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Willy Wonka and the Racism Factory

Jonathan McIntosh | 30.08.2005 03:21 | Anti-racism

This article examines the most recent film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in relation to issues of racism and colonialism.

Wendy's Oompa-Loompa toy.
Wendy's Oompa-Loompa toy.

The most recent film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is shaping up to be one of the highest grossing summer blockbusters of 2005. This is the third re-incarnation of Roald Dahl's controversial story over the past four decades. As such, it is instructive, to examine it's transformation in relation to issues of racism and colonialism.

In 1964, Roald Dahl published his original book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In it he describes the Oompa-Loompas as dark-skinned “pygmies” from the heart of Africa. These indigenous people are brought back to the Western world from the jungles by the European chocolatier, Willy Wonka, with the intention of making them slaves in his factory, being paid only in cacao beans.

Dahl’s portrait of the Oompa-Loompas, includes the centuries old Western notion of indigenous populations as being exotic, simple and miserable. They are portrayed as unable to survive without the white Western world’s helping hand. Willy Wonka lulls his audience into quietly accepting this familiar and violent idea. In the process, Wonka becomes exalted as a white messiah to be revered and worshiped by the (literally) lesser brown people for having lead them out of darkness and into enlightenment and happiness. Throughout history, this false sense of altruism has closely accompanied racism.

In 1971 Paramount Pictures released a feature film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, staring Gene Wilder. The film’s creators felt it socially and culturally inappropriate to portray the Oompa-Loompas as originally described in Dahl's book. Instead, the characters appearance was changed, making them little people, with bright orange skin and green hair from the fictional "Loopmaland". Their native land was never displayed on screen and is only mentioned in passing.

Two years later, in 1973, the book was re-issued with major revisions. Responding to criticisms of racism from the NAACP, children's literature critic Eleanor Cameron and others, Dahl agreed to re-write portions of the book that mentioned the Oompa-Loompas. In the revised version, Dahl depicts them as small “hippy” people with long golden-brown hair and rosy-white skin. Their origin was also changed from Africa to the fictional Loompaland. These adjustments, while illustrating how culture has the ability to literally change art, are still problematic. It is not possible to negate the ideas of colonialism if the victims simply have light skin, come from a fictional place or are of a vague non-specific ethnicity.

Now, in 2005, Warner Brothers has released another version of the feature film, this time directed by Tim Burton and starring famed actor Johnny Depp. The new adaptation brings back the racism and colonialism that the 1971 film and the 1973 revised book attempted to downplay. In this most recent incarnation we follow Willy Wonka, sporting the classic attire of the colonial explorer complete with safari hat, as he travels on screen to a distant tropical jungle called "Loompaland". He is, we are told, in search of "exotic" flavors for a new line of sweets. While depicted as silly and adventurous, the right of the Western entrepreneur to take whatever “flavor” plant or animal he desires from developing countries is never questioned. It is just the kind of theft western pharmaceuticals and agro-corporations have been engaged in throughout the developing world over the centuries.

Interestingly, the film does not mention whether Wonka claims intellectual property rights over the ”flavors” he finds there, as is the case with his modern contemporaries. However, one assumes that the entire race of Oompa-Loompas falls under the umbrella of a fully owned copyright.

During this colonial montage, Wonka encounters a jungle village built in the trees that the Oompa-Loompas inhabit. This time, however, they are portrayed as a primitive miniature brown-colored indigenous people of non-specific ethnic origin. They sport feather headdresses, tribal style jewelry and grass skirts while dining on visibly "disgusting" green caterpillars and worshiping the rare coca bean. They are depicted as simple, whimsical, and of course, miserable in their native home. Wonka "generously" rescues the Oompa-Loompas by offering them the opportunity to work and live in his Western factory. Later they are shown "happily" imprisoned inside Wonka's factory, which they conveniently cannot leave or they will be subject to chilly weather and die. The Oompa-Loompas also "willingly" allow themselves to be experimented on, much like laboratory animals, by Wonka as he tests his new, and sometimes dangerous, candy concoctions. Clearly, Wonka has not taken the time to explain the ins-and-outs of unionizing or worker health compensation to his imprisoned work force.

