The Urban Grind

Are We Really So Ignorant?

Are we really so ignorant, so dense, that we need an animated children’s movie to demonstrate systemic injustice and cyclical stereotypes of race and class?

I thought I was just going to take my kids to a much anticipated Disney film but what I discovered was a poignant and provocative message aimed at the adults in the audience. Are you so ignorant? Are you so dense to continue to ignore the realities of systemic racism and to continue to feign innocent naiveté?

My four kids have been clamoring to see Zootopia from the first released preview. My middle son was given a gift certificate to the movie theater and has been diligently saving it for just this film. We set it up to be the highlight of the weekend. All week we reminded the kids that we were going and we would even spring for popcorn and soda! My eldest daughter brought a friend with the promise of Chickfila to conclude our version of Friday Night Lights. We were not disappointed - at least my wife and I that is.

Almost immediately you could smell it - not the buttery popcorn or the kids diaper behind me. No, you could smell the social commentary from the idyllic opening scenes. It didn’t take long before every adult in that theater had to make the decision to ignore the prophetic sermon embedded in the animation or embrace it with the attention of every child’s genuine interest. Isn’t this the choice we allow ourselves to make on a daily basis? Do we close our ears to the harsh realities existing in our society and live in blissful ignorance? Do we sit through the uncomfortable realities swirling around us like Dolby Digital Surround Sound admiring the cinematic effects or let the pit in our stomachs move us to action?

If you haven’t seen Zootopia yet I don’t want to persuade you of my interpretation of the film with this blog, but I’m gonna do it anyway. My bad. Let me just lay out some of the more important themes I understood being communicated by the writers and editors:

  • White sheep seemingly victimized usurps power over Zootopia and uses that privilege to oppress the “predators” who all happen to be animals with melanin.
  • The “helpless” sheep uses a weaponized serum to predatorize the generational predatory animals who the prey have been conditioned to fear. In doing so she sends them to their “natural” state that has existed since the beginning of time.
  • The urban center of Zootopia is inherently more dangerous than suburban/rural living.
  • Classism is highlighted coinciding with the perpetuation of enmity between “predators” and “prey." (read: predators = people of color)
  • The fox is a conniving and sly criminal while the bunny is an innocent and compassionate aspiring police officer.

These are just a few observations on my part but the whole plot is bursting with similar allusions like the bucket of popcorn you get $4 refills on. My kids were oblivious. They loved the animation, the CGI, and the humor. After leaving the theater I wondered how many parents left in oblivion as well? This is not a pejorative judgment but a genuine question. Who else understood that this film was a commentary on systemic injustice? Did anyone else see it? You could hear it, smell it, see it woven in every twist, turn, and climax in the script. Even the most comfortable movie theater recliners couldn’t soften the strong statement the movie made: we are no different than the animals inhabiting Zootopia.

We are citizens of Zootopia. Are you perpetuating these systems - explicitly or implicitly? Are you hiding under the guise of victim while weaponizing your rhetoric? Did you find yourself rooting for the power and privilege of the prey to rise above the base nature of the predators? Do you fail to see the implications of the script in this movie and the one we are writing in our communities?

Are we really so ignorant that we need to be treated like children for us to see the unjust reality of our history? Are we really so defiant that we will let racist rants on social media fall on the numbed ears of society? Are really so dense that we couldn’t have experienced systemic injustice apart from anthropomorphic animals?

I pray not because the concluding scenes of Zootopia offer hope for reconciliation and restoration of justice. The fox and the bunny discover how power and privilege threaten to pit neighbors against one another and perpetuate hatred and prejudice. What they do next should offer insight that leads to action for us all: they work together to overcome the systems that threaten to segregate and further enmity. The road was not easy the path tough. It took just under two hours to journey through revelation, introspection, and cooperative action. I know the road to healing won’t be that short. I just hope it won’t take a lifetime.

Watch this film. If your first inclination is to recoil into ignorance ignore it and persevere or we won’t ever get anywhere.

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