Africa Seen in the Eyes of Americans Through Disney Movies

Jay Choi - Senegal


May 2, 2013

One day, I was searching for a Disney channel on Pandora, an internet radio that enables listeners to tailor their repertoire of music to personal taste. I plugged my iPod on to a speaker, and let Elton John and Peabo Bryson carry me into a pensive trance of childhood. Like most anyone, I love anything Disney—movies, characters, songs, and even toys and accessories like the fluffy, golden Winnie the Pooh stuffed toy (although Barney is my all-time favorite).  Even these days, I enjoy taking refuge in the strapping Disney castle in my head with lakes and all. Seriously, it only takes me five seconds to convince myself that I am the grown up Peter Pan who does not remember much about anything. Robin Williams is the fake.

I imagine there are a lot of people who share the same fanatical fondness for Disney because, for a time period spanning nearly a century, Disney has served as everyone’s common platform of entertainment on which our childhoods are molded. In retrospect, Disney has done much social good by producing timeless and innocent pieces of animated art that draw empathy even today from all across the generational gamut. Disney’s incredibly long range of animation hits from Snow White (1937) until now has left a powerful psychological vestige in our American conscience.

Recently, though, I have discovered a disturbing paradigm in American animation films. Take a look. A number of fairy tales and historical legends that originate from “the West”—namely Europe, North America, and Oceania—were made into films, such as Tangled (based on the German fairy tale Rapunzel) and The Sword in the Stone (based on the 6th century England), just to name a few.  Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove and DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado were based on the ancient Incan Empire and the “New World” respectively of South America. Mulan—one of the most successful animations in Disney’s history—is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. The closest animation film whose plot unfolds on the African continent is The Prince of Egypt. When it comes to Sub-Saharan Africa, though, there is no film about humans that comes to our minds. It’s a shame that we first think of Lion King or Madagascar when it comes to animation films about Africa.

The ramifications of this shocking realization are extremely subtle yet unsettling. We are trapped in a vicious cycle where films—either willingly or unknowingly—breed the masses’ perception of a certain region of the world inaccurately, in this case, Africa as lacking in civility and teeming with animals, and where such misperception begets cultural illiteracy of the masses who demand such films time and time again. Over time, cultural illiteracy gives birth to cultural apathy, which in turn can only adversely affect the integrity of America’s culturally and ethnically diverse society.

The outside world dubs America as a “melting pot,” and views America’s power as deriving from its cultural and ethnic diversity. On the other hand, most Americans seem to be embarrassed by the ethnic diversity of their country by limiting their lives within their comfortable cultural boundaries, which often leads to unintended racial segregation and sensitivity with racial issues. If Disney were to make an animation about an African hero or an empire that used to prosper in Sub-Saharan Africa, like the Timbuktu and the Wolof, or about the Serer’s resistance to Islam (my personal hope), it would serve as a chance to quell America’s racial sensitivity by directing the American masses’ attention away from their persistent association of black skin with poverty, violence, and slavery, and by making the connection for the American masses that ‘black’ does not mean ‘subjunctive’ or ‘the underappreciated,’ but ‘owners of themselves’—their cultures, languages, and histories—just like others.

 

Jay Choi