death no less!

    The question that this article does not answer is why for the first black princess morphs into a slimy warty toad where as other Disney Princess had the grace and dignity of being swans.

    That particular detail choice in the story line may seem like a small, insignificant and even redundant labour to most, but as a black person and a black woman it means quite a bit to me. Still and I hope I donâ??t sound sarcastic when I say so; I am thankfully that Disney finally got around to showing black faces again. Bravo

  2. Mr. Disney was a man of his time, born in 1901 and raised in the cultural and racial matrix of the early 20th century. By modern standards he probably was a racist; nearly everyone was. So what? Based only on his work, looking at the people he hired and how he depicted them on film, I’d say he was more enlightened than most. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize the treatment of blacks in “Song of the South” or his treatment of real-life women in his Ink and Paint Department. But historical figures are fairly judged in the context of their times, not ours.

    However, I do look forward to a time decades from now when my great-grandchildren look back at me as a shameful, immoral, disgusting deviant for eating meat, driving a car, owning pets, and using incandescent lightbulbs.

    As for the whole “Disney Princess” thing: surely an adult understands that it’s a marketing ploy developed over the past few years to brand a bunch of properties that have nothing in common but female heroines. Being Disney’s “first African-American princess” has no meaning except to the extent it helps sell more dolls. And I’m sure Ms. Brady understands that Mr. Disney had nothing to do with “The Princess and the Frog” and deserves no credit or blame for it.

  3. My daughter is my black princess (awwwww.) I wish they had done this back when she was five. At 14 she won’t even watch it.

    Walt was a product of his time, as were my grandparents. Compared to my grandparents, Walt was not a racist.

    I really wish Disney had made this back in the 60s, when the Nine Old Men were still around and the timing would’ve been perfect. Now it just looks like they want a black princess to round out their collection.

  4. We’ve become so aware of racial issues today that charges of racism can stem from simple ignorance on the part of the offender, rather than from any sort of deliberate bias.

    It sounds like Walt Disney recognized the possibility of bias on his part, and tried to overcome it.

    If you know you have unconscious racial biases, and you attempt to overcome them but you fail for lack of good information, are you still a racist?

    Maybe, but I don’t think it should be held against you.

  5. Judging Disney’s art–his films–he wasn’t just a man of his times. The scripts for his work wallowed in ethnic and racial stereotypes whose influence on pop culture helped prolong the suffering of blacks and other minorities. You have only to watch films made by more sensitive people from the same time periods to know that his attitudes were far to the right of the political and cultural median. Unfortunately, the company he founded still hasn’t caught up with the progress Americans have made.

    The new film reeks of tokenism–in other words, it’s roughly where we were as a country around 1970.

  6. Neal Gabler addresses this issue pretty well in his bio of Walt. Another book that gets into it is Forbidden Animation by Karl Cohen. Like I said, there has already been a lot of viewpoints and discussion on the subject. As usual, everyone has an opinion when it comes to Walt Disney.

  7. I first saw Song of the South, during what I think was it’s final rerelease, when I was very young. What I remember of the film is that I thought Uncle Remus was by far smarter than any other characters in the film. I loved the animated segments more than anything else, of course.

    I think the whole issue is overblown and only exists because it’s a Disney film. When it comes to controversy, you still see it today; People will manufacture outrage if necessary because you get attention attacking Disney. The “happy slave” thing is a myth. The African-American characters are free in the post-Cival War era and are shown making the best of their bad situation. And last I checked, a lot of African-Americans did sing while they worked. It’s a large part of the cultural history. Gone with the Wind invokes my sense of moral outrage far more than Song of the South. And it’s less insulting than the whitewash of films like The Patriot that tack on a subplot to make it so the heroes of the film are acceptable.

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