written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor; originally published at Mixed Race America
So I was channel surfing last night and came upon the vintage Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — the one with Gene Wilder being slightly creepy (of course, it could just be the hair and eyes). It was early in the film when the kids are frolicking in the candy garden with the chocolate waterfall–Wonka is singing that song “Pure Imagination” and all is sugary bliss when Southern Man asks, “Hey, how come there aren’t any black people in this film? Where are the people of color? Are the Oompa Loopmas supposed to stand in for them? And isn’t that racist?”
Now part of my reaction was “Darn it! You stole my line!” I mean, that’s usually ME going on about representations of race and racialization and white supremacy. And especially remembering the illustrations from the original I read as a child and the story that Wonka tells about “saving” the Oompa Loompas and that they love working at the factory for free as long as they can eat cocoa beans….well, it’s a tale redolent with exploitation and racial hierarchization.
The lack of people of color is part and parcel of the way films were made in the 1970s and part of the larger problematics of the world in Dahl’s novel. But here’s the rub: I love Roald Dahl’s novels. And I love the Willy Wonka film–as problematic as the underlying narrative of exploitation is. And in an odd reversal, I was the one telling Southern Man that I didn’t want to think about these things and just wanted to watch the movie (it has been a hard few weeks…more on that later).
But still. I can’t turn off that part of my brain. Hence this blog post this morning. And of course, even with the update in 2005 with Johnny Depp filling in for Gene Wilder, we still get the cloned image of a dark skinned man as the oompa loompa par excellence.
That Southern Man…he puts me to shame with his spot on analysis of race and popular culture. Gotta get my A game on.