Diversity in animation is often evident via the fanciful creatures that populate such stories. Big green ogres, cutesy blue smurfs, jocular bright-yellow minions. In How to Train Your Dragon 2 dragons are the diverse creatures of choice, ranging from the uber-spikey untrainable babies, to the salamander-like faithful Toothless, to the menacing mastadonesque alpha-dragon. The humans that race, ride, capture and love these dragons are far less diverse: Most are blonde, most are male, all are white, except the films villain, Drago.
This baddie from “another land” has dark skin in a sea of whiteness, dreadlocks in a world of long beards and braids, a deep “black” voice in a world of Viking accents (the character is voiced by Djimon Hounsou). Presumably to justify having a villain of color in this Viking-like world of hulking white men and petite white women, Drago is named as coming from an Other place—but could this “Other” place not also be populated by whites? Why, when we have only one true villain in the Dragon films, must he be black? Even better, since the film is a reimagining of Viking lore, replete with dragons, why not reimagine the possibility of non-white Vikings?
Using dark or “colored” skin to convey evil is hardly new in the world of animation (see: the purple-hued Ursula, the green-faced Maleficent, the grey-toned Cruella DeVille), but to do so in a film that is so obvious in its whiteness—and to make Drago not a fictional color, such as green or purple, but dark-skinned with dreadlocks, no less—makes one wonder why the filmmakers chose such stereotypical shorthand: The evil one is black.
Drago is scary, thuggish and, as with many “black baddies,” misguided and inept. He’s like the scary black stranger (documented so well in the widely anthologized ”Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” [PDF], first published in Ms. magazine in 1986): the black thug, the physically brutish black fighter/athlete or the morally and spiritually corrupt black leader. His plan is easily destroyed by a puckish young white boy, Hiccup, a self-effacing savior-type, earning our admiration via his kindness to animals, his sweet relationship with Astrid, his modest demeanor and, aw-shucks, his love for his mother. Don’t get me wrong, though: Hiccup is a good hero who does not display the chest-pumping hypermasculinity and power-over ethos that often accompanies that character type.
Hiccup is a pacificst, he is nurturing, he is in touch with his emotions. Despite these relatively rare traits in the world of male heroes, Hiccup is typical in his heroism in that he is white, he has a heroic “birthright” and he earns his leadership role via acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. Oh, and he saves the day from a dark threat, in the form of Drago.
This narrative arc of the Dragon sequel echoes the racial problemmatics of so many animated films. Africa is devoid of black humans in Tarzan, there are jive-talking crows in Dumbo, Peter Pan faces the “red Indians”, Lady and the Tramp features the sinister “we are Siamese” cats and the first black Disney princess was actually a green frog most of the film (Tiana of The Princess and The Frog).
Even when both hero and villain are marked as Caucausion, the villains are often visually darker—even if that involves being so white as to appear grey. Sometimes their hair is darker (Captain Hook’s black locks verses Peter Pan’s boyish red), their fur (Scar verses Mufasa from The Lion King), their dress (black being the color choice for Maleficent, the evil queen and her old-crone disguise in Snow White, etc.). Often their bodies and features also display the marks of racialized associations, and the dark/evil body is animalized (think Ursula’s snake-like octopus form in The Little Mermaid) and has ‘excessive features’ such as a hooked nose (Captain Hook), and/or dark hair.
Drago thus joins the legacy of animated characters of color whose villainy is linked visually, audibly, and physically to his racialized body. Though the film certainly deserves props for being another notch in the recently formed belt of animated movies that portray mother figures positively (Brave, Maleficent), we must not overlook its heart of darkness.
Next time, DreamWorks, could you please be as inventive with your villains as you are with your dragons?