Sunday, May 23, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox - Not Really Racist

I recently watched the movie The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I thought the animation was very disturbing and hard to get into, but the story was positive and it had its own charm based in surreal humor. People on the net seem to think that the movie is racist because of a scene involving a wolf and because of a villainous rat character, but I think this is misunderstanding innocuous elements.

 Mr. Fox’s meeting with the wolf is a representation of the connection between civilization and wildness. Mr. Fox and his people are heavily anthropomorphized, wearing suits and walking upright, though they have some aspects clearly animalistic such as eating in a manner realistic to animals. Throughout the story, Mr. Fox has an identity crisis where he wonders how strongly he identifies with the idea of being a wild animal, and by the climax he comes to embrace it. As a fox, he has a strong fear of wolves, which is repeatedly noted through the narrative, and when he actually sees a wolf he unexpectedly pauses to try to talk with him.
Mr. Fox is the red color one would expect from a fox, and the wolf is completely black and without clothing. The wolf is pausing on top of a hill some distance away when Mr. Fox stops to talk. Mr. Fox calls out a friendly greeting, but the wolf doesn’t seem to understand. He then indicates the both of them and identifies their species in Latin. The wolf still makes no indication of having understood. He tries asking a question in French, which likewise yields no response. The wolf seems to be without language. Mr. Fox then just admires the wolf in all his wildness, starts to tear up, and holds up his fist in solidarity. Unexpectedly, the wolf does likewise and then leaves.
So, folks are saying this is racist because the wolf is black, represents wildness, and does the fist that can indicate black power. Well, wolves can naturally be black. This wolf’s blackness works as a stark contrast to his environment, which is of a grassy forest area in bright sunshine. I don’t know if the wolf was specifically chosen to be black in a way to tie into his wildness, and even if it was I couldn’t say if that has anything to do with race. The raised fist can indeed represent black power and was notably used by the Black Panthers, but that’s not the only instance of that gesture throughout history. It’s been used by communists, the KKK, and others unassociated with the Black Panthers. All it really means is solidarity, and that’s all that’s implied by the context.
The rat character is a lanky black-furred brute with a southern accent and a taste for hard cider. While he’s more anthropomorphic than the wolf and clearly black in coloration, I didn’t interpret him as a black person; rather, I thought of him as a redneck. My dad thought he might be French based on the way he dresses. As for the cider, he may be drinking cider when he first shows up, but we only see him because Mr. Fox comes to steal cider. In fact, a lot of the characters like the cider, except for the naïve opossum sidekick who doesn’t drink. I suspect the rat is colored black, not as a reference to black people, but because of the association between the color black and evil.
In Western culture, there is a popular conception of the colors black and white as symbolically representative of evil and good, respectively. While this is sometimes tied up into racism, in which black people and white people are considered respectively evil and good, I don’t think this aspect is inherent to the symbolism. I suspect it’s an association with the sun and night, white being the fullest embodiment of light and black being that of darkness. We need the sun to live, making it something to honor, and the night is frightening both for potentially hiding dangerous things and for the simple absence of sunshine. In any case, this symbolism exists, and while its existence may be problematic, I don’t think invoking it counts as racism in and of itself. That means that coloring characters’ fur black does not inherently imbue them with negative racial aspects.
In conclusion, I believe that the controversy surrounding Fantastic Mr. Fox is unfounded. I have to think that the people who see racism in this movie so constantly spend their time analyzing real racism that they have forgotten how to view unrelated media. The only thing it’s guilty of is nauseatingly herky-jerky stop-motion animation.

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