Willy Wonka and the Racism Factory

The most recent film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is shaping up to be one of the highest grossing summer blockbusters of 2005. This is the third re-incarnation of Roald Dahl’s controversial story over the past four decades. As such, it is instructive to examine its transformation in relation to issues of racism and colonialism.

Willy Wonka and the Racism Factory

In 1964 Roald Dahl published his original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In it he describes the Oompa-Loompas as dark-skinned “pygmies” from the heart of Africa. These indigenous people are brought back to the Western world from the jungles by the European chocolatier, Willy Wonka, with the intention of making them slaves in his factory, being paid only in cacao beans.

Dahl’s portrait of the Oompa-Loompas includes the centuries-old Western notion of indigenous populations as exotic, simple and miserable. They are portrayed as unable to survive without the white Western world’s helping hand. Willy Wonka lulls his audience into quietly accepting this familiar and violent idea. In the process, Wonka becomes exalted as a white messiah to be revered and worshiped by the (literally) lesser brown people for having led them out of darkness and into enlightenment and happiness. Throughout history, this false sense of altruism has closely accompanied racism.

In 1971 Paramount Pictures released a feature film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starring Gene Wilder. The film’s creators felt it socially and culturally inappropriate to portray the Oompa-Loompas as originally described in Dahl’s book. Instead, the characters’ appearance was changed, making them little people with bright orange skin and green hair from the fictional “Loompaland”. Their native land is never displayed on screen and is only mentioned in passing.

Two years later, in 1973, the book was re-issued with major revisions. Responding to criticisms of racism from the NAACP, children’s literature critic Eleanor Cameron and others, Dahl agreed to re-write portions of the book that mentioned the Oompa-Loompas. In the revised version, Dahl depicts them as small “hippy” people with long golden-brown hair and rosy-white skin. Their origin was also changed from Africa to the fictional Loompaland. These adjustments, while illustrating how culture has the ability to literally change art, are still problematic. It is not possible to negate the ideas of colonialism if the victims simply have light skin, come from a fictional place or are of a vague non-specific ethnicity.

Now, in 2005, Warner Brothers has released another version of the feature film, this time directed by Tim Burton and starring famed actor Johnny Depp. The new adaptation brings back the racism and colonialism that the 1971 film and the 1973 revised book attempted to downplay. In this most recent incarnation, we follow Willy Wonka, sporting the classic attire of the colonial explorer, complete with safari helmet, as he travels on screen to a distant tropical jungle called “Loompaland”. He is, we are told, in search of “exotic” flavors for a new line of sweets. While depicted as silly and adventurous, the right of the Western entrepreneur to take whatever “flavor” plant or animal he desires from developing countries is never questioned. It is just the kind of theft Western pharmaceuticals and agro-corporations have been engaged in throughout the developing world over the centuries.

Interestingly, the film does not mention whether Wonka claims intellectual property rights over the “flavors” he finds there, as is the case with his modern contemporaries. However, one assumes that the entire race of Oompa-Loompas falls under the umbrella of a fully-owned copyright.

During this colonial montage, Wonka encounters a jungle village built in the trees that the Oompa-Loompas inhabit. This time, however, they are portrayed as a primitive, miniature, brown-colored, indigenous people of non-specific ethnic origin. They sport feather headdresses, tribal-style jewelry and grass skirts while dining on visibly “disgusting” green caterpillars and worshiping the rare cacao bean. They are depicted as simple, whimsical, and of course, miserable in their native home. Wonka “generously” rescues the Oompa-Loompas by offering them the opportunity to work and live in his Western factory. Later they are shown “happily” imprisoned inside Wonka’s factory, which they conveniently cannot leave because they will be subject to chilly weather and die. The Oompa-Loompas also “willingly” allow themselves to be experimented on, much like laboratory animals, by Wonka as he tests his new, and sometimes dangerous, candy concoctions. Clearly, Wonka has not taken the time to explain the ins-and-outs of unionizing or worker health compensation to his imprisoned work force.

The Oompa-Loompas have no spoken language of their own and must resort to mime and gesture to communicate. However, they have learned to sing in English while they dance for the entertainment of Wonka and his all-white and full-sized guests. This happens in the 1971 film version, although in the 2005 version, the songs are accompanied by the laughable sexual gyrations of Oompa-Loompas, encouraging the audience to laugh along at the supposed sexuality of the mini-male of color. This unfortunately follows a long and sad historical tradition of emasculating men of color for the enjoyment of white audiences.

Moreover, the Oompa-Loompas all look exactly alike, as they are played by one actor using composite visual effects. This is a new invention by the current film’s creators. The visual effect is ironic, as it displays the problems at the very core of global labor issues: white populations perceive individuals of non-white populations as identical, lacking individual dignity. In this view, factory and sweatshop workers are ascribed no individual worth outside of the product they produce for consumers at low pay and in poor working conditions, unable to organize, form unions and improve conditions.

Many will no doubt respond to this critique disparagingly. They will say that the movie is just that, a movie. They will state that it has no social connection to or cultural implications about the present Western mindset. However, it is important to consider that Roald Dahl himself eventually made revisions of his story to meet the racial concerns that accompanied the changing social ethics in 1973. The fact that, in 2005, Tim Burton chose to revert to the original description of the Oompa-Loompas as primitive “pygmies” is troubling at best. Burton has said in interviews that one of the things that attracts him to Dahl’s work is the “politically incorrect” subject matter. Audiences all over the country seem to feel the same attraction.

In the context of the present political landscape, one cannot help but draw disturbing parallels between the fabled chocolate factory and US foreign policy in the Middle East. The notion that Wonka rescues the indigenous Oompa-Loompas from their “difficult lives” with his gift of industrialization seems to mirror the patronizing notion that the United States is presently rescuing the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq from their preserved savagery. It is disturbing that, this time around, no mainstream movie reviewers, civil rights organizations or social critics have pointed out these parallels or made these comparisons. Could it be that overt racism and colonialism have again become the norm in our society, passing almost without comment? Do we no longer even take the time to hide it under the surface?

For now, it seems, children will delight in recreating white master chocolatier and indigenous slave worker scenes as they play with colorful plastic Oompa-Loompa action figures from Wendy’s kids’ meals.

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