The Lion King, the animated movie, was released when I was around the age of my young cousin, give or take a year or so. I watched it on the screen at home, probably cable, maybe video. I had been in the United States about a year or so and had not learnt a lot about the nuances of race in this country. I remember that the movie didn’t impress me much like the older Disney movies, but I chalked that up to my no longer being a child. It really isn’t a remarkable story, nor is it unique. When you’ve read thousands of Aesop’s Fables, Ananse stories, and Grimm Tales, you can see the story coming at you from miles away. I remember also my annoyance at seemingly everyone “hakuna matata-ing” me as if by virtue of being African I would understand Swahili. But that really was it. A one-time viewing, shelved away in the recesses of the mind.
So here I was now, sitting in the Minskoff Theatre for a Sunday matinee showing of The Lion King surrounded by people of all ages, and as the show started with it’s majestic entrance, my first thought was not, “oh how cool, they are coming down the aisles” or “wow, how beautiful and magnificent are the props and how graceful the movements” but rather “wow, there are a lot of Black people in this show”. I began to imagine that probably ninety percent of the Black actors and actresses on Broadway were floating down the aisles on either side of me and were about to concentrate on center stage in front of me. Of course, I do not know any statistics, but this is what my mind was conjuring up.
As the show unfolded before me, my race conscious, conspiracy theorist, sexism-sensitive Americanized mind kept putting up flares of alarm. What? Scar actually said that to Nahla? What? The hyenas are actually that flamboyantly gansta and stupid? Goodness, why is that magical monkey Rafiki getting on my nerves?! I became very conscious of the cultural myopia that Disney movies have been plagued with…malice intended or not.
I wondered what kind of messages the children around me were receiving from this and other adult made children shows. I thought back to one of my favourite Disney movies, Dumbo, which I watched over and over again in my childhood. Would it be surprising that one of my favourite parts were the crows when Dumbo was up the tree? Have you ever seen an elephant fly? I don’t know whether it was because my Dumbo was German, or whether it was because I was child, or whether it was because I had no understanding of America, the birthplace of Dumbo, but when I watched Dumbo in English as a teen in the United States (and why not?) I was dumbstruck at the obvious stereotypes flashing on the screen before me. Horrifying. Not to mention that my other favourite though scary part of Dumbo – the parade of pink elephants – was really a drunk Dumbo and Timothy Mouse and it looked like so much fun! But no, it didn’t lead me to want to drink to the point of oblivion to achieve my own psychedelic dream. But I’m just saying. When did I become so politically correct, so sensitive to race and sexism?