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The ‘Wonka’ film retains echoes of the novel’s racially insensitive history.

A few years back, during a local book sale excursion, I stumbled upon a rare 1964 edition of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Being a fan of Dahl’s works since my childhood in the 1980s, I was already familiar with the novel, which had also inspired iconic films like the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” starring the late Gene Wilder, the 2005 reboot with Johnny Depp, and the 2023 rendition titled “Wonka.”

Upon bringing the well-worn book home and reading it aloud to my kids, I noticed that not only did the illustrations look unfamiliar, but certain passages caught me off guard. As the Oompa-Loompas, the diminutive workers in Wonka’s chocolate factory, made their appearance, Charlie inquired, “Are they really made out of chocolate, Mr. Wonka?”

Wonka’s response in this version of the book was unexpected: “Nonsense! They belong to a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as Oompa-Loompas. I discovered them myself. I brought them over from Africa myself – the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.”

The accompanying black-and-white illustration depicting dark-skinned Oompa-Loompas left me in disbelief

Dahl’s book is part of a longstanding history of children’s literature featuring racist stereotypes, which includes the removal of six Dr. Seuss books from publication in 2021. Criticism has also been directed at other children’s classics such as “Peter Pan” and “Mary Poppins” for perpetuating racism. As an English lecturer specializing in decoding hidden meanings and dark realities in popular children’s stories, I delved into the overt racism in the 1964 edition of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” comparing it to a 2011 version. Notably, the description of the Oompa-Loompas’ skin changed from “almost black” to “rosy-white,” and their origin shifted from Africa to “Loompaland” in the 1974 edition, following criticism by the NAACP. However, even the latest editions continue to perpetuate racist and imperialist ideologies, as highlighted by philosophy lecturer Ron Novy. Parallels with slavery arise when Wonka describes “smuggling” the Oompa-Loompas in “packing cases with holes in them,” resembling slave ships during the Middle Passage. Wonka’s promise to pay them in cacao beans echoes the subjugation of Oompa-Loompas, reinforcing white supremacist ideologies. The latest Wonka movie, unfortunately, maintains implicit racism, sidelining the most prominent Black character, Noodle, who becomes a symbol of hope through Wonka’s white savior narrative. Despite initial hopes for a film breaking away from the novel’s racist origins, moviegoers may find themselves yearning for a version free from remnants of its racist past.

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