Zootopia and Race

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Zootopia.

I remember watching the Zootopia sloth trailer in front of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and laughing just as hard as everyone else in the theater. However, when the release date came around I was preoccupied with the hype for BatmanvSuperman and the film slipped by my radar. Zootopia returned to my radar after hearing about its box office success, and especially after a friend gave it a glowing review.


One of the things that my friend liked the most was how the film tackled the issue of race. He said it wasn’t preachy or overly sentimental, but worked in allegories that were easily identifiable. I remember the one he told me about was the use of the word “cute”. In the film, it is okay for bunnies to call one another cute, but it is offensive if another species uses the word. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the similarity to the word “nigga”.

Another light-hearted allegory that got my attention was a scene where Nicholas “Nick” Wilde (Jason Bateman) touches a sheep’s hair, remarking on how fluffy it is. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) then whispers that he can’t just touch a sheep’s wool. I can remember grade eight at Southbank International School in London, England. I was one of two black kids, out of a student body of at least 100, and my classmates often touched my hair. I am sure a lot of other black people, and women especially, can relate to someone treating them like an animal in a petting zoo and touching their hair without permission. I remember that a Buzzfeed article on Zootopia was filled with people arguing that this happens to anyone with curly hair. Black people, on average, are more likely to have curly or “kinky” hair so I think it is fair to say that the sheep wool can be interpreted as kinky hair.


Aside from these smaller vignettes, Zootopia is loaded with messages of discrimination. What I like most about the film is that most of these messages or lessons don’t come from the depiction of highly vocal bigots. I have no sympathy for ignorant people but most of the discrimination in the film is presented as ingrained biases from otherwise decent people who do not seem to know any better. I have no problem with the depiction of more staunch bigotry (such as Imperium or American History X) but in this age of supposed “colour-blindness” it is important to see how people who claim to be tolerant can adopt stereotypes of other races.

Within the city of Zootopia, mammals (predator and prey) now live in harmony. The film revolves around the disappearance of fourteen mammals in Zootopia.  Their disappearance is revealed to be a move by Mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K Simmons) to hide the fact that predators are going “savage”- reverting to their desire to attack and consume prey. Co-screenwriter Jared Bush has explained that predators in Zootopia only eat plant-based proteins and insects. Going “savage” causes the animals to lose the capacity for speech and return to the predator-prey mindset. Hopps, aided by Wilde, must uncover why the animals are going savage.

Wilde’s identify as a fox gives us one of our first insights into discrimination in this fictional world. In the film foxes have a reputation for being sly and deceitful. Hopps’s parents are wary of her living among them when she leaves their farm and goes to Zootopia. They make sure to give her fox-repellent, similar to pepper spray. Although Judy criticizes their bigotry she still brings the fox-repellent with her on her first day of work. Like real-life, someone who is outwardly accepting can still be affected by stereotypes that they have picked up from the media, friends, parents etc. I have had well-meaning friends tell me I speak well for a black guy, and Hopps also applauds Nick for how articulate he is. Nick has heard the compliment before, and thanks Hopps for not being patronizing (although his tone implies that he is not truly happy to hear the compliment again).

Wilde has long been the victim of prejudice, with the most pivotal moment being an incident of childhood bullying. Wilde had hopes of being the first fox scout, but was pranked and muzzled during his supposed induction ceremony. Zootopia is founded on the idea that anyone who arrives can be anything they want to be, similar to the American Dream. However, Wilde believes that all you can really be is what’s on the outside.  He knows other people only see a fox when they look at him, so he stopped trying to be different and became a con-artist. Obviously, I am not trying to say every criminal is simply misunderstood, and I don’t think the film is either. Wilde is simply an example of someone who is disillusioned with the world’s supposed equality, which he has yet to experience.

Meanwhile, Hopps is the first bunny cop, who is enlisted as part of a Mammalian inclusion initiative. Although she is accepted, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) has little faith in her ability and assigns her to parking duty.



