Why Disney’s Pocahontas is an Important Film

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Pocahontas. Photo Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Victoria Brown, Editor. 

Released in 1995, Pocahontas is the 33rd movie produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. The film explores Native American culture and the invasion of their land by English colonialists. The film’s plot was inspired – key word here, inspired – by Powhatan woman Matoaka, better known by her nickname Pocahontas, meaning ‘little mischief’. Although praised for its beautiful animation and soundtrack – Colours of the Wind won an Academy Award, a Grammy and a Golden Globe – the film has received an unfair amount of criticism, especially in recent years.

Now, let’s say it loud for people in the back: POCAHONTAS IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HISTORICALLY ACCURATE.

Hear me out. Pocahontas has been my favourite Disney film from no age for a multitude of reasons. The animation is rich and colourful, the characters look closer to human – notice the difference in the size of the character’s eyes compared to Disney films released around the same time, such as The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992), which has also received criticism in regards to its representation of non-Western cultures – the animals do not speak, and the music has never left me, in my twenty-three years. As a character, Pocahontas was nothing like the female characters I was used to seeing. She was bold, wilful, and brave. How many people would literally throw themselves on top of the love of their life before their father clubs him to death? She was connected to her environment and believed, to her very core, in its importance to herself as an individual, larger culture/society and the universe we live in. She respected the traditions and culture of her own people without letting it define her or limit who she was at heart. Pocahontas is not xenophobic towards her invaders; in fact, she wishes to show them the value of her culture, traditions and land. She was independent – she refused to marry Kocoum because she saw him as a dull anchor to her freedom! Listen to the lyrics of Just Around the Riverbend, ‘Should I choose the smoothest course, steady as the beating drum? Should I marry Kocoum? Are all my dreams at an end?’ Even with John, whom she connected with and fell in love with, was second to her identity as a Native American – she stayed with her people and her land rather than travel to England with him. She did not change who she was as or after she fell in love with him. If anything, she became even more authentically herself.

Pocahontas is a female character I have always felt I can look up to, and I cannot explain the influence her strong character has had on my own understanding of my identity, my femininity, my culture/traditions, and my own writing.

Now, I know that Disney’s plot is pretty much entirely fictitious. The real Pocahontas was around eleven or twelve when the twenty-eight year old John Smith invaded her land. She did not fall in love with him. That was fabricated for this film (Pocahontas did eventually travel to England and convert to Christianity with another Briton, John Rolfe. He is in the sequel, if you’re interested in watching it). And you know what? That’s okay. The movie was inspired by the events, not a direct telling of it.

What is more important about Pocahontas is the message, rather than the story. Look at the film’s soundtrack.

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Ratcliffe and his sailors. Photo Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Let’s start with Governor Ratcliffe’s song Mine Mine Mine. Ratcliffe is not a complex character: he is a base representation of the greedy colonialist and his song is designed to show his preoccupation with accumulating material wealth to enhance his social position back in Britain, regardless of the problems it causes those already settled in the land he invades. The entire concept of material wealth is MADE UP. This song highlights the ridiculousness of human beings assigning importance to random objects. Wars have been fought, people have died over inanimate objects that we believe have value. That’s the key word – believe. If we no longer believed that a ten pound note had value, its value would cease. For me, that’s what this song is highlighting. This made-up value the ‘civilised’ world have assigned to gold is more important that the human beings whose lives they destroy just to get this gold. It’s mad! I highly recommend reading Yuval Noah Hurari’s work, he explains this very well.

