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Binghamton University, State University of New York
(THE CONVERSATION) Several years ago, I made a visit to a local book sale and came across a rare 1964 edition of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Popular in its own right, the novel has also served as the inspiration for a number of movies, including “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” – the classic 1971 movie starring the late Gene Wilder – a 2005 reboot starring Johnny Depp, and “Wonka,” the 2023 version.
As a child of the 1980s, I had voraciously consumed Dahl’s novels, so I knew the book well. But the illustrations in this particular edition looked unfamiliar.
Once I brought the worn and tattered book home and began to read it aloud to my kids, I realized that some passages looked unfamiliar as well. My voice faltered as the Oompa-Loompas – the pint-sized workers in Wonka’s chocolate factory – appeared and Charlie asked, “Are they really made out of chocolate, Mr. Wonka?”
To which Wonka replied: “Nonsense!”
“They belong to a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as Oompa-Loompas,” Wonka explains in this version of the book. “I discovered them myself. I brought them over from Africa myself – the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.”
The accompanying black-and-white illustration of several dark-skinned Oompa-Loompas left me stunned.
Dahl’s book is part of a long history of children’s books that feature racist stereotypes – a list that includes six Dr. Seuss books that were removed from publication in 2021. Other children’s classics, such as “Peter Pan” and “Mary Poppins,” have also been criticized for perpetuating racism.
Maintaining the status quo
Unfortunately, the latest Wonka movie also engages in the type of implicit racism that remains in the revised 1974 version of the novel. The most prominent Black character, a girl named Noodle, played by the talented Calah Lane, takes a back seat to Wonka in the major events of the film.
The new Wonka almost broke from the tradition of having Wonka played by white men. Early in the new film’s conception, Newsweek reported that actor, comedian and musician Donald Glover was under consideration for the lead role, a choice that could have at least begun to force a rewrite of the original novel’s racist narrative.
Instead, the film casts Noodle in the position of an unfortunate Black girl who can only hope for a ride on Wonka’s velvet coattails.
“I know things haven’t been easy for you,” Wonka says in the movie. “They’re going to get better.”
“You promise?” Noodle replies, hopefully, and he does promise, highlighting his role as her white savior. Another character in voice-over agrees: “You could change her life, Mr. Wonka. Change all their lives.”