Hopps and Wilde are able to form a bond over their treatment, but the bond is tested after they find the missing mammals. Hopps’s takes the stage for her first press conference, with Wilde watching close by, and is quick to reveal that all of the savage animals were predators. When probed, Hopps remarks that the predators might be returning to their old instincts. Wilde doesn’t approve of the comments, and Hopps initially dismisses him. She argues that Wilde should know she wasn’t talking about him, just “them”.

“I remember a mom of a friend of mine in the suburbs made some comment about a black person and – I had to be 12, about 60 pounds – and I said something and she said: ‘Oh no, not you. You are not black. You are great.’- Jesse Williams

That quote leapt into my mind during this scene. We end up being a “credit to our kind”, differentiated from “them”, the masses that deserve hate or mistrust.

It is later revealed that a serum, derived from a poisonous plant, is responsible for the mammals going savage. Mayor Dawn Bellwether (promoted after Lionheart is imprisoned) reveals herself as the mastermind behind the plot, aiming to use the public’s fear to eliminate the predator minority from Zootopia. Using a hitman of sorts, she was able to target predators all over the city and create an atmosphere of fear and distrust. This scheme isn’t just fiction; Donald Trump probably read an early draft of the screenplay and used it as a manual on running a Presidential campaign. As Bellwether says “Fear always works!”

I remember thinking about Zootopia unapologetically explored issues that many people are too afraid to nowadays. In many ways, this Disney film had more guts than most of the Disney produced Marvel films. There is a childhood scene where Hopps is attacked by a child fox, and when he moves to scratch her I was sure that she would be saved at the last minute somehow. Instead, we see Hopps sporting a scar on her left cheek. Life isn’t a fairy tale, and this movie isn’t afraid to let us know that. No pretty princesses, no flowery songs.  Zootopia has a great motto of equality but Hopps acknowledges it is only a motto and that the dream is a work in progress.



Straight Outta Compton and Minorities in Lead Roles

If you have been watching my Twitter or Facebook feed you know I can’t stop talking about how awesome Straight Outta Compton was. The film wasn’t perfect by any means, it dragged slightly at points and was also brought down by O’Shea Jackson Jr, who may resemble his father well but was one of the stiffest actors in the film. With that said, Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E) and Corey Hawkings (Dr. Dre) and Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller) anchor the film.

I was considering doing a review and I may do one on YouTube but this piece won’t be a review. I simply want to comment on how well the film is doing, especially in a time where studios and audiences continue to justify whitewashing and disproportionate casting of whites in Hollywood films. Paul Giamatti may be a great actor, but I do not believe he is considered a highly marketable actor. This biopic became the highest August opening for an R-Rated film due to the popularity of the figures it portrayed and a great marketing campaign. Despite the popularity of the real-life figures it would not surprise me if there were people who believed the film would flop financially due to its mostly black cast: Even though the film has relatively small budget of less than $30 million. Straight Outta Compton also had the fortune of being funded partially by figures such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, which probably helped to assuage studio worries of financial loss.

What I am hoping is that the success of Straight Outta Compton goes far beyond biopics. I hope studios can realize that the set in stone rule of black (and minority actors as a whole) not being marketable is a myth and a self-fulfilling prophecy. How are new minority actors supposed to become marketable if they are not given the appropriate chances to prove themselves? With 1 in 10 roles going to minorities in 2015, it is obvious that Hollywood’s practices of whitewashing and restricting casting calls to white actors severely impacts minority representation in films. Stars such as Will Smith and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were fortunate to have established careers that made them marketable prior to their first film. Will Smith had The Fresh Prince, while The Rock had the WWE. Although these careers did not mean that both actors were taken seriously as actors it did mean that studios didn’t view them as risky investments.

Hollywood’s casting practices have demonstrated that white actors generally do not need to worry about this stigma as much. Studios will cast untested leads like Armie Hammer and Kellan Lutz in huge budget films, while hesitating to cast minority actors in roles for less expensive films. As I have discussed in my piece on double standards, people will often defend whitewashing in large numbers, using excuses such as “it’s just a movie”, “best actor for the part” and “artistic interpretation”. When a white character is turned black/Hispanic/Asian, suddenly those same excuses are not valid. I want to see studios take more calculated risks with black actors, pointing to the success of Straight Outta Compton, instead of emphasizing the failure of Red Tails.

