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Simianization in the Film “Sing”

Glaring caricature and stereotype provides teachable moment about racial bias

Let’s talk about simianization now, as 2016 is closed. It’s the comparison of people with apes in an effort to dehumanize and oppress them. People of African, African-American, Irish, Japanese, and Jewish descent have been simianized in the past  —  and the present.

The animated film “Sing,” which opened on December 21, features a lazy, tone-deaf, and hurtful character choice by writer and director Garth Jennings. Whether conscious or unconscious, Jennings’ script perpetuates systemic racism and the history of simianization and oppression of black people by depicting them as gorillas, monkeys, and apes.

“Sing” portrays a family gang of criminals as mountain gorillas. The gang leader, a brute who kills time by punching a speed bag in his hideout, wears gold rings and a gold chain around his neck. His son, Johnny, a key character in the film, works as part of the gang. But Johnny really wants to sing.

This glaring caricature and stereotype provides a teachable moment and an opportunity to initiate conversations about racial bias in the stories films tell.

Illumination Entertainment, producer of “Minions,” “Despicable Me,” and “The Secret Life of Pets,” created the film based on the premise of the “America’s Got Talent” TV show. It features 65 songs and the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlet Johansson, Taron Egerton, Leslie Jones, and many other stars.

The film presents anthropomorphic representations of animals. They wear clothes, talk, drive cars, live in houses and apartments, and operate machinery, just as humans do. The animals in the film do not behave, move about, communicate, or live in the way animals do in real life. Of course, in reality, pigs don’t speak English, stand upright, walk on their hind legs, shop for groceries, wash dishes, and sing.

As in “Zootopia” and many other films, the anthropomorphic animal characters represent humans. And the film portrays human society and human struggles with these stand-in animal characters.

The representation in “Sing” is deeply problematic. The mountain gorillas in “Sing” read as black people. Further, as black people, they are portrayed as criminals.

Take a look at one of the trailers.

So, how did this film go through all of its stages of development and retain a hurtful caricature? Didn’t anyone cry foul? Didn’t anyone say to Jennings, “You know Garth, there was a Staten Island gang of black guys called the Gorilla Bloods.” Or, “Hey Garth, this is offensive. Let’s choose a different animal for the criminals.” Apparently not.

Last month, Pamela Ramsey Taylor, director of the Clay County Development Corporation in West Virginia, referred to First Lady Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels” in a Facebook post. Such comments are not new. President and Mrs. Obama have suffered relentless simianization in written comments, cartoons, and altered photographs during the past eight years.

Even Leslie Jones, a member of Sing’s cast, suffered simianization this past July. Jones, a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” and the “Ghostbusters” remake, was viciously trolled on Twitter and compared with an ape after “Ghostbusters” opened. A group of people  — not just one person  — participated in dehumanizing her. Twitter banned one person for life because of his comments about Jones.

Unfortunately, this was not an aberrant event. If you care to subject yourself to the comments regarding just about any online news story about President and Mrs. Obama, you’ll find toxic, anonymous statements equating the Obamas to apes. Interviewed a few days ago about his hopes for 2017, Carl Paladino, the co-chair of Donald Trump’s New York State campaign, said he hopes that Mrs. Obama will be “let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla.”

Social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt, a 2014 MacArthur Fellow affiliated with Stanford University, studies the effects of simianization in U.S. society. She “investigates the subtle, complex, largely unconscious yet deeply ingrained ways that individuals racially code and categorize people, with a particular focus on associations between race and crime.”

Through six psychological studies with human subjects over the span of six years, Eberhardt and co-researchers at Penn State, Stanford, and the University of California Berkeley found that “U.S. citizens implicitly associate Blacks and apes.” In the paper, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” published in a 2008 issue of “The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” Eberhardt, Phillip Atiba Goff, Matthew C. Jackson, and Melissa J. Williams reported that “this association influences study participants’ basic cognitive processes and significantly alters their judgments in criminal justice contexts. Specifically, this Black — ape association alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against Black suspects.”

