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Willy Wonka and the Racism Factory

category international | culture | non-anarchist press author Tuesday September 06, 2005 15:03author by Jonathan McIntosh Report this post to the editors

Racism and colonialism

This article examines the most recent film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in relation to issues of racism and colonialism.

The most recent film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is shaping up to be one of the highest grossing summer blockbusters of 2005. This is the third re-incarnation of Roald Dahl’s controversial story over the past four decades. As such, it is instructive, to examine it’s transformation in relation to issues of racism and colonialism.

In 1964, Roald Dahl published his original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In it he describes the Oompa-Loompas as dark-skinned “pygmies” from the heart of Africa. These indigenous people are brought back to the Western world from the jungles by the European chocolatier, Willy Wonka, with the intention of making them slaves in his factory, being paid only in cacao beans.

Dahl’s portrait of the Oompa-Loompas, includes the centuries old Western notion of indigenous populations as being exotic, simple and miserable. They are portrayed as unable to survive without the white Western world’s helping hand. Willy Wonka lulls his audience into quietly accepting this familiar and violent idea. In the process, Wonka becomes exalted as a white messiah to be revered and worshiped by the (literally) lesser brown people for having lead them out of darkness and into enlightenment and happiness. Throughout history, this false sense of altruism has closely accompanied racism.

In 1971 Paramount Pictures released a feature film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, staring Gene Wilder. The film’s creators felt it socially and culturally inappropriate to portray the Oompa-Loompas as originally described in Dahl’s book. Instead, the characters appearance was changed, making them little people, with bright orange skin and green hair from the fictional «Loopmaland». Their native land was never displayed on screen and is only mentioned in passing.

Two years later, in 1973, the book was re-issued with major revisions. Responding to criticisms of racism from the NAACP, children’s literature critic Eleanor Cameron and others, Dahl agreed to re-write portions of the book that mentioned the Oompa-Loompas. In the revised version, Dahl depicts them as small “hippy” people with long golden-brown hair and rosy-white skin. Their origin was also changed from Africa to the fictional Loompaland. These adjustments, while illustrating how culture has the ability to literally change art, are still problematic. It is not possible to negate the ideas of colonialism if the victims simply have light skin, come from a fictional place or are of a vague non-specific ethnicity.

Now, in 2005, Warner Brothers has released another version of the feature film, this time directed by Tim Burton and starring famed actor Johnny Depp. The new adaptation brings back the racism and colonialism that the 1971 film and the 1973 revised book attempted to downplay. In this most recent incarnation we follow Willy Wonka, sporting the classic attire of the colonial explorer complete with safari hat, as he travels on screen to a distant tropical jungle called «Loompaland». He is, we are told, in search of «exotic» flavors for a new line of sweets. While depicted as silly and adventurous, the right of the Western entrepreneur to take whatever “flavor” plant or animal he desires from developing countries is never questioned. It is just the kind of theft western pharmaceuticals and agro-corporations have been engaged in throughout the developing world over the centuries.

Interestingly, the film does not mention whether Wonka claims intellectual property rights over the ”flavors” he finds there, as is the case with his modern contemporaries. However, one assumes that the entire race of Oompa-Loompas falls under the umbrella of a fully owned copyright.

During this colonial montage, Wonka encounters a jungle village built in the trees that the Oompa-Loompas inhabit. This time, however, they are portrayed as a primitive miniature brown-colored indigenous people of non-specific ethnic origin. They sport feather headdresses, tribal style jewelry and grass skirts while dining on visibly «disgusting» green caterpillars and worshiping the rare coca bean. They are depicted as simple, whimsical, and of course, miserable in their native home. Wonka «generously» rescues the Oompa-Loompas by offering them the opportunity to work and live in his Western factory. Later they are shown «happily» imprisoned inside Wonka’s factory, which they conveniently cannot leave or they will be subject to chilly weather and die. The Oompa-Loompas also «willingly» allow themselves to be experimented on, much like laboratory animals, by Wonka as he tests his new, and sometimes dangerous, candy concoctions. Clearly, Wonka has not taken the time to explain the ins-and-outs of unionizing or worker health compensation to his imprisoned work force.

The Oompa-Loompas have no spoken language of their own and must resort to mime and jester to communicate. However, they have learned to sing in English while they dance for the entertainment of Wonka and his all white and full-sized guests. This happened in the 1971 film version, although in the 2005 version, the songs are accompanied by the laughable sexual gyrations of Oompa-Loompas, encouraging the audience to laugh along at the supposed sexuality of the mini-male of color. This unfortunately follows along and sad historical tradition of emasculating men of color for the enjoyment of white audiences.

Moreover, the Oompa-Loompas all look exactly alike, as they are played by one actor using composite visual effects. This is a new invention by the current film’s creators. The visual effect is ironic as it displays the problems at the very core of global labor issues: white populations perceive individuals of non-white populations as identical and all looking alike, lacking individual dignity. In this view, factory and sweatshop workers are ascribed no individual worth outside of the product they produce for consumers at low pay and in poor working conditions, unable to organize, form unions and improve conditions.

