This is the fourth in a series of five posts dealing with the symbolic deployment of racial difference. The first was about Shakespeare’s Caliban; the second was about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the third dealt with A Passage to India and Light in August.
Cross-posted at The Valve.
Robert Zemeckis's 1989 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit uses cartoon characters in roles which Hollywood had assigned to blacks back in the thirties and forties--suggesting that Disneyland is basically the Cotton Club in which black performers have been replaced by mice, ducks, dogs and other cartoon characters. The basic technical gambit, and triumph, of the film is to mix animated characters with live actors. This technical wizardry is thematically important.
In the film's Los Angeles there are two worlds, that of people, and that of Toons, classic cartoon characters from Betty Boop through Dumbo to Elmer Fudd. The Toons and their world are consciously modeled on white stereotypes of blacks. That is to say, they enact the symbolic role which whites have developed for blacks. The Toons are born entertainers: they sing, they dance, they tell jokes—the few positive roles which American popular culture has, until recently, allowed to blacks. One of the settings for the action is a night club where the entertainers and staff are Toons, but the clientele is strictly human, a setting modeled after those clubs, such as Harlem's Cotton Club, where the performers and staff were black while the patrons (and owners) where white.
One could imagine the same story being made using blacks instead of Toons. However, that film would surely, and properly, have been attacked for its blatent racism. While racism is alive, and altogether too well, in contemporary American society, sensitivities have changed. Hollywood no longer allows itself to indulge in stereotyping as blatent as it once enjoyed. The film Zemeckis made replaces racism with the technical virtuosity needed to mix animated characters with live actors. Instead of reviling the film for its racism, we can revel in its virtuosity. This basic structural device allows Zemeckis to create a film which shows that there are things the human characters need to do to live their lives, or, at least, to live them well, which those humans cannot do for themselves. They depend on Toons to complete their emotional lives.
We can see this dependence in the plot. Despit the film's title, Roger Rabbit is not the protagonist. The protagonist is Eddie Valiant, a private eye who has been in an alcoholic funk and estranged from his girlfriend, ever since his brother was murdered. Eddie is hired to find out who framed Roger Rabbit, a Toon, for murder. At first Eddie didn't want to take the case. Since it was a Toon who'd killed his brother he'd refused to have anything to do with them. This time, however, he relented. In the crucial scene, the real murderer has captured both Roger and his girlfriend Jessica and is about to murder them. It looks like he's going to get Eddie as well. At that point Eddie breaks out into a song and dance number, a very Toonish thing to do--something Roger points out later on, just so there is no chance that we'll miss the significance of this action. The song-and-dance is so ridiculous that it distracts the bad guys, themselves Toons, and allows Eddie to save Roger and Jessica. And, even more important, allows Eddie to save himself and to restore his relationship with his girlfriend.
This goes a bit deeper than simply having Toons as a class of professional entertainers. It is not simply that Toons provide humans with an escape from their lives. In Eddie's case, he had to act like a Toon in order to get on with his life. Until he took Roger's case he was emotionally dead. Only through becoming actively involved in the world of the Toons, and, for a moment, becoming one of them, could Eddie restore emotional fullness. Eddie has recovered for himself that part of his emotional life which whites have been projecting onto blacks. This, according to Harvard psychologist, George Vaillant, is how we grow in adulthood. We internalize characteristics of people with which we have a significant relationship. Through involvement with Toons, Eddie has grown.
That is to say, a white man has grown through involvement with symbolic blacks. Eddie Valiant's growth in the context of Who Framed Roger Rabbit parallels the large scale growth of American culture in the twentieth century. Through assimilation of black expressive culture, music especially, white American culture has changed and grown.