Interviewed by the Stanford New Service about her work, Eberhardt said, “We want to argue, with this work, that there is one old race battle that we’re still fighting,” she said. “That is the battle for blacks to be recognized as fully human.”

“Sing” is not a harmless cartoon. Jennings’ story perpetuates bias through a hurtful caricature of blacks that questions their humanity. It reinforces what some people now feel emboldened to say out loud after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. This meticulously designed animated film features familiar pop songs with corresponding choreography. Animators and editors crafted the film to encourage audience members to tap their feet, clap their hands, dance  — and to ignore the film’s glaring racial caricature and stereotype.

Reviewers have written mostly about the quality of the singing voices of the star-studded cast, and the enormous amount of work it must have taken for the legal team to secure rights to use the songs in the film. They noted that “Sing” is corny and sappy, and predicted that audiences will love it. I saw that a person posted comments on the IMDb.com message boards regarding racist caricatures in “Sing.” Others wrote to that commenter that he was imagining things and seeing bias that isn’t there. I disagree with those commenters. I see simianization in “Sing” that has been normalized by a film with global reach.

This past summer, the Red Cross released a swimming safety poster. Right away, folks noticed problems with the poster. All of the children doing unsafe things in the pool were black. All of the children practicing water safety were white. “Racism  —  like sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry  — is filtered through the eyes of the beholder. Sometimes we might not recognize it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” wrote Dahleen Glanton, a Chicago Tribune reporter, commenting on the Red Cross poster on June 30, 2016.

Jennings’ choice to portray criminals in “Sing” as gorillas hurts even more now in these days following the election of Donald Trump as President. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented an alarming increase in the number of hate crimes against people of color following the election. There is an increase in hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslim or Jewish, as well.

So, why have I made a fuss about animals in an animated movie? Because we teach about and share our culture and values through the stories we tell.

The stories we tell to our children in our homes matter. What we include and exclude from our stories matters. The narratives that the entertainment industry weaves and portrays in films, television shows, and video games matter. These narratives teach children what it is to be human. And how we represent human beings — even through anthropomorphic representation  — matters.

Black lives matter. The way that Hollywood represents blacks matters. And the way films represent our human society matters. With their global reach, movies play an important teaching role in our societies. Earlier this year, “New York Times” film critic A. O. Scott discussed Robert Townsend’s 1987 film, “Hollywood Shuffle,” which chronicles a young black actor’s quest to get a part in a Hollywood film. “Bouncing from one audition to the next, he finds that the available roles are limited and limiting. He can play a slave or a thug, a buffoon or a saint,” Scott wrote. “The filmmakers and casting directors  — virtually all of them white  — urge him to shuffle and suffer, to clown and strut, and in every case to confirm their ideas of what a black person should be, which is not really a person at all.”

Illumination Entertainment CEO Chris Meledandri spoke at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France in June 2015. Among other things, he discussed Illumination’s forthcoming film “Sing,” and announced that Matthew McConaughey had signed on to the film. “Variety” reported that Meledandri offered this advice to industry colleagues: “Subvert the expectation of the audience. Surprise them with unexpected choices.”

I did not feel surprised by the film’s unexpected choice of portraying criminals as mountain gorillas. I felt appalled and profoundly sad. I saw the preview for the film on Friday, July 8, the opening day of another Illumination Entertainment film, “The Secret Life of Pets.” That was two days after a police officer fatally shot Philandro Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. It was three days after police officers shot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La. I had a hunch that those police officers harbored bias about blacks. I guessed that they didn’t see Castile and Sterling as fully human  — and that they judged them to be criminals because of their skin color.

I sat in that dark, cool theater on a beastly hot afternoon in July and recognized a hugely lazy and hurtful flaw in “Sing.” I resolved to initiate conversations about the film. Since then, I wondered if Meledandri and Jennings sought to understand the many groups that compose the U.S. audience for “Sing” before Jennings began writing the screenplay. Wouldn’t one want an animated family film to appeal to as many people as possible? Public speaking coaches Michael and Amy Port offer great advice for speakers that applies to writers, also. “Instead of assuming, ask what the world looks like to your audience.” Jennings skipped this step in developing his script.