The Oompa-Loompas have no spoken language of their own and must resort to mime and jester to communicate. However, they have learned to sing in English while they dance for the entertainment of Wonka and his all white and full-sized guests. This happened in the 1971 film version, although in the 2005 version, the songs are accompanied by the laughable sexual gyrations of Oompa-Loompas, encouraging the audience to laugh along at the supposed sexuality of the mini-male of color. This unfortunately follows along and sad historical tradition of emasculating men of color for the enjoyment of white audiences.

Moreover, the Oompa-Loompas all look exactly alike, as they are played by one actor using composite visual effects. This is a new invention by the current film's creators. The visual effect is ironic as it displays the problems at the very core of global labor issues: white populations perceive individuals of non-white populations as identical and all looking alike, lacking individual dignity. In this view, factory and sweatshop workers are ascribed no individual worth outside of the product they produce for consumers at low pay and in poor working conditions, unable to organize, form unions and improve conditions.

Many will no doubt respond to this critique disparagingly. They will say that the movie is just that, a movie. They will state that it has no social connection or cultural implications to the present western mindset. However, it is important to consider that Roald Dahl himself eventually made revisions of his story to meet the racial concerns that accompanied the changing social ethics in 1973. The fact that, in 2005, Tim Burton chose to revert back to the original description of the Oompa-Loompas as primitive “pygmies” is troubling at best. Burton has said in interviews that one of the things that attracts him to Dalh’s work is the "politically incorrect" subject matter. Audiences all over the country seem to feel the same attraction.

In the context of the present political landscape one cannot help but draw disturbing parallels between the fabled chocolate factory and US foreign policy in the Middle East. The notion that Wonka rescues the indigenous Oompa-Loompas from their “difficult lives” with his gift of industrialization seems to mirror the patronizing notion that the United States is presently rescuing the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq from their preserved savagery. It is disturbing that, this time around, no mainstream movie reviewers, civil rights organizations or social critics have pointed out these parallels or made these comparisons. Could it be that overt racism and colonialism have again become the norm in our society, passing almost without comment? Do we no longer even take the time to hide it under the surface?

For now, it seems, children will delight in recreating white master chocolatier and indigenous slave worker scenes as they play with colorful plastic Oompa-Loompa action figures from Wendy’s kids’ meals.

--Jonathan McIntosh is photographer, filmmaker and community activist living in Boston, Massachusetts. His work can be seen at the collective. Please send all questions, comments and complaints to

Jonathan McIntosh
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Hide the following 20 comments

Oh for Christs sake......

30.08.2005 08:08

You are one sad person!

Just enjoy the film!!!!


oh dear...

30.08.2005 08:53

don't you mean
just keep watching the PR?

while the analysis above is a little long

i thought it precient

I am sooooooooooo bored with people making me feel

like an outsider for not wanting
layers of effects hauled onto my psyche

by an industry that is now a monster

and has actual trained psychologists of the highest
level of learning investing time
and money into subverting
us and our childrens
level of awareness of this rock we live on

is the corporate sponsored
notion of "escape from reality"
now the only driving force behind any culture??

hey just keep watching the adverts

can you tell which is which?

programming & Advertising i mean....


It's only a movie!

30.08.2005 11:10

For crying out loud, this film is, if anything, a satire on consumerism. Giving confused right-on Yanks house room to spin this sort of oversensitive bollocks merely gives ammo to the "political correctness gone mad" brigade.

Yeah, maaan, Tim Burton's like, a nazi...

Mike Teevee


30.08.2005 11:40

Emasculating "men of color" WHATEVER

How come every other film on TV has a blonde white attractive girl being pawed by a black "man of color" who defeats "racism" by evil men white then eh??

More like emasculating white men.

Ever see a bad guy on a film who is not white? Yeah sometimes but they always make excuses for them. On the other hand blacks are usually shown as being Dr's or Lawyers, success stories, or as downtrodden and struggling against racism or whatever.

I think you have your analysis TOTALLY wrong, Hollywood is not racist against black people it is racist against whites.


it's only a film ffs

30.08.2005 13:54

the middle finger

a ridiculus comment

30.08.2005 15:17

Innit marvellous, eh? A dickhead posts some daft-arse ultra-PC "analysis" of a perfectly harmless film, is duly shot down for it, only for an even sadder bastard, with an even more dubious grip on reality, to effortlessly trump them for sheer fuckwittery.

