Contributed by Trotman.
The best example I can think of is Walt Disney’s Dumbo. In the film, Dumbo and his little mouse friend wake up after a night of drunken revelry in a tree, and can’t figure out how they got there. After climbing out, (if I remember correctly) the mouse hypothesizes that Dumbo used his huge ears and flew into the branches. This concept is suddenly and loudly cat-called by a gang of crows on a fence. These crows speak in an urbanized dialect, are dressed everywhere from snazzily to shabbily, and loud. In an especially poor showing of sensitivity, I believe the leader was named “Jim.” As in Jim Crow. (For those of you that were educated by the public school system, “Jim Crow” is the nickname given to segregationist laws ratified in the Southern states after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction.)
The crows are the typical late-vaudevillian stereotype of blacks: raucous, like-minded, and quick to gang up on isolated non-blacks. The crows have a good laugh at Dumbo, reiterating over and over how stupid the very idea of a flying elephants is and making jokes at Dumbo’s expense (“An elephant, fly? I dunno ’bout that… but I seen a dragon fly!” “I seen a horse fly!” “Well, I seen a house fly.”) And naturally, because they’re “black,” they sing a song and do a little dancing. But then, I must say, Disney surprises me.
The crows suddenly seem to warm to the little elephant, and are actually instrumental in his mastery of flight. This would make them seem to be protagonists in a film heavily populated with antagonists. Very odd. Because of that, I have surmised that the “Black Crows” of Dumbo are in no way malicious portrayals, but are simply presented for their comedic value, and augment the film with plot development and a few cheap laughs. Besides, the time period in which this film was created is not renowned for it’s accuracy in racial representation.
Far less tactful is the use of “Black Crows” in the Ralph Bakshi film Fritz the Cat, based on the cartoons of Robert Crumb. Here, the crows are are regarded with a mix of contempt, fascination and mystique. They are shown as stiff competition for pretty young women, frustrating a horny Fritz, and alternately shown as quick lay for the cat, no less in a scrap yard. Not exactly complementary. Then again, Fritz later initiates an orgy in a bathtub with a number of women, none of which are crows. (There is something lacking in general in the treatment of women in Bakshi films, but that’s a whole different rant.)