The narrative of “Sing” upholds and maintains racial hierarchies that don’t involve force, such as slavery or apartheid. bell hooks identifies this internalized attitude as white supremacy. In her book “Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black,” hooks notes that along with whites, black, Latino, Asian and First Nation peoples have “absorbed negative feelings and attitudes about blackness.” She then discusses internalized attitudes of white supremacy held by liberal white people. “When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white-supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they profess to wish to see eradicated,” hooks writes.

Jennings’ script affirms those who equate blacks with apes. It affirms those who teach little white children that they are superior to their preschool classmates with black and brown skin. “…[W]e have to ask how vision  — art itself  —  is used to rationalize and perpetuate racism, inadvertently or not,” writes Manohla Dargis, chief film critic for “The New York Times.”

I am not naïve. I know that we’re dealing with big business and big money here. “Sing” had a $75 million budget. Given its track record, Illumination Entertainment stands to make bank on the film  — by design. In an interview with E. Alex Jung of Vulture in August 2016, Rupaul explained that “…Hollywood doesn’t have a moral responsibility, they have a monetary responsibility. So they do things that make sense to them financially. Because it’s not a person we’re talking about  — we’re talking about a corporation. A corporation’s bottom line is to make more money.”

So, it made financial sense for the creators of “Minions,” “Despicable Me,” and “The Secret Life of Pets” to create a film based on the “America’s Got Talent” premise featuring the voices of bankable stars. And, it made financial sense to open the film in the United States four days before Christmas. They have a soundtrack album and a whole line of “Sing” merchandise to sell.

But it didn’t make sense to choose a lone writer, Jennings, who is a white British male. The film’s narrative lacks critical insight from others’ lived experiences. The film would been different had it been written collaboratively by a diverse group of writers in the way that “Zootopia” was created. Zootopia’s nine writers tackled issues of bias together and addressed them in that film.

The writers of “Zootopia” created a product that helps to foster a kinder, more inclusive world, while still making an enormous amount of money for Disney. “Zootopia” has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. It is the second-highest earning original animated film after “Frozen.” “Zootopia” shows that it’s possible to make money through socially-conscious art and design.

Had Jennings hired and worked with a team of writers for “Sing,” I imagine one writer might have said, “You know, guys, we’re setting up Johnny as a gorilla criminal whom the audience will read as a black criminal.”

Another writer might have said, “Oh, but Johnny is a credit to the gorillas. He redeems himself through his singing.”

“What are you talking about?” still another person might have said after spitting out her coffee. “Wait a minute. Let’s stop and read Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.’”

And, I imagine the writing team reading and discussing the 26 conditions McIntosh lists in her “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” essay. McIntosh is a white professor of Women’s Studies at Wellesley College. She saw in the ’80s that her black female colleagues received different treatment in her work place and in society than she received. And, she began to question unearned privilege she received in society because she is white.

“I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined,” McIntosh wrote. “As far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.”

These are six of the conditions McIntosh identified:

I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race. 

I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group. 

If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen. 

I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

Imagine the film Jennings could have made had he worked with a team of writers who reflected on their own privilege, and put themselves in others’ shoes to understand the lives, experiences, opportunities, and the barriers faced by others with less privilege.

This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.  – Parker Palmer

I am a white cis-gender female. I possess unearned privilege in society because of my skin color. Along my path, I’ve become a reflective practitioner and an active listener. I’ve learned to question my assumptions and my frames of reference. I’ve also learned the power of methodological belief — stepping into another person’s shoes and taking on his identity for a moment to try to learn about his struggles, beliefs, and dreams.

For the past 12 years, I’ve been fortunate to work one-to-one with students from across the globe at Parsons School of Design. I’m also a parent, a spouse, an artist, a former performer, and a school board member.