Check out this bitter racist bullshit:

"How come every other film on TV has a blonde white attractive girl being pawed by a black "man of color" who defeats "racism" by evil men white then eh??"

Eh?? Eh?? EHHH???? What rubbish. A quick glimpse at any TV schedule (I should know, right Roald Dahl fans?) proves what a lot of nasty, paranoid BS this is. A reality that only exists in the feeble mind of "ridiculus" the racist. Nuff said about his vile reference to "blondes" being "pawed" by black men...

And how about this?:

"Ever see a bad guy on a film who is not white? Yeah sometimes but they always make excuses for them. On the other hand blacks are usually shown as being Dr's or Lawyers, success stories, or as downtrodden and struggling against racism or whatever."

Not only does he admit from the start that his statement is not actually true ("Yeah sometimes but...") but again a quick trawl through the plot of any dozen Hollywood films proves that - you got it - is just more paranoid racist fantasising.

Sure, in real life there are no black doctors or lawyers and no black people are "downtrodden" or experience racism, do they???


"Hollywood is not racist against black people it is racist against whites."

WHAT THE FUCK? Why would that be, "ridiculus"? Blacks don't own any of the studios or possess any financial clout within them? So why are white millionaires being racist against themselves?

You are talking nonsense, plain and simple.

You see, readers? That's the mentality of the racist: a combination of simple-minded fear, hatred and ignorance, combined with some kindergarten "arguments" to TRY and back it all up.

Oh give me strength. I thought the original post was PC rubbish, but compared to this BNP shithead it is Noam Chomsky!

Mike Teevee

Jaw-jaw not paw-paw

30.08.2005 15:29

"How come every other film on TV has a blonde white attractive girl being pawed by a black "man of color" who defeats "racism" by evil men white then eh??"

Congratulations "ridiculus" - both one of the hugest over-exaggerations I've ever read and very unfortunately worded if not downright racist.

Perhaps the reason 50% of the films on TV you're aware of have this footage is because you subconsciously get thrills out of seeking out the very images (black men "pawing" white attractive blonde girls) you claim are over-represented?? Just a thought...


White Privileged Fucks...

30.08.2005 16:13

To write off challenging racism as "politically correct" is just bullshit. Last time I checked politics were all about upholding white supremacy and domination of Euro-American coutries over the rest of the world. You all who are reacting to the article this way are shallow fucks getting all defensive because your privleges are challenged... cause you want to think that we live in some kind of society where racism doesn't exist. Well fuck that! It exists and it is inculcated into us both overtly and subtly as it's passed down from generation to generation through films like this and a million other ways. But better a gram than a damn right? Just keep on living in fantasy land popping those white privilege pills of denial... you - unlike people of color- aren't forced to experience racism all the time and so don't have to think about how racism is in our cultures, in our institutions, in our language, in everything around us. It's like the fucking liberals who try to pay lip service to giving a shit about people and how everyone is equal and all this shit; but uphold and benefit from the very structures that are keeping people down.


Bloody hell!

30.08.2005 16:28

I think you're taknig the whole thing a little too seriously. I could understand if there was a song about the virtues of KKK lynchings. But it's just a bunch of Oompa Loompas in a children's film. And it isn't even April Fools...

Humpty Dumpty

interesting, but...

30.08.2005 17:09

Hmm, it's not the first time I've seen a Tim Burton film with pretty dodgy colonialist-style undertones (namely Big Fish, when they go and rescue the ever-so-cute-and-exotic vietnamese twins), and I think the original post has some good points, but...

...when kids are allowed to play "Cowboys and Indians" with no one batting an eyelid, when the Disney Peter Pan is allowed to go "huntin' for Indians", and Jungle Book and Aladin are allowed to, well, even exist, I'd suggest that there's bigger fish to fry when it comes to the legacy of colonialism in children's entertainment.


More Tim Burton bollocks

30.08.2005 18:27

Yeah, and like, Edward Scissorhands stereotyped people with, like, implements instead of fingers, because, like, not every digitally disadvantaged person has scissors for hands, some of them have scalpels, and everything?


Bim Turton

30.08.2005 19:29

He also made that film that stereotyped men who dress up as bats...



