What You May Have Missed in the Last 25 Years of Watching 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit'
This Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s US release. If you’re anything like me, this is basically a national holiday. Also, you are probably so old that your lustrous beard makes all the Gandalfs jealous. In any case, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is, without a doubt, one of the greatest films ever made. It has the intrigue and mystery of a film noir, Bob Hoskins, pre-computerized visual effects that are basically miracles, Bob Hoskins, Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons having fun together despite copyright laws and seriously, Bob Hoskins (BOB HOSKINS). What follows is a stroll pretty far down nerd lane; just go with it and trust me, because all of this is awesome.
The thing that doesn’t really get discussed amidst the endless (and well-deserved) praise for Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s technical accomplishments is its brilliant, albeit downplayed, allusions to racism in America. That’s right: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is kind of about racism. For anyone who read the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit (which the film was based on), this is no surprise. From separate elevators and drinking fountains for Toons (a label eyebrow-raisingly close to the outdated racial slur “coons”) to restrictions on buying human-made liquor and a human servant being described as “the ultimate status symbol,” the book jabs at the separations that exist within a racially charged society. It’s more subdued and re-interpreted amid the live-action/animated world of the film, but the story couldn’t exist without it.
In case you haven’t watched the film ten times in the last week (uh, why not?), here’s a brief summary: Eddie Valiant, a private eye whose glory days came to an abrupt (and alcoholic) end when a Toon killed his brother (dropped a piano on his head), stumbles onto a scheme to buy and demolish Toontown while trying to figure out why Toon star Roger Rabbit was framed for a murder.
If you haven’t read the book, then I’m sorry I bought up the one copy the Strand had (and also for making the book snob clerk feel bad that he sold me a book for 79 cents that’s so rare the UCLA library won’t let it leave the stacks – but seriously, get on it, nerds). Brief book summary: Roger Rabbit, a comic strip star, dies mysteriously, and his doppelganger (just read it) hires Eddie Valiant to find out why, and also to clear his name after being framed for the murder of Comic Book mogul Rocco DeGreasy. It’s a whole other story (I mean, Roger hires Eddie) that you can download in eBook format and read*. Just… yeah. Read it. I can’t even talk about the ending.
The book is all about the detective story, sprinkling constant reminders about segregation on practically every page. There are human-only and Toon-only bars, and humanoid Toons who have become successful thanks to assimilation. The Toons, being comic book actors, speak through speech bubbles and it’s a distinctively humanoid quality that Jessica Rabbit displays in suppressing her word balloons and only speaking vocally – clearly an allusion to code switching (dropping ethnic speech patterns and taking on standardized – basically, white – diction). Toons have segregated universities and police squads, and are mostly confined to living in Toontown (the part of the city where the colored folk who work mainly service or entertainment jobs live). This is the world Eddie and Roger live in, though these things don’t really drive the plot the way they do in the film.
For example, in the film, The Ink and Paint Club, where Valiant takes the infamous pictures of Jessica Rabbit and Marvin Acme, is a Toon review – strictly humans only. Yeah, this was alluded to in the book, but in the film, it’s fleshed out and more than driving the story, it’s an excuse to have a hell of a lot of fun with special effects (not to mention pitting Disney and Warner Bros. characters against each other in the greatest piano duel EVER). Toons are constantly stereotyped through the whole film, and the disrespectful way Roger (a star) gets yelled at by his director in the first five minutes is something Humphrey Bogart probably never had to put up with. Toons are second class citizens, despite their status in the public eye. It’s like when Sammy Davis Jr. headlined in Vegas, but couldn’t eat or gamble at the Casino he was playing, and had to stay at a separate (sh*ttier) hotel across town. Because segregation meant that no matter how valued a performer was on the stage, it didn’t mean they got to be valued as a person off it.
Then there’s Jude Doom, who’s determination to demolish Toontown is basically the heart of the film. Judge Doom attained his position of power by disguising his heritage and literally turning from a colored character into a white male (sociopath alert). The history of the Los Angeles freeway system (and most freeways in America) is littered with the destruction of minority housing projects, displacing thousands of their residents, in order to clear a path for convenient and profitable roads. Doom’s character takes it a step further, with his intention of using Dip (a chemical he created himself: the first known substance that kills Toons) to wipe Toontown into oblivion, basically implying genocide. The film’s plot wouldn’t exist without these elements, but unlike the book, the racial theme is absorbed into the narrative instead of used to decorate it.
Carrying the weight of all this is Jessica Rabbit’s iconic line, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” She can’t help the way she looks; she has basically been assigned her aesthetic, and she’s asking not to be judged based on it. She may be a Toon, but she’s also a three-dimensional character (I could write a whole other post on this line’s meaning in a feminist context – seriously, such a great line). She wants to be seen for who she is, not for the aspects of her physicality that she’s been created with and has no control over. She could just as well be saying that she’s not robbing your store, she’s just wearing a hoodie, or that she’s not doing anything illegal, she’s just driving a car.
The time period both the book and film are set in call for more racial segregation than a modern audience may be comfortable with, but both iterations walk the line using Toons admirably. There is almost a combination of the culture around segregation, and the jarring reflection of it in the comics and animated shorts of the time (whole other ball of wax, especially during WWII). Just one of the genius aspects of the film script is its ability to adapt and portray the culture laid out in the book, without detracting from the plot and overtly calling attention to itself. It’s just part of the scenery. In one fell swoop, the film manages to convey the themes and sensibilities of the book its based on (no easy task), use them to tell the story, and with a heap of genius visual effects to boot. Twenty-five years later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit still holds up as an incredible cinematic achievement, whichever way you look at it.
*This isn’t even a paid endorsement, I just think you’d really enjoy it.
Featured Image © Touchstone Pictures