Racial Oompa-Loomplications

It's been an interesting coupla weeks to be contemplating the racial turns taken by Tim Burton's Oompa Loompas (in addition to the racial motifs -- Mudbloods, House Elves, Giants, Dark Lords -- in the Harry Potter saga) while hearing broadcasted homilies about Britain's culture of multicultural tolerance having been compromised subsequent the recent bombings. Truly, the multiraciality of British society creates a fascinating surround for both Dahl's and Rowling's work, both examples of British juvenile literature transmogrified into US-circulated entertainment empires. All of which, of course, serves to underscore the conundrum of the Post-Millenial Oompa Loompa.

The racial genealogy of Oompa Loompas has been fraught with controversy. First, OompaLoompas were mini-pygmies rescued by their savior/Wonkoverseer; then, they were leaf-hugging hippies transplanted into the delicately pure ecology of the Wonkavironment. Then when Hollywonka happened the first time, the OompaLoomperformers consisted of 10-15 "little people" (all male) wearing orange-faces, goofy green wigs, white-eyebrows & matching jodphurs. Now, in Hollywonka's second go at OompaLoomperformance, digital animation/imaging permitted one veteran actor to not only become each and every OompaLoompa but also do so in miniature. Noneless, in each incarnation, the OompaLoompas are visibly distinct laborers brought from another land by Wonkacorporated to replace untrustworthy native British workers. Docile, diligent, childlike -- occasionally good for a culture shock of a laugh -- the OompaLoompas exist across these variants as a fantastical yet racialized safety valve for the necessarily inhumane realities of the corporate production of tasty treats.

So it's no real surprise that people've always gotten pissed about OompaLoompas. Are they slaves? Scabs? Roald Dahl himself rebutted a scathing, if tut-tutting, proto-culture wars critique in the early 1970s. PETOL, or People for the Ethical Treament of Oompa Loompas [pop-ups ahead] formed in the 1990s, a not-entirely-ironic online federation of OompaLoompa Rights Activists (& itself possibly a precursor of Hermione's HELF -- House Elf Liberation Front). All of which suggests -- to StinkyLulu at least -- that Dahl probably scripted the OompaLoompas to carry a not-so-oblique reference to the racial & colonial history of the sugar/cocoa/marzipan industries & so underscoring the historical realities of racialized labor in the creation of confections.

All of which is to say: Oompa Loompas are fundamentally racial characters. And various productions have negotiated this in variously honest ways. Notably, the 1971 film version stylized the difference via makeup/costume & extended the vaudevillian/circus "amusing midget" schtick beyond Oz and to the 1970s. (StinkyLulu's surely not the only one to have spent late night adolescent musing sessions tracing the history of ominous/amusing "little char/actors" from the munchkins to the Oompas to the jawas/Yoda/ewoks to ET?) But, in the 2005 film, there's something provocative about Tim Burton's casting of Deep Roy -- a Kenya-born South Asian actor who has made a career in "little parts" -- to portray all the OompaLoompas: it's a knowing reference to all these histories. And while the digital replication of Roy does certainly suggest the "using one one to stand in for all" problematic haunting so much of US racial performance, the fact that Roy performs all the OompaLoompas underscores the fact of Roy's performance, the fact that Roy is an actor. It's an interesting -- and possibly not entirely effective -- strategy by Burton to accommodate the complex racial challenge of OompaLoomperformance.

So, StinkyLu'll stop here. Without even mentioning the songs. But having at least gestured to some Racial OompaLoomplications... (Thanks for the nudge, afrofuturist. PS: MrStinky & Lu screened Xanadu just last night...)

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