This year marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington (1963) where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial. In commemoration of this momentous occasion, President Barack Obama, joined by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton with other notable leaders, delivered a heartfelt speech to the world about the progress America has made and must continue to make.
“The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history; that we are masters of our fate.” Obama said. “But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together.”
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was vital in securing liberties and freedom for all Americans, regardless of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, and faith. While the United States have progressed in terms of legalized discrimination, there is still much more room for improvement.
Now, you may be wondering how Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) correlates with this serious event?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit celebrated its 25th anniversary this past summer. The multi Oscar winning film from executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Roger Zemeckis was released for the first time on Blu-ray.
This landmark film was the first to feature extensive live action mixed with traditional hand drawn animation and, nearly single-handedly, resuscitated Disney Studios and paved the way for a new era of entertainment in the Walt Disney Company.
At its core, WFRR is a whodunit mystery featuring a cartoon star (Roger Rabbit) who is framed for the murder of Marvin Acme, a gag factory mogul and landlord of the cartoon borough Toon Town. Eddie Valiant, a private-eye who holds a prejudice of ‘toons’ (short for ‘cartoons’), reluctantly takes the case after Roger’s antics eventually rope him in. Together, the odd pair must find out who is behind Acme’s murder and why lovable Toon Town is at risk of total destruction. Taking place in Hollywood in 1947, WFRR is set a jazzy soundtrack and unravels like a parody of the hardboiled detective noire made famous by actors such as Humphrey Bogart.
However, beneath the facade of childlike innocent and zip-a-dee-doo-dah faire, WFRR contains serious undertones to racially inequality, unfair housing practices, systemic discrimination, and segregation.
Roger Rabbit, the star of the movie, is a comedic actor who is pressured by his demanding boss to be successful in show business. He is an entertainer who must entertain. As he remarks in one scene, “My sole purpose is to make people laugh”. According to Roger, if he does not entertain people (non-toon humans), he has no meaning in life.
Voluptuous Jessica Rabbit, Roger’s wife – whose humanoid figure starkly contrasts her rabbit husband –works at a nightclub called “Ink & Paint Club”. The Ink & Paint Club is “toon revue; strictly humans only,” as one character puts it. The nightclub features toon servers, bartenders, and entertainers yet it caters to a human-only patronage.
Toon Town, the neighborhood of cartoon characters, is, initially, owned by human Marvin Acme. Toon Town is separated from Los Angeles by way of a long tunnel and high fence. Some humans, such as Eddie Valiant, are fearful to venture into the area as it dangerous and uncivilized. While most of the toons are a friendly, cordial group, their hometown is plagued by subservient living conditions and an unstable order.
After careful analysis, WFRR is a simile for the Civil Rights Movement in major metropolitan areas: Toons – as represented in the film- are “the others”, the underprivileged minority and lower class. If humans represent the mainstream America, the toons are the minority group who are in the lower socioeconomic class.
Toon Town is a symbol for the over-populated “separate but equal” ghettos of America segregated from mainstream society. The cartoon city is modeled after neighborhoods such as Watts, South Chicago, South Bronx, East L.A., and Chinatown.
Jessica Rabbit symbolizes the over-sexualized female, seen in 1940s cartoons, such as Coal Black and de Sebbin Dwarfs and in numerous movies. According to film theorist Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), Jessica Rabbit serves as the “passive female, the object of the gaze” who slows the action down and whose main role is a sex symbol.
The Ink & Paint Club, where Jessica Rabbit works, is an exact representation of the famed Cotton Club of Harlem. Situated on 142nd Street and Lennox Avenue, the Cotton Club operated from the 1920s to 1940 and served as the hip nightclub spot for white celebrities. Black performers, such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, were invited to perform, but were not allowed to patronize.
What about Roger Rabbit, the star of the film? Roger symbolizes the entertainers of the day; men and women from the marginalized side of society who only found a way out in the areas of music, sports, entertainment. Roger was Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, and Lena Horne. He was Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and many others.
And what of Eddie Valiant, the sardonic sleuth? He symbolizes mainstream America at the time. Eddie is a man with a love-hate relationship with “the others” of his day. He is a man unsure of himself and his position in life. And only after making a deep, personal connection with Roger Rabbit is Eddie able to change his perceptions.
We, as a nation, have come a long way since declaring Independence from Britain and establishing a democratic-republic. We labored through growing pains at the turn of the century, re-evaluated our ideals and beliefs in the mid 1900’s, and are now excelling towards the promise of liberty and justice for all in the 21st Century.
Perhaps the writers and leadership team of WFRR did not realize the gravity of their film at the time. Perhaps Dr. King did not envision a bi-racial president of the United States within fifty years following his speech.
One thing is for certain; The United States was created to be a government for the people, by the people. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence – reiterated by Dr. King, and echoed by President Obama- ““We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”.
The next time you find yourself watching a cartoon or Disney animated feature, what messages will you draw out from it?
“Smile, darn ya smile! You know this whole world is a great world after all!” – Who Framed Roger Rabbit