You’ll See It’s True
We watched Jungle Book the other day, the first time we’ve seen it since it came out more than fifty years ago. We’re deeply familiar with the soundtrack — we wore the grooves off the album as a kid — but the movie itself, just two viewings, bookending our life to date.
A lot has happened in between.
So much so that Disney+ felt compelled to post a content warning before the movie started, saying not only that some character depictions were less than salutary, but the creators should have known better at the time and did it anyway.
That got our attention.
Thing is, we know about Kipling. Our life has been spent watching stereotypes crumble under attack, starting with Archie Bunker just a few years later. We would never dare call ourself Woke, but let’s just say a certain cultural awareness has been baked into our development. “Dead honky”, as Richard Pryor would tell Chevy Chase almost a decade later.
So yeah, we were on our toes. The Kipling stuff, sure, but as P.L. Travers would tell you, Walt was less than faithful to his source material, whether it was a British nanny or British imperialist. And Jungle Book was Walt, the last movie he was directly involved with. He threw out an early draft because it was too dark.
And the thing is, we came up empty.
Mowgli himself may have a white boy’s voice — the son of an animator — but as an abandoned baby, he has no culture to grow into. The girl who ultimately draws him into the Man Village — a Disney twist — sings like an American, but she’s depicted Hindu, down to the red dot on her forehead. And while she’s singing about traditional family roles, this is the nineteenth century.
The only Raj remnant that survives in the film is the elephant Colonel Hathi, wistful for his days of imperial service, but he’s written and played as a blowhard, and his wife gets the better of him. You could have lifted that one from a sitcom of the era and planted it in WandaVision, but she is smarter and wiser than he is.
Which leaves King Louie.
The character was written with Louis Armstrong in mind, but they ended up with white Italian Louis Prima, who really does sing and dance like that with his band. (The animators filmed them performing for inspiration.) It’s old school Dixieland, not unlike the Hot Jazz popularized by Armstrong himself decades earlier.
But is it Song of the South?
That’s what you think going in, that’s the part you’re sure you missed as a kid, primates who sound black even if the performers aren’t, perhaps with large noses and lips to drive the point home.
Only… it doesn’t land like that.
Not to us, anyway.
King Louie may sing about being “an ape like me”, but he’s clearly an orange orangutan, something that isn’t in the index of Racial Stereotypes We’ve Known. And perhaps because we know the King of the Swingers lyrics so well, we know that what Louie lusts for is Man’s Red Fire, the only thing that frightens Shere Khan the tiger, the only thing that sets those critters off from the rest.
Not language. Not intelligence. They all have that in this world. Man is not inherently better than the rest. He just has a better weapon.
And sure, there’s the “walk like you, talk like you” stuff, but that’s not the, forgive us, animating force of the song.
We’ve always heard it that way, anyway. Years later, when Bruno Bozzetto animated a monkey getting ahold of its first weapon in Allegro Non Troppo, we knew where he was coming from. Hell, Stanley Kubrick covered that angle a year after Jungle Book in the most striking jump cut ever.
So where does that leave us?
Here’s the thing: Like Kipling, like Walt, like his animators and songwriters, like all the performers, we’re white, the dominant demographic in our society and culture. We’re attuned to the issues involved with that, but only because they have been brought to our attention all our life.
We wouldn’t have been aware of them otherwise. We would have been blind to them. That’s the thing. We can say Jungle Book looks as fine on second viewing as it did on the first, but we’re not black, are we? We’re not Hindu. We’re not even female.
It’s not for us to say.
That’s what’s so hard about all this, watching the latest ginned-up Culture Wars go down, watching people like us declare themselves judge and jury, dismissing all cases brought against them as whiny contrivances. We don’t get to say. We don’t get to rule.
We don’t get to have the last word.
We haven’t lived our life on the other end of those depictions. We haven’t lived in a society engulfed by people whose presumptions get the benefit of being unquestioningly normative. We don’t know what idiot shit we’re still doing because it hasn’t been brought to our attention yet.
Years ago we heard a definition of diversity that struck us as true, not just feelgood Rainbow stuff. It’s about who’s in the room, the experiences they bring to the table, what they know that you don’t, what they’ve lived that you haven’t, what you may never know unless they’re there to tell you. Hell, you wouldn’t even think to ask. That’s how presumptions work, even if you’re a Nice White Boy From Oregon who never hurt nobody.
Someone in the room said, hey, Jungle Book doesn’t wash. And we’re fine with that. Even if we don’t yet get what it is.