Photo: FX/via Hulu
I used to love staying at my grandma’s house because of her big TV, premium cable subscription, and huge collection of VHS tapes and DVDs. A film that has had plenty of time in your DVD/VHS combo player a crazy movie and of course its sequel, An extremely stupid Movie. I remember craving the overly drippy cheese pizza and squashing both Roxanne and Powerline. While I loved the film, I never thought too deeply about why until years ago when I saw a random Twitter thread explaining how A stupid movie is actually about a black man and his son. My jaw was on the floor. The folks at Vice picked up on the story too. It all made sense; my natural attraction to the aesthetic, the familiarity of the energy, Tevin fucks Campbell… how have I not seen this before?
Donald Glover pays homage to what is considered a cult classic this week Atlanta with a hilarious mockumentary-style episode chronicling the making of “the blackest movie ever made.” The whole thing plays out like a bit of overdoing it after a smoking session with friends: what if Disney had done it A stupid movie Black on purpose? What if a black person did that A stupid movie? What if a black man was the CEO of Disney? Well, that’s exactly what happened in the Atlanta Universe. We’re treated to a full timeline of events leading up to the beloved movie, and eventually the beloved “damn bitch, do you live like this?” meme.
It’s the early ’90s and amid Disney’s resurgence due to the release of The little mermaid, Beauty and the Beastand The Lion King, an early career animator named Thomas Washington, suddenly and inadvertently becomes the company’s CEO. Washington began working at Disney after a lifetime of drawing and graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design. He grew up obsessing over cartoons, and his talent and creativity combined with the fact that he was one of the few black students on campus made him a standout. At SCAD he attended a lecture led by Art Babbitt, the man who invented the Disney character Goofy. One of Washington’s former teachers read a quote from a fictional article by Babbitt that breaks down Goofy’s characterization: “Think of the Goof as a hybrid of a perennial optimist, a gullible good Samaritan, a dope, a lazy, good-natured colored boy.” and a hillbilly…” The quote continues with some rather cryptic language about barbershops and laziness, but the point is that Goofy was created to mimic racial stereotypes about black people.
Unfortunately, this is not a fictional account of how Goofy came to be. I found an article published in 1996 that quotes the real Babbitt saying most of the above nonsense verbatim in a 1934 memo. If you look closely at some of Goofy’s older comics, as in the clips shown in Atlanta‘s mockumentary, it’s startlingly obvious that some of his actions have racist undertones. (The watermelon was overkill.) Washington’s veteran professor goes on to say that his student developed a bond with Babbitt and Goofy, and that Babbitt’s quote became the basis for a Washington series titled “Goofy, Please,” in which the Disney character a black man was shown playing basketball. A short film about the death of his father was also made during his time at SCAD. The film was so poignant that it landed him a job at Disney straight out of college as part of the company’s initiative to bring in diverse voices.
Washington’s position at Disney gave him a solid job and stability while working on one of the duck stories movies. It was around this time that the LA Riots broke out in 1992, an event that deeply impacted his life and inspired him to swear that if he ever did a Disney movie, he wouldn’t hold back. As racial tensions rose in LA and across the country, Disney accidentally lost its CEO due to ultimately fatal health complications. The board voted for Tom Washington — a man whose real name was Thompson Washington, not Thomas — installing a black CEO due to a clerical error. Disney didn’t want the optics of quickly hiring and firing a black man and couldn’t sweep things under the rug because Tom insisted he was rightfully the CEO and went ahead with the inadvertent decision.
A former Washington employee tells the cameras that on his first day as CEO he showed a clip of Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Pluto showing Mickey pulling Pluto’s leash. Washington asked the room, “Why does Goofy make Mickey do this? Goofy is a dog and Pluto is a dog, so why would he let Mickey do that to one of his own?” Phew. He ran his entire tenure at Disney with this attitude; Knowing his situation was precarious and that his time at Disney would inevitably be short, he set himself a goal of creating what he believed to be the blackest film of all time. Washington signed fellow Black Disney colleague Frank Rolls to direct and explained why Goofy was the perfect character for the project: he wanted to use Goofy’s story to highlight the systemic factors that many black fathers deal with. Rolls was surprised by these thoughts, coming from Washington, a man he believed had a solid personal life.
