I'll keep this short.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 could have been great. It could have been an exciting, funny tale of a boy overcoming both a life-altering injury and his close-minded society to become a hero to his people once again. But one detail holds it back from greatness, and that's the decision of writer and director Dean DeBlois to make the only non-white character in the film the super-evil mega-villain.
Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar fans are used to mostly- and all-white casts (which is part of what makes this fall's Home so exciting), so the first Dragon was no different in that regard: the film is about Vikings, and Norse Vikings (as far as I know) tended to be white folks. And true to that, Dragon was a jumble of blonde and red-haired characters with Scottish -- and sometimes vaguely Australian? -- accents, with little variation. The enemy in the first Dragon was not human: the enemy was dragons (or so it seemed) and the intolerance/fear of protagonist Hiccup's kinsmen. The "big bad guy" was one dragon in particular -- a big fat one who commanded all the little dragons to raid villages and bring him sheep to eat. When Hiccup (spoiler alert, if you haven't seen the first film) defeated him with the help of his adorable dragon-friend Toothless, it was easy to cheer for the win and walk away from the film feeling good about the characters and the story.
But not so with Dragon 2. They don't show the villain at first, but the audience hears his voice from under his cloak. Hearing it, I was immediately suspicious. "That's not a Scottish accent," I thought. It sounded African, vaguely Middle Eastern. I nudged my friend and whispered, "They better not make the bad guy a brown dude."
But they did.
Drago Bludvist is a darker-skinned, black haired, dreadlocked, nose-not-quite-like-anyone-else-in-the-film, non-white dude, voiced by Djimon Hounsou. I have spoken with a number of friends, some of which read him as an Eastern European character, given his name. Someone also mentioned that he had green eyes, but I'm not sure if I agree. The point, however, whether he was intended to be vaguely African or Middle Eastern -- is his Otherness. Where the other characters are fair-skinned and red- and-blond-haired, Drago's skin is decidedly darker, his accent distinctly foreign from the Scottish and American tongues of the rest of the cast.
Now, films and literature have historically relied on the light-dark dichotomy to differentiate between good and evil. So there is a long tradition of storytelling here that Dragon 2 is making use of. But you know what?
It's lazy, and it's racist.
"How can we make sure the audience (kids) know that this guy is bad?" a lazy director/writer might ponder. "Oh, I know! We'll make him darker-skinned! That way the kiddies will know that he's a bad guy." Because... darker-skinned people are... bad? Interesting, too, that Drago Bludvist's skin is just light enough to make him ethnically ambiguous, which leads me to believe that the "Make him black... but not too black" conversation was had at some point during production. As if an Eastern European name and not-quite-brown skin would be enough to deflect accusations of racism. But the fact remains: Dragon 2 effectively created an Othered character to act as the villain.
Do directors that perpetuate this sort of nonsense believe they're somehow doing audiences of color a favor by making the villain a person of color? "Sure, you're not represented anywhere else in this film, but what about the villain! We made him brown!" Not all representation is good representation, and in a film and TV culture already sorely lacking in black and brown faces, the last thing little kids of all colors need is another reinforcement of "white is good, black is bad."
Sure, we're talking Vikings here, and as mentioned above, the Norse were typically white, so having a black or brown Viking might not be historically accurate. But you know what else isn't historically accurate? Motherf@*!ing dragons. So I think an animated film such as this has a little bit of room for creative license. My father agreed. After speaking with my dad about the film, he snorted and said, "I don't understand why any director would continue to do this crap. If they really want to make the character look evil and scary, they should make him look like Dick Cheney. Now that's terrifying."
Good call, pop.
How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel are great films about friendship, family, courage, and overcoming disability to be who you are, and DeBlois showed how creative he can be with his writing and directing. So where is the creativity in having a villain who is dark-skinned and foreign, drawing on old stereotypes that are better laid to rest? You can do better, Mr. DeBlois. I know you can.