30.08.2005 20:04

...I fear that poor old Jonathon has far too much time on his hands, and not the sense to spend it wisely.

Big Bad Boab

hahaha hee hee hee

30.08.2005 21:48

damn funniest thing ive read for weeks,

by the way santa uses cheap migrant elf labor and he lives at the north pole coz its a tax haven.

damn funny.


rendered almost speechless with pain!

30.08.2005 23:04

Buy that man a sociology diploma! I *do* hope this is humour at its most sublime. Reminds me of the rubbish people write on strong amphetamines.

Can I have some more please!



31.08.2005 13:17

No wonder the activist yank left is fucked with keffing guff like that. "tim burton the new reifensthal".

Mr Lustbather

well uk stinks like every other place in this world

31.08.2005 16:40

well first of all if you so bored about this article you dont have to read it. but if he just wants to make his point just let him do this.
i liked this article until the last paragraph. you dont have to go so far to have a look at racsim (antisemitism or sexsis) you dont even have to go to a rightish page just read indymedia uk (or others) and you will find it there, like all this comments proof. well you can also just trun on the tv or buy your food around the corner and look whos behind the counter. racism is everywhere in this society.
second point not only the us has a "bad" froeign policies there not just one bad state, the idea of the state is in general repressive. this is due to the normative and identities producing diskurses in this society and every other society which is based on racial or religios bases.


Like the Modern Parents on crack.

31.08.2005 17:24

...This Johnothan Mcintosh guy does come of like The Modern Parents out of Viz on crack.


what is the world coming to

12.04.2006 20:02

cummon people what is the world coming to
the dude who wrote this artical must have either
a amazing imagination, fallen off his rocker, speaking out
off his rear end or and probally most curtain a completely
and utter 'NOBHEAD'.
Im sure you could ask a Black Africain person to read the book
watch the films and then ask the Black Africain person to tell us
if the found it racist in any way Im certain they would say 'NO IT WAS NOT AT ALL RACIST WHAT PLONKER WOULD COME UP WITH THE QUESTION'

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Critic of a critic - Corrections regarding Willy Wonka and The Racism Factory

19.09.2015 09:50

"They are portrayed as unable to survive without the white Western world’s helping hand."

That would still be an accurate depiction today regarding central Africa. Operations, such as MONUSCO, are essential to the well being of the population of many nations in central Africa. Contributions to such operations have come from all over the world, including the western world.

"Throughout history, this false sense of altruism has closely accompanied racism"

Such a claim needs to be backed up by evidence or at least not generalized in such a way. Throughout history, means all the way through history, which includes 6000 years before Christ. Unless your statement can be proven to hold through for all of recorded history, then it is little more than a form of prejudice and bias regarding your view of a particular period of history: You cannot know if your claim is true for the periods of history of which you do not know about, of which I assure you there has to be many. The reason why there has to be, is simply the inherent limitations of the human mind.

"the right of the Western entrepreneur to take whatever “flavor” plant or animal he desires from developing countries is never questioned."

Why should it be questioned? Can you state a specific law that during the period of colonization, or even today, that prevented individuals to take the flavor of plants or animals from a foreign country?

"It is just the kind of theft western pharmaceuticals and agro-corporations have been engaged in throughout the developing world over the centuries. "

Such accusations should be taken very seriously. Can you point towards instances where such entities have committed theft? Cases where international trade laws were broken? Or any other form of evidence of such?
(Making such accusations without evidence is often considered to be slander)

"white populations perceive individuals of non-white populations as identical and all looking alike, lacking individual dignity."

Such statements border on the meaningless without evidence. We have no way of even knowing what you consider to be 'white' and what you consider to be 'non-white'. Races have no biological basis that we know of, at least. So yes, it is indeed very much necessary to make those distinctions known to us; otherwise it falls under gross generalization, which in this context is, again, a form of bias and prejudice.

Until such a time as when those points are properly clarified, your critic is not particularly helpful and fails to inform it's viewers of crucial points underlying your reasoning. If it is left as it is now, this falls under opinion, and not critic. And even at that, it still does not very well succeed as to informing others of your opinion; without the knowledge which you possess, it is hard to make sense of and remains incoherent to the general public.

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