Washington married his wife Annie young and had a son, Maxwell, with her. He had a very close relationship with his son; Scenes like Goofy and Max’s camping trip were inspired by Washington’s real-life relationship with his child. Maxwell describes some of the Easter eggs in A stupid movie these are direct nods to black culture. The episode takes a step forward in terms of comedy here, as the mockumentary tries to do A stupid movie seems much deeper than it is when comparing the road trip map The Green Book for Negro Motorists or to say the film confronted ideas surrounding the Black state of emergency. It gets so ridiculous that a white employee describes how he drew for hours until his fingers bled so he could get the black dance moves just right for Washington.
The creation of A stupid movie Snowballed into something so big that it started taking over both Washington and the Disney offices. Referring to Mickey Mouse as “that white boy,” he ran a social club with Hollywood’s biggest black stars (and Harrison Ford) from his office, giving us cameos from the legendary Sinbad and Brian McKnight, who contributed to the documentary.
Things started to get out of hand for Washington as the pressures of creation mounted A stupid movie became too much. He started drinking alcohol and cheating on his wife, which eventually led to their divorce and a rift between him and his son. When a Disney executive asked if Washington was in control of the inflated budget, he replied, “Of course I am! I’m Goofy” and lets out a maniacal Goofy “hyuck” laugh. They offered to buy him out if he resigned, but Washington refused. He began to become paranoid and joined numerous black nationalist groups such as the Nation of Islam and eventually several gangs, promising reputations by the end of the film. The ideas for the ending started to get really radical; Washington wanted Goofy and Max to be pulled over by a pig cop in a scene that would end in… a shootout? Or Goofy could be shot at the powerline concert for running onto the stage. Either way, someone gets shot. Oh, and he wanted Max and Goofy to stumble into a thrift store and find Huey Newton’s rattan throne and see the greater meaning of it all.
By the end of the production of A stupid movie, Washington had a nervous breakdown and recorded a video of himself very drunk, deeply depressed and almost manic while crying on camera and repeating the phrase “I’m so close” and promising that this would all be for the culture is Disney severed ties with Washington, but still let him onto the property to see the film’s final product. Disney replaced some of its more radical scenes and watered down the concept to what we know A stupid movie to be today; Instead of finding Newton’s chair, Max and Goofy find Bigfoot in the woods. This was the last straw for Washington, who drove off the property only to have his car found at the bottom of a lake 40 miles from Burbank — the same lake he went fishing with his son. They never found his body… but they did find his oversized white gloves.
• As hilarious as this episode was, I saw some parallels between Washington and Glover in the internal struggle to “represent the culture.” It doesn’t help that a large portion of Glover’s fan base is white. Even summarizing the show can be difficult as it is sometimes very clear that black viewers and white viewers have drastically different experiences of watching due to our different worldviews. For example, some white viewers didn’t understand why I, like Earn and Van, called the white man kinda creepy in the last episode. This episode’s ideas about how A silly moviee seen through our lens as Black people is a great metaphor for how race affects how we consume media.
• When Rolls said Washington wanted to address a plethora of issues in the black community, including fatherhood, gang violence, segregation, incarceration and “the amount of cheese in the African American diet,” I disagreed. The cheese on these pizzas looked so good it’s burned into my memory forever. What can I say? I am a black woman who loves cheese.
• I will not fail to see the care that has been taken to make this appear like entirely plausible documentation. There was the perfect amount of detail, nostalgia, and archive clips from real events and real cartoons. It stretches the absurdity in the perfect spots, like finding the Goofy gloves and Goofy costume at the crime scene, but remains grounded in reality when needed when it comes to making connections to real-world events including the riots, which is what the end product into an excellent satire.