Was the monkey song from the original Disney musical The Jungle Book (1967) racist? Anybody who sees it today certainly seems to think so. For the uninitiated, the song in question is called I Wanna Be Like You, written by Robert and Richard Sherman and sung by Louis Prima. It starts when the feral child Mowgli, taken hostage by a group of monkeys, is asked to reveal the ultimate human secret: how to build a fire. The leader of the group, King Louie, bursts into song about how much he would like to be a human (addressing Mowgli as “mancub”), beginning with the human practice of lighting fires. Last year, a group of media professors from Syracuse University and DePauw University released a statement condemning the song and appealing to Disney to make any future adaptations politically correct (there are two separate adaptations in the works currently). They said that “King Louie” was a stand-in for the jazz legend Louis Armstrong (I Wanna Be Like You is a rather old-fashioned jazz song) and that the song really represented a group of black people wishing that they could be more like white people.
To be sure, the list of Disney characters that were thinly disguised racist stereotypes is a long one. In Dumbo (1941), we met a murder of crows who had a Southern accent thicker than Samuel L. Jackson’s in Django Unchained. Even worse, their leader was called Jim Crow, after the infamous discriminatory laws of the same name. In the ditty Song of the Roustabouts, we meet black-faced circus workers who sing in chorus: “We slave until we’re almost dead / We’re happy-hearted roustabout /Keep on working/ Stop that shirking/ Pull that rope, you hairy ape” Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid (1989) had a Caribbean accent and claimed that living in the sea is awesome because you don’t have to get a job. Peter Pan (1953) chose the song What Makes the Red Man Red to introduce us to a community of Native Americans.
Some of these references are worse than others: The Little Mermaid, for instance was made as late as 1989: someone ought to have called out the film’s BS before it was released. But here’s the problem with digging up films from the ’40s and ’50s and aggressively searching for red flags: we do not assume responsibility for the cultural atmosphere these films were made in, nor do we spend nearly enough time understanding the progress made in the intervening decades. Change seldom happens in a vacuum. Toes are stepped on; brutal systems are shaken up at great personal cost, and apathetic audiences are forced out of their comfort zones: this is never a bloodless process. Retrospective criticism, however, is seldom accompanied by considerations like these.
One might, for instance, make a fairly strong case against Gone With the Wind (1939): that it perpetuates the myth of the happy, satisfied slave, that it glorifies marital rape, that it suggests that black men could not think for themselves and were uniquely susceptible to being cheated. When seen with an almost 80-year advantage on our sides, these things seem like the most obvious takeaways. But before you jump to put the makers in the dock, have you, perchance, watched a randomised cross-section of 1930s Hollywood? The results would tell you that Gone With the Wind was almost a pioneer of sorts, helping usher in the little screen time that African-American artists got in those days. Remember, we were still almost 30 years away from a film like To Sir, With Love. And even that film, heartwarming as it was, did not come close to the kind of social realism that modern-day critics look for in minority depictions.
Toes are stepped on; brutal systems are shaken up at great personal cost and apathetic audiences are forced out of their comfort zones: all this is never a bloodless process.
A recurring line in retrospective criticism articles is the film in question “not doing enough” to change the status quo: this is especially true for films like Gone With the Wind, where the stereotypes are examples of “soft” racism as opposed to out-and-out propaganda fare like Birth of a Nation. But then, successive generations will never feel that the movies of yore “did enough” to address a particular issue. They will discuss and reason and argue in circles until it dawns upon them that movies cannot, by definition, “do enough”: people can, and sometimes, they do.
Which is why I find myself returning to George Orwell’s 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book, a flawed but deeply fascinating study that is more balanced than most criticism that one comes across these days. Orwell says that Kipling “had a streak of sadism” but he was “further from being a fascist than the most humane or the most ‘progressive’ person is able to be nowadays.” Orwell places Kipling in the tradition of Imperialists of the 1890-1900 vintage, well before the spectre of advanced weaponry and nuclear bombs came around. He commits factual mistakes (like claiming that Kipling only ever wrote one novel) as well as errors of judgment (like terming Kipling’s poetry a “guilty pleasure”) and yet, there is not one observation in there that is merely empirical, inserted out of angst or some misplaced notion of social justice.
King Louie from I Wanna Be Like You may very well have been named maliciously. But the song itself works as a stand-in for how oppressed communities start to gravitate towards the rhythms of the dominant people: for instance, it is well-documented that Korean women suffered a great deal of domestic violence as well as sexism in the workplace after World War II, since the emasculated Korean men were taking their cues from what the imperial Japanese forces did to their women. A complex mix of shame, guilt and defense mechanisms was at play. Retrospective criticism needs to understand and incorporate complexities like these, otherwise it is no better than the revisionism it claims to expose.