I understand that a huge amount of the criticism about Pocahontas arises from the fact that Disney does not show, or even really acknowledge, the violence the Native American community endured at the hands of these colonialists. I’ve heard arguments that the film actually makes a mockery of it. I have to disagree. Firstly, the history of the Native American…genocide, let’s face it, is a complex issue that cannot be explored in a short animated movie. It is not what the movie is about; it has different, more positive messages (which I discuss below). Secondly, I never got the impression as a child that Disney was making a mockery of the issue. If anything, I became more interested in discovering what really happened. This is Disney’s first movie based on a real person, and the history taught in British schools does not touch upon American or Native American history at all. I became interested in this area of history at a very young age thanks to Disney. I may not have come across this until I was much older, otherwise. I understand that the film has issues with representation, skin colour of the Native American characters being a major one. It should be noted, however, that the design of the characters was partly inspired by the voice actress for Pocahontas, Irene Bedard, a Native American with a similar skin tone to the characters. This was my first exposure to these people’s stories, and I cannot sit by when people argue that Disney made a mockery of it. Disney introduced me to the culture. No, its representation is not perfect, far from it, but it started a dialogue. Kids are not going to sit and watch a documentary about the genocide of the Native American community on the History channel. Disney have a unique cultural and global reach, a key part of socialisation for many young children in Western culture, and they took a risk to portray this story. It is a risk I support.

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John Smith. Photo Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Moving on. Listen to the lyrics of Colours of The Wind. It’s all about human beings, at their core, regardless of skin colour, being connected. ‘You think I’m an ignorant savage / And you’ve been so many places / I guess it must be so / But still I cannot see / If the savage one is me / How can there be so much that you don’t know? / You don’t know …’. She calls out John’s assumptions that anyone who isn’t white, British, or ‘civilised’ is a savage (I’ll get to the use of that word soon). She gets through John’s British indoctrination that the ‘civilised’ world is the only way. ‘You think you own whatever land you land on / The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim / But I know every rock and tree and creature / Has a life, has a spirit, has a name’. These lines have stuck with me since I was a child. Human beings, although at the top of the food chain, do not have the right to treat the earth the way we do. The earth is alive and we have to take care of it. These lines call out the capitalist obsession with accumulating materialism regardless of the consequences to the planet. Although this story is set in the 1600s, this is still relevant today. That is the power of these lyrics. They’ve stayed with me and shaped how I see the world.

Pocahontas teaches John the importance of compassion with your fellow creatures and how to see the world differently. The shot of the bear with her cub is a good example. John immediately sees a threat and raises his gun but Pocahontas lowers it and shows him that the bear is simply looking after her cub the way any mother does, whether a human or animal mother. ‘You think the only people who are people / Are the people who look and think like you / But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger / You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew’. Although the lyrics are sung alongside this sequence with the bear and her cub, the real life implications are obvious: Pocahontas is talking about how the British see her people. She’s teaching John that her people are more than what they look and seem like to the British. She does not forgive or justify John’s colonialist perspective, she simply shows him that there is more to the world that what he’s been taught. Kids get this, they understand this. Kids are smarter than you think – do not underestimate them.

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Ratcliffe riling up his men. Photo Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios

That brings me to the most problematic song in the entire movie – Savages. I completely understand why people, from all races, backgrounds, cultures etc., could find this song offensive and detrimental to the Native American people. But as a kid, I never got that impression. I’ve heard arguments that the song reinforces negative stereotypes about Native Americans but I never grew up with the impression that this song was doing that. If anything, I think it is the most powerful song in the entire film.

Let me explain. The build up to the song is the capture of John Smith. His friend Thomas, thinking John is going to be killed by Kocoum, shoots and kills him. The Native Americans who reach the scene do not see Thomas, and instead assume John has killed Kocoum (under the circumstances, who wouldn’t?) The Native Americans take him back to the camp with plans to kill him. Even before the song begins, this aspect of the narrative has been criticised. People have argued that it portrays Native Americans as ‘savages’ incapable of cognitive reasoning, and as animals driven by their base desires and instincts. An eye for an eye. This antiquated concept is something that is prevalent amongst all human beings, not just amongst this specific group of people. Hell, we live in Northern Ireland. We understand that better than most people. It is unfair of people to argue that one) Native Americans are savages because they think like this, and two) to accuse Disney of racism based on this small part of the narrative when we know other cultures are as capable of this thinking as the characters in the film are. I never once believed that this portrayal of the Native American people was detrimental to them because the British react the same way they do, just slightly differently. The point of this is so show that people are, at the basic evolutionary level, no different from each other. I realise I am not explaining this very well, but it’s a ridiculously complex issue.