Many will no doubt respond to this critique disparagingly. They will say that the movie is just that, a movie. They will state that it has no social connection or cultural implications to the present western mindset. However, it is important to consider that Roald Dahl himself eventually made revisions of his story to meet the racial concerns that accompanied the changing social ethics in 1973. The fact that, in 2005, Tim Burton chose to revert back to the original description of the Oompa-Loompas as primitive “pygmies” is troubling at best. Burton has said in interviews that one of the things that attracts him to Dalh’s work is the «politically incorrect» subject matter. Audiences all over the country seem to feel the same attraction.

In the context of the present political landscape one cannot help but draw disturbing parallels between the fabled chocolate factory and US foreign policy in the Middle East. The notion that Wonka rescues the indigenous Oompa-Loompas from their “difficult lives” with his gift of industrialization seems to mirror the patronizing notion that the United States is presently rescuing the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq from their preserved savagery. It is disturbing that, this time around, no mainstream movie reviewers, civil rights organizations or social critics have pointed out these parallels or made these comparisons. Could it be that overt racism and colonialism have again become the norm in our society, passing almost without comment? Do we no longer even take the time to hide it under the surface?

For now, it seems, children will delight in recreating white master chocolatier and indigenous slave worker scenes as they play with colorful plastic Oompa-Loompa action figures from Wendy’s kids’ meals.

Jonathan McIntosh is photographer, filmmaker and community activist living in Boston, Massachusetts. His work can be seen at the collective.

author by cbrinsonpublication date Wed Sep 28, 2005 14:07author address author phone Report this post to the editors

why is there no racial outcry of the degradation of white people in film. films with a dominant african american cast, tend to be quite unbecoming to white people. martin lawrence specifically comes to mind. white people are continually degraded in hollywood as much as any other race. if you're going to speak out against racism, speak out against it all! really though, it doesn't much bother me. i seriously doubt any racist motives with tim burton or johnny depp.

author by oliver - ctcpublication date Wed Sep 28, 2005 23:01author address author phone Report this post to the editors

well it's good that it doesn't bother you and that you doubt that Burton or Depp could be racist!

author by jcbrinsonpublication date Thu Sep 29, 2005 20:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

i am very sorry if i wasn't clear in my earlier post. to clarify, i meant that it doesn't much bother me that, as a white guy, i am constantly harassed for being white. actually, on second thought, it does bother me a bit. all racism bothers me. white people are the only race of people on this earth that it is still "ok" to attack. it's bullshit and i'm sick of it. whatever.

author by filmcasekidpublication date Thu Sep 29, 2005 20:24author address author phone Report this post to the editors

good article

Related Link:
author by Jonathan McIntoshpublication date Wed Oct 05, 2005 13:33author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I do not beleive that white people (like me) can ever experience true racism. Discrimination maybe, on a rare occasion, but not racism. I know that many white people will not like that assertion.

The reason I say this is becuase racism is about power, pure and simple. It does not simply mean discrimination based on the color of ones skin (or being made fun of in a film or two).

Racism can only be experienced by people oppressed, disenfranchised and without power politically and economically. White people hold all of that power in our society (and around the world) for the time being...and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

I would suggest reading Tim Wise's book "White Like Me" from Soft Skull press for more on understanding our white privilege.

author by Concernedpublication date Mon Feb 18, 2008 02:13author address author phone Report this post to the editors

If this were the case then you can go down to Scotland (white people) and tell their people that it was Okay for the British (other white people) to come in push them out of their lands and rape their wives on their wedding day as well as taking away their freedom. The Scottish had to put up with the same issues (this includes slavery) as Africans. This issue comes down to who (not color or race) is a prick enough to do something like this to people.

The unfortunate part of this whole racism issue is everyone has had to deal with it and no matter how you label it racism is discrimination.

author by Lindzey Cole - TimBurtonIsRacistpublication date Mon Sep 28, 2009 05:44author email tylbfriends4life at yahoo dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Tim Burton is the biggest racist biggot I know. In ALLLLL of his films it's the same, ALL white people, NO blacks. You'd think that we've come from enough where black people would be considered equally for any type of roll, unless it's specifically needed to be played by a white person because of their skin color. But BURTON being the biggot that he is REFUSES to cast a SINGLE black person in ALL OF HIS's INSANE. I just looked at the cast for the new Alice in Wonderland, guess what? ALL WHITE. Just like every single film he's ever done in the past 15 years. Check it out yourself. It's like he doesn't want black people to be a part of his 'little world' he always has such a creepy vibe about all of his films, it's unique in the sense that all races should be entitled to represent and given a chance to shine in that world. Back in the day, which was about 40 somethin years ago, it was unheard of to place black people in major roles, but NOW...what's BURTON's excuse for all white casts? He's trying to honor the past?

I can understand why he casts Johnny Depp for every single one of his films, because he's obviously in LOVE with him. But why does that cause him to ONLY CAST white people for absolutely everything else????!!!

Tim Burton seriously should take the white sheet off of his head.

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