Whitewashing and Double Standards

Some may be familiar with the term, “whitewashing”, which is used by online communities to describe instances of characters of color being portrayed by white actors in live action films. As many will be quick to point out, Hollywood is a business. A business whose largest domestic segment is middle-class white people, which is why Hollywood films are crafted to appeal to this demographic (Stoddard 27).

Studio executives also believe that crafting a film for this demographic requires white actors, since they are deemed more relatable for other white audiences. However, racially homogenous China is Hollywood’s biggest international market. This is despite the fact that Asians comprise less than 3% of Hollywood’s lead roles. Although a country like China may look past the race of actors to enjoy a film, it is assumed that American audiences cannot do the same. White actors are deemed as normal and universal.

Predictably, instances of whitewashing often result in online debate, where some argue that whitewashing is no big deal since “It is acting after all” or that any critics should just “let the movie be”. For many readers, they have either used these arguments before or heard them from someone else. In many ways these arguments echo a valid sentiment: we should be color-blind. Let’s not judge someone’s race, only their talent or marketability. However, it is a fact that Hollywood is more willing to take risks on an unknown white actor over a minority one, indicating that white is inherently viewed as more marketable (Stoddard 373). This also means it is easier for an unknown white actor to get roles that can eventually lead to them becoming a marketable box-office talent. Also, the true test of this color-blind theory is if it applies to instances of actors of color playing notable white characters.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

The most recent example of whitewashing controversy that can be used for comparison is Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), where ancient Egyptians are portrayed by white actors. Like Ridley Scott said, he couldn’t get the movie made if his lead actor was “Mohammed so-and-so”. Scott previously said that Egypt was a “confluence of cultures”, which is what explains the white actors. However, the Mohammed comment makes it clear that minority actors were never considered for the part. In addition, the only roles that went to minorities were those of servants, guards or soldiers.

DF-00727R - Seti (John Turturro, background) presents the future leaders of Egypt: Ramses (Joel Edgerton, left) and Moses (Christian Bale).

Seti (John Turturro, background) presents the future leaders of Egypt: Ramses (Joel Edgerton, left) and   Moses (Christian Bale).

Although the instinct may be to argue that Exodus is a mythical tale, Scott said that he did not want to treat Exodus as a fantasy, since real historical figures like Ramses II are portrayed. The race of Ancient Egyptians is still contested and the purpose of this article is not to say that the casting is necessarily incorrect. The purpose is to study how Exodus’s casting is defended with arguments such as “best actor for the part” and “marketability”, while instances of race changing in other films are criticized when minorities are cast.

For many who grow tired of online debate about these issues it is easy to become defensive and fall back on the “just a movie” argument. However, it is also interesting to compare the reaction that a film receives when a minority actor portrays a white character. In the case of films like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four (2016)and Star Wars Episode VII (2016), there is even greater excuse for changing the race of actors since the stories are not inspired by any historical figures or conflicts. Yet instances of black actors getting roles in these films resulted in a flurry of online racist remarks. Along with the aforementioned films I will also be referencing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) to study how audiences react differently to whitewashing, than they do to instances of minorities playing white characters or inhabiting roles that they deem more appropriate for white people.

For many who grow tired of online debate about these issues it is easy to become defensive and fall back on the “just a movie” argument. However, it is also interesting to compare the reaction that a film receives when a minority actor portrays a white character. In the case of films like The Hunger Games, Fantastic Four (2016)and Star Wars Episode VII (2016), there is even greater excuse for changing the race of actors since the stories are not inspired by any historical figures or conflicts. Yet instances of black actors getting roles in these films resulted in a flurry of online racist remarks. Along with the aforementioned films I will also be referencing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) to study how audiences react differently to whitewashing, than they do to instances of minorities playing white characters or inhabiting roles that they deem more appropriate for white people.