Look at the lyrics of Savages. The song starts off with the British’s point of view, the song led by the greedy Ratcliffe. He does not care about the Native Americans. When Thomas reveals that they’ve taken John Smith, Ratcliffe says, ‘I couldn’t have planned it better myself’. I never got the impression as a child that Ratcliffe cared about the Native Americans enough to even validate them with hatred – he only cared about his gold. Their capture of John Smith was simply a convenient way for him to get them out of the way so he could search for his gold. I could be wrong, but that’s how I interpreted it. His lyrics in the song are provocative. They’re designed to play on the fears his men have – fear of the unknown, the ‘other’, the Native American, which has been indoctrinated in them from no age because they have never been taught about them or interacted with them or seen them as human (hence the importance of Colours of the Wind). They’re scared for their friend and Ratcliffe takes advantage of this fear to further his own selfish desires. I have said this many times since 2016…RATCLIFFE IS TRUMP. He uses the exact same techniques to inspire hatred and fear in his followers. Some of the lyrics of Savages could have been taken directly out of his hate speeches against the Mexican community. This is just one example of the enduring importance and power of this song.

Language is really important, and I understand why Native Americans would be offended by Ratcliffe’s lyrics. ‘What can you expect / From filthy little heathens? / Their whole disgusting race is like a curse. / Their skin’s a hellish red / They’re only good when dead / They’re vermin, as I said / And worse’: the use of the word Hellish appeals to the British Christians amongst the men and creates a parallel between the Native American’s and ‘bad people who go to Hell’. He also likens them to vermin. He could have used any animal but the specific use of vermin implies that they are beneath them, and can and should be exterminated.

‘They’re savages, savages / barely even human’, reinforces the idea in his men that the British are human because they’re ‘civilised’. ‘They’re not like you and me / Which means they must be evil’ has stuck with me for years. The line is so absurdly simple but it highlights the stupid idea that if someone does not look or think like you, then they are automatically evil. I remember thinking as a child ‘but that’s not how it works’ – do not underestimate children! This song is not teaching them to think that Native Americans are savages, it is highlighting the ridiculousness of this thinking and how dangerous it can be – a certain American president comes to mind again. Watch Thomas’s face when Ratcliffe sings that line – he instantly regrets telling Ratcliffe what happened because he knows Ratcliffe is going to take advantage of the situation. The guilt and devastation is clear on his face.

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Powhatan Tribe. Photo Source: Walt Disney Animation Studios

The song then switches to Pocahontas’s people. What they’re saying is pretty much a mirror of the British – ‘This is what we feared / The paleface is a demon / The only thing they feel at all is greed’. Again, that use of the word demon which has religious connotations. They, like the British, are assuming all ‘palefaces’ are the same, which we know isn’t true through Pocahontas’s interactions with John. While yes, most of the British at this time were driven by greed, but it is unfair to assume they are all driven by it. That is the point of the song – it is not about pitting the Native American and the British against each other. They are two sides of the same coin because they are all human. The song highlights the ridiculousness of fear and hatred based on difference.

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To conclude, please do not think that I am blind to the complex issues this film raises in regards to the under-representation of people of colour, and the issues that accompany how they are represented on screen. I am not forgiving or justifying the actions of a majority of British colonialists – they were violent, greedy xenophobes who had no right to do what they did to the Native American community. They are the villains in this history, no matter what way they try to spin it. These kind of issues are always prevalent – look at the backlash The Lone Ranger received in 2013 for its white-wash casting and representation issues – but it is important to talk about them.

I understand that people can take issue with this film and others like it – they have every right and reason – but I am simply here to explain why this film is important to me, and why I think it is unfair to dismiss it completely based on the issues surrounding it.

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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