When picking the most pioneering films of the 1990s, Space Jam might not seem the most obvious contender. Zany and high-concept, the 1996 Warner Bros movie was an extension of a 1992 Super Bowl Nike commercial, in which Jordan had starred alongside Bugs Bunny. With the help of the full gang of Looney Tunes cartoon characters, it creates an alternative reality, imagining what Jordan might have done between his retirement from the NBA in 1993 and his incredible comeback two years later – that is, help Bugs and Co win a basketball game against some evil aliens in order to secure their freedom. Featuring a mixture of animation and live action from actors, including Jordan, Bill Murray and Seinfeld’s Wayne Knight, it was joyfully absurd and designed to make the mind boggle.
However, amid all the silliness, it also offered something more profound – a defining moment for black representation in cinema. At the centre of this big-budget Hollywood animation was not just a black lead, but in Jordan, a black superstar, an icon, and an all-American family man. (In fact Jordan was such a big deal at the time that, as shown in the recent Netflix documentary series about him, The Last Dance, he was able to get the studio to construct a court for him to practise on, where he played with other NBA stars.) Progressiveness may not have been its first concern, and the acting required of Jordan was hardly a stretch, but within the context of Hollywood animated family films and their history of both racial erasure and racist stereotyping, it was ground-breaking.
Behind the camera, it was also notable for having an animation co-director, Bruce W Smith, who was one of the few black animators working in Hollywood – something that is, depressingly, still the case today. “I realise that our animation business is probably made up of 3-5% African Americans,” said Smith, who also created Disney’s pioneering black cartoon series The Proud Family, at an event last year. “Therefore, you won’t get a lot of African-American content on the screen from an African-American standpoint because the people aren’t there at the table to put us in primary parts of films.”
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However, now a Space Jam sequel arrives in an at-least somewhat different landscape. Released around the world this week, Space Jam: A New Legacy is a loud, brash retread of the original, and stars another basketball legend, LeBron James, alongside both animated and CGI versions of the Looney Toons crew. This time, though, the production has a black director (with Malcolm D Lee replacing Joe Pytka), Ryan Coogler of Black Panther fame among its producers, and an almost all-black live-action cast.
The result is a sequel that, without giving too much away, handles race with a deft touch. Meanwhile its characterisation of James’ protagonist is more nuanced than Jordan’s driven sportsman. He’s shown to be a secret “nerd” who regrets repressing his childhood love for Gameboys and adores Harry Potter, while central to the fanciful plot this time is his relationship with his son, Dom (played by Cedric Joe), as both are sucked into Warner Bros’ servers where they have to play a basketball match to defeat the evil Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle) who controls Warner Bros’ virtual world. The only real problem with this film is the endless nods to other Warner Bros properties – with characters from The Flintstones and King Kong to, mind-bogglingly, the droogs from A Clockwork Orange popping up. These seem less like meta-jokes than adverts for the studio’s back catalogue and obstruct the film’s pleasures.
Whereas, in the mid-1990s, the original Space Jam felt like a lone pioneer, its sequel is part of an era in Hollywood animation that is beginning to show signs of change. There are more new films including characters of colour just as the racist tropes of some of the genre’s most famous old films are being reckoned with – to the point now where some even come with warnings when accessed on streaming platforms.
The buried history of cartoons
Racism within the animation genre is certainly deeply ingrained. Looking at Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse it would be hard to imagine anything other than innocent fun, yet their conception was based entirely on racial stereotyping. As Nicholas Sammond, Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, explored in his 2015 book Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, many cartoon characters from the early days of film and TV, such as Mickey and Bugs, have their roots in minstrel shows. He writes how these characters began “visually and gesturally act[ing] as minstrels but over time lose a direct association with blackface itself”. This influence is also partly the reason why characters like Mickey and Goofy are always depicted wearing white gloves.
There are still plenty of films within the family canon that have a pretty obviously troubling relationship with race
In other cases, the historical racism is much more apparent. One film, no longer available to watch or buy through any channels, exemplifies the legacy Hollywood has to redress. Disney’s 1946 movie Song of the South – a mix of live-action and animation, like the Space Jams – tells the story of plantation workers after the abolition of slavery and contains so many offensive depictions of black people that it was dubbed “one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts” by Jason Sperb in his book Disney’s Most Notorious Film. After deciding not to put it on its Disney + service, last year Disney also announced they were refitting their Splash Mountain log flume ride, originally inspired by the film, to remove any Song of the South elements.
Despite that film being excised from the family canon, however, there are still plenty of films within it that have a pretty obviously troubling relationship with race. Take another much-loved film from the same era, 1941’s Dumbo, which features crows acting out minstrel show routines – led by ‘Jim’ Crow, a character name riffing off the notorious pejorative term for black people that came to be associated with racial segregation laws in the US – and a song with the lyrics “We slave until we’re almost dead/ We’re happy-hearted roustabouts”. And all through the rest of the 20th Century, people of colour continued to be egregiously stereotyped. “The film that radicalised me against Disney was [1992’s] Aladdin,” says Hemant Shah, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies portrayals of race and ethnicity in film and media. “Because that’s where the imagery of the Middle East was so highly problematic. Even the theme song [Arabian Nights] would talk about how barbaric the Middle East was and how they would cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” It also featured an all-white cast of voice actors.