The Hunger Games

Rue, from The Hunger Games, was described as having “dark brown skin and eyes” in the book. The author also said that Rue, and the character Thresh, are “African-American.” However, Twitter provided a refuge for hundreds of angry fans after they either heard about the casting of a black actress (Amandla Stenberg) for the part. A Canadian fan began identifying racist tweets about the casting by using “#hungergames”, and he eventually compiled hundreds of tweets and posted them on his Tumblr, Hunger Games Tweets. If audiences were truly color-blind, would they write tweets like “Why is Rue black?!?!” Or “I was pumped about The Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue.”



Racist Twitter

Another defense mechanism is probably to argue that these are just a few idiots online. Why bother analyzing them and thinking they represent anything significant? The problem is that hypothetically, these people who criticize this casting could be the same ones denying any discussion of casting discrimination when a character gets whitewashed. This isn’t just one troll, these are hundreds of people from only one case study. As the website’s anonymous creator, “Adam” says, “That tweet was very telling in terms of a mentality that is probably very widespread.” It is important to acknowledge and understand the double standard present in audience reactions to race-changing.

Color-Blind Racism and The Fantastic Four


Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch

Although the increased discourse of color-blindness is ideal in theory, groups such as the American Psychological Association have denounced it because they realize that people who claim to be color-blind are more likely to support racism. As a result, scholars have coined the term “color-blind racism” to describe this new, superficially post-racial mindset.

Color-blind racists view racism as an issue of the past, which leads to a denial of racism and a belief that all races receive equal treatment. With this mentality it is easy to ignore any alleged whitewashing, since color-blind people don’t acknowledge discriminatory casting. For a colour-blind racist, race should be a taboo topic since they believe acknowledging race perpetuates racism. The discussion of racism is only relevant to a color-blind person if the act of alleged racism is deemed damaging to whites, which demonstrates the racial bias of this colour-blind veil. To colour-blind racists, whiteness is normal, while color is seen as threatening or subversive.

To color-blind racists, the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four can then be interpreted as an example of minority privilege. Instead of seeing Jordan’s casting as a selection of the best actor, color-blind racists see this casting as an example of minorities getting special treatment. The belief in minority privilege then frames whites as the targets of “reverse discrimination”.

Although there are numerous examples of whites playing people of color over the past ten years, color-blind people will ignore or rationalize these changes and then focus on the fewer examples of minorities playing white actors. While 30 Days of Night (2007), Dragonball: Evolution (2009), Prince of Persia (2010), The Last Airbender (2010), The Lone Ranger (2013), Pan (2015), Aloha (2015) and others are defended for various reasons, The Fantastic Four becomes an easy target for colour-blind racists.

Like Rue and The Hunger Games, Twitter provided a refuge for racist comments when the casting was announced. The Fantastic Four casting is incorrect; Johnny Storm has always been depicted as white. However, if audiences were truly color-blind then Michael B. Jordan’s race would not be a problem for the casting. Online comments would not say the casting is an example of “political correctness”, or that it is “racist”. Shouldn’t there be more comments arguing that race doesn’t matter, and that studios simply pick the “best actor for the part?” Even if his sister is white in the film, that should not bother someone who is truly color-blind, since they do not see color. Jordan is already familiar with the complaints. As he said in May, “Some people may look at my casting as political correctness or an attempt to meet a racial quota, or as part of the year of ‘Black Film.’

Quick Comparison: The Hobbit and The Last Airbender

Avatar:The Last Airbender (ATLA), set in a fictional world, was a particularly interesting case of whitewashing since the casting was sometimes defended by arguing that the fictional world makes the intended race of the characters irrelevant. Even though the creators have described the series as a “fictional Asian world” and said that they wanted to create a fictional world like Lord of The Rings, but use their love for Asian cinema to take it in a different direction. The show and its depiction of Asians was also a source of confusion for some since Asian characters were not depicted with the stereotypical markers audiences are used to in Western TV and cinema, such as slanted eyes and yellow skin. Since the show was influenced by Korean animation, ATLA’s animation style reflects the practice of avoiding these markers.