Parsons students possess talent and potential. And many of them face a variety of challenges. I’ve assisted poor students facing food scarcity and homelessness. I’ve guided first-generation college students who need help navigating the university’s systems. I’ve encouraged differently-abled students. I’ve worked with students whose third or fourth language is English. I’ve supported refugees and survivors of assault. I’ve helped students to make the time to adhere to their religious practices. And I’ve worked with students, faculty, artists, and performers of different races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. Those people have taught me important lessons about being human. They’ve helped me to become a better person.

My work with black male students who were profiled by police officers led me to contribute testimony to President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing in January 2015. And so, it seems a natural extension for me to speak out as an upstander about the simianization in “Sing.” The film upholds the dehumanization of blacks, which leads to unfair treatment of blacks by our criminal justice system.

Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable.  —  Cornel West

“Sing” reminds us that writers must continue to study and reflect upon sociology, history, and current events as they develop new film products for the entertainment industry. Students who hope to become screenwriters one day need to understand that their field is not separated from real life. Rather, real life contains the raw materials of which stories are made.

And, “Sing” calls for conversation. I’m fortunate to work in a place where we teach and talk about history, current events, and our hopes for the world’s future. At Parsons, we believe in the importance of using art and design to do good and to make positive change in the world. Art and design education is most powerful and generates work with the greatest impact when it incorporates the study of history, sociology, gender, race, and many other disciplines. Art and design projects — from architecture to film — gain strength through collaboration between diverse team members.

My workplace values dialogue, discourse, and conversations. So, I plan to organize a panel discussion at The New School on race and bias in screenwriting for animated films. Bill Gaskins, Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Art at Cornell University, has agreed to be part of the panel. I’ll invite Jennings and Meledandri, along with Jared Bush and Phil Johnston who wrote the screenplay for “Zootopia.” I’d like to include Charles Mills, Professor of Philosophy at CUNY Graduate Center, who is co-editor of “Simianization: Apes, Gender, Class and Race. And, I’d like to include David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology and Curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. I’ll also invite New School faculty members who teach writing, animation, and Civil Rights history, among other disciplines.

If you choose to see “Sing,” I encourage you to talk about it with others. Have what Van Jones of Dream Corps calls a #MessyTruth conversation.

And stay tuned. I’ll announce the date of the panel discussion shortly.

Jill Corson Lake

  • Alice Crary

    Grateful for this piece, an observation that needed to be made about a painfully clear case of the continuation of the long and horrific history of anti-black racism (and other forms of oppression, including gender-based) driven by invidious comparisons to animals. I will cite this in future work. Thanks so much.

  • Michael Corey

    From where was the Dargis quote taken? I was trying to find the unedited quote, but haven’t been able to find it. I did find the NY Times review on “Sing” written by Glenn Kenny. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/20/movies/sing-review-matthew-mcconaughey.html?referrer=google_kp&_r=1

    • Jill Corson

      The Dargis quote is from “Hollywood, Separate and Unequal,” Sept. 16, 2016: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/movies/hollywood-separate-and-unequal.html?_r=0

    • Jill Corson

      This is the full paragraph from The Times that contains the Mahohla Dargis quote I referenced: “It’s an institutional problem, which doesn’t mean it isn’t also an individual one. Along those lines we have to ask how vision — art itself — is used to rationalize and perpetuate racism, inadvertently or not. Are white directors who consistently work with primarily white casts asserting their creative vision or just racist? Most white directors make movies about white people, whose stories are framed as universal. The upshot is that whiteness is represented as the norm, which inevitably has a way of rendering everything else as “abnormal.” A white cast is a creative choice and just as problematic as the economic rationales that are trotted out to justify discrimination.”

      • Michael Corey

        The full Dargis and Scott piece is very interesting. It addresses their views on the larger issues. I had the impression that the edited quote was from something written specifically about “Sing.” Thanks for providing the link.

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