It can be seen as problematic that Disney would encourage this bias through its character impersonations being the largest and most successful in the animating business sector. Because of it’s popularity, Disney developed a drawing style in which many movie companies follow. In Richard Neupert’s book, Colour, Line and Nudes: Teaching Disney’s Animators he states, “the Disney studios historic success has been their obsession with ‘realistic’ detail in their cartoons.” (Neupert .77) Donald W. Graham was Disney’s chief art instructor from 1931 to 1941, at the time when their cartoons were growing from eight-minute shorts to eighty-minute feature length films (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1938). According to Graham’s teaching, “colour could help define character;” (Graham. ) this is a dubious statement to make when he depicts many of Disney’s villains black.
A significant movement for Disney and all other animations was the change to colour movement in the 1930’s. According to Graham, “With the integration of colour and action a whole new world of film graphics must evolve.” (Graham. ) He goes on to ask one of many questions, “Can change of mood or expression be sustained by a colour?” (Graham. ) When applying this theory to heroes and villains, and generally associating black with evil, racial discrimination here is questioned.
It is critical at this point to mention that cultures around the world interpret these colour perceptions very differently and the general western perception of colour is not largely accepted. Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and art theorist, is considered a pioneer of colour theory, he believes that the colour white symbolises harmony and cleanliness where the colour black portrays grief, darkness and the unknown, “When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human.” (Kandinsky, n.d.) Yet, in some African cultures black indicates maturity and masculinity, and in China it has positive connotations, like good health and prosperity.
The shift from black and white animations to colour is very symbolic in Disney’s first colour animation; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). “The colours presented at the beginning of the story (skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony) provide a direct indication that Snow White is a “coming of age” story.” (Jenericbooks.com, 2007) “The whiteness of Snow White’s skin as well as the whiteness attributed to the seven dwarfs furnishings, suggests an equation of ‘white’ with goodness.” (Hurley .221) The redness of her lips represents life and passion, as she endures maturity throughout the movie, and where she experiences ‘death’ is the black representation of her hair. This imagery lays down the basics of how Disney depicted colour, and in this case the representations aren’t so offensive. However, many of Disney’s animations, arguably showed a lot more racial disrespect.
This colour imagery becomes specifically problematic when African and Asian races are portrayed in offensive ways. Lady and the Tramp (1955), is not usually regarded as one of these, racially suspect films, however, Byrne would state otherwise, describing the Siamese cats as, “duplicitous, troublemaking, freeloading Asian illegal immigrants (they were brought under the coves of a basket) into the American domestic arena to threaten destabilise domestic politics.” (Byrne .97) The Siamese cats immediately threaten to move in, as they sing, “we are looking over our new dominical, if we like we stay, maybe for quite a while.” (Immigration Talk, 2018) Disney clearly portrays these characters as villains, with their stereotypical Asian speech and slanted eyes, while the heroes in the film speak a broad westernised accent.
Moving onto the 1960s, the time when The Civil Rights Movement was coming to an end, the feature length film Fantasia (1940) was re-released, which changed many people’s perceptions of Disney’s intentions. The original theatrical release of Fantasia (1940) featured ‘Sunflower’, a black centaurette that acted like a slave with her exaggerated lips and hair she was very obviously a racist caricature. (See Fig .3) Significantly, in the re-release, in 1969, the film had been censored and she had been removed from all releases of the film due to the racist stereotype. The complete deletion of the character arises questions, should the black character be completely removed and forgotten about? Was it more racist to depict a black woman as a slave, or, to deny her existence completely? Many would also argue that the predominantly white American 1940 audience did not take offence at this time as racism was largely accepted, therefore it wasn’t seen as a conscious effort to degrade anyone. The re-release was also around a significant time period, a time of riots in America and a year after the date Martin Luther King, the famous leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, was murdered.