ATLA’s Asian character. Aang (front) and the Inuit characters Katara(middle) and Sokka (Back)

Some audiences may see the characters depicted in anime and assume that they are not meant to be Asian since they lack these markers as well, but these characters are judged by Western standards. Another way to think of it is by using the example of a stick drawing. If we draw a stick person in a country that is mostly white, such as America, England, France etc. we will assume the stick person represents a white person unless we give the figure stereotypical markings e.g. brown skin, curly hair.

In Asian countries, such as Korea or Japan, where the population is over 90% homogenous, they will assume the stick figure represents an Asian person. This principle also applies to their animation. The confusion only arises when their animation is exported to other countries, where audiences get hung up on the appearance and ignore any other signs of an Asian world, or an Asian-inspired one.

People will decry the presence of black extras in The Hobbit, a world inspired by European mythology. Yet people will also defend the casting of white actors in The Last Airbender, a world inspired by Asian and Inuit architecture, clothing, mythology and philosophies.

The Last Airbender

Pictures displaying the whitewashing of the Inuit characters, Sokka and Katara.

(Some may be quick to get defensive, ignore the brown skin and point to the blue eyes as a sign of whiteness. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, there are individuals who have the ability to manipulate the element of their tribes or groups: earth, water, air and fire. The eye colour serves as an indicator of a character’s element. In the show the Air Nomads have grey eyes, the earth nation members have green eyes, water tribe members have blue eyes and the Fire Nation have orange eyes.)

These blatant double standards cannot be ignored. Double standards where criticism of whitewashing is ridiculed as the work of “unemployed” people with nothing better to do, while minority casting generates rants about the negative influence of political correctness.


Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The last example I will use from this article, and the second one from this year alone, is John Boyega’s casting in Star Wars: Episode VII. When the first trailer for the film debuted Boyega was briefly glimpsed in a stormtrooper costume.

Black stormtrooper

At this point, we could not be sure whether his character used it as a disguise, like Luke and Han did in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. However, many disgruntled fans believed he was meant to be a clone of Jango Fett, like the soldiers from the prequel trilogy. The only time Jango Fett was pictured without a face-concealing helmet was in the prequels, where he was portrayed by Maori actor Temuera Morrison.


However, the producer of the television show, Star Wars: Rebels, indicated that the last of the clones would be “old and grey” by Episode IV. Any stormtroopers pictured in Episode VII will be people recruited from the general population. This means that Boyega’s character is not meant to be a clone of any previous character. However, the damage control came too late for Boyega, who also witnessed a flurry of online racism that led him to tell critics to “Get used to it.”

According to a 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, 1 in 10 films have a minority lead. This is despite the fact that America is becoming more diverse and despite the fact that Latinos comprise the largest portion (over 25%) of American moviegoers, even though they are only 16% of the population. Additionally, only 7% of Latinos identify as white as of 2010. This demonstrates that the out-dated notion of needing a white actor to draw in a bigger audience is overstated and only serves as an excuse to limit the roles available to minority actors, and in some cases, take those roles away and give them to a more “marketable” white actor. This only creates a cycle of unemployment where minority actors are not given the same opportunity to display their talent, since they are not seen as marketable or relatable enough.

Directors and actors who are involved in whitewashing rarely voice a critical opinion of the casting, with director Cameron Crowe being one of the few to openly criticize his own casting choice. While Joel Edgerton said he empathized with those who opposed the Exodus casting he also added, “it’s not my job to make those decisions…I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.”Additionally, few actors speak out against instances of whitewashing, possibly because they fear backlash from potential employers.

Meanwhile, the few instances of minority actors receiving a role that could go to a white person are met with an onslaught of racist comments. From The Hobbit, to the The Fantastic Four and Star Wars, people will throw out the same arguments about representation and racial accuracy that they would ignore if a character was whitewashed. With this warped mindset, it becomes easy to see “reverse-racism” as the real problem in the film industry, and even America as a whole (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 192).

Is race-changing ever a right thing to do? That is not the question of this article. The question is do we react in a consistent, logical way to instances of race changing. Or are their obvious preferences in what we choose to care about?

Works Cited

Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. “Ridley Scott Responds to ‘Exodus’ Backlash.” DailyDot. DailyDot, 29 August 2014. Web. 16 July 2015.

Bonilla- Silva, Eduardo and David Dietrich. “The Sweet Enchantment of Color-Blind Racism in Obamerica.” The Annals Of The American Academy of Political and Social Science 634.1 (2011): 190-206.

Brook, Tom. “How The Global Box Office Is Changing Hollywood.” BBC. BBC News., 20 June 2013. Web. 10 April 2015.

Chan, Wilfred. “‘Star Wars Episode VII’ Actor John Boyega Takes Aim at ‘Black Stormtrooper’ Racism.” CNN. CNN. 1 December 2014. Web 17 July 2015.

Chesler, Mark A., Melissa Peet and Todd Sevig. “The Political is Personal: The Influence of White Supremacy On White Antiracists’ Personal Relationships.” White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism. Eds. Ashley W. Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. New York: Taylor and Francis Books, Inc., 2003. 253-267. Print.

Dickens, Donna. “316 Days Until Star Wars: Lucasfilm Quietly Confirms Stormtroopes Aren’t Clones.” Hitfix. Hitfix, 4 February 2015. Web. 17 July 2015.

Helen, Neville, Roderick L. Lilly, Georgia Duran, Richard M. Lee, LaVonne Browne. “Construction And Initial Validation Of The Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale.”Journal of Counseling Psychology 47.1 (2000): 59-70.

Jones, Alice. “Ridley Scott, it’s about casting ‘Mohammad so-and-so’, it’s about realising you have a duty to make stars of non-white actors.” The Independent. The Independent, 28 November 2014. Web. 16 July 2015.

Holmes, Anna. “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race In Hunger Games.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 30 March 2012. Web. 17 July 2015.

Lawler, Kelly. “Crowe Apologizes For Emma Stone Casting.” USAToday. USA Today., 3 June 2015. Web. 23 July 2015.

McClintock, Pamela. “The Secret To A Smash Movie? Lure Hispanics.” The Hollywood Reporter. Hollywood Reporter., 2 October 2012. Web. 10 April 2015.

“Questions Related To The Last Airbender.” Racebending.com. Racebending., 2011. Web. 19 July 2015.

Romero, Dennis. “How Hollywood Keeps Minorities Out.” LaWeekly. LA Weekly., 25 February 2015. Web. 13 April 2015.

Rosen, Christoper. “Ridley Scott Addresses ‘Exodus’ Casting Following Whitewash backlash.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 29 August 2014. Web. 17 July 2015.

Roxborough, Scott. “Joel Edgerton Addresses ‘Whitewash’ Criticism of ‘Exodus’.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter., 19 August 2014. Web. 22 July 2015.

Santos, Ridley. “Just Saw The Hobbit: Officially Over The Concept of Fandom.” Groupthink. Groupthink, 12 December 2013. Web. 17 July 2015.

Stoddard, Jeremy D. “The Burden Of Historical Representation: Race, Freedom and ‘Educational’ Hollywood Film.” Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 36.1 (2006): 26-35. Print.

Toro, Gabe. “Joel Edgerton Addresses Controversy Over Exodus: Gods and Kings Casting.” CinemaBlend. CinemaBlend., 23 September 2014. Web. 23 February 2015.

Toro, Gabe. “Michael B. Jordan Addresses Controversy Over Fantastic Four Casting.” CinemaBlend. CinemaBlend., February 2014. Web. 22 February 2015.

“USA.” Quickfacts. United States Census Bureau, 31 March 2015. Web. 10 April 2015.

Valby, Karen. “Team Hunger Games’ talks: Author Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross on their allegiance to each other, and their actors- EXCLUSIVE.” Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment, 7 April 2011. Web. 16 July 2015.

Vasconcelos, Eduardo. “Interview: Avatar’s Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino.” IGN. Ziff Davis, 6 September 2007. Web. 17 July 2015.

Weaver, Andrew J. “The Role of Actors’ Race in White Audiences’ Selective Exposure to Movies.” Journal of Communication 61.2 (2011): 369-385.