DreamWorks Studios 2001 animated feature hit Shrek features the delightful character Donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy. Donkey is the ultimate sidekick, cracking wise and helping the lead characters realize their romantic and ethical missteps, but the character still manages to transcend the trope of the Sassy Black Friend. I’m always hesitant to say that anyone does or does not “sound black,” or to assign race based only on a voice, but I feel comfortable saying that between Mr. Murphy playing him and his specific vocal portrayal, Donkey is black. His speech is peppered with African-American vernacular English; he drops the “L” at the end of the word fool, he says witchu instead of with you, and…he’s black.
Donkey’s blackness, though not necessarily lowkey or hidden, is definitely not the sort of obvious thematic racial burlesque we see with other animated features. Eddie Murphy is a talented actor who used this chance to flex his considerable improv muscles, delivering a great performance as Donkey. On paper, the character is the archetype of the sidekick. He doesn’t even have a given name besides “Donkey,” but he manages to come across as a three-dimensional character nonetheless, which is especially impressive since he’s not human and he’s animated.
Animation’s difficult history with race is well documented, and can come off as even more odious than live-action racism in entertainment when you consider that teams of people had to sit down and draw the characters and scenarios this way, exerting far more effort than simply directing live-action that is problematic. Setting aside history’s enormous missteps for a moment, in our present era we still battle mainstream animation codifying characters as black and casting black voice actors just for laughs. Of course one could argue that everything in an animated feature is constructed “just for laughs,” but there’s a difference between laughing with a well-constructed character and laughing at a goofy trope muttering a catchphrase akin to Jimmy “JJ” Walker’s famous “DY-NO-MITE!!!” Donkey is in the former category, partly because the animators didn’t do anything to render his face or body with any recognizable “blackness,” which sounds like a ridiculous thing to even consider, except that even in contemporary times, this happened:
“Blackfish” in The Little Mermaid
And also this:
Marty the Zebra, voiced by Chris Rock in the Madagascar movies. Often heard shouting “What’s crackalackin’?”
Shall I go on?
The nightmare that is Jar Jar Binks, first thrust upon us in Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
Sadly, we could do this all day. But let’s get back to Donkey; his manner of speech may be identifiably black, but the content of that speech is adorably all over the place, such as when he waxes rhapsodic about loving parfaits. A cheaper production could have scripted his ode to fried chicken or had Mr. Murphy making lip-smacking sounds. Or Mr. Murphy could have ad libbed such gags, and perhaps he did and they’re on the cutting room floor. However it came about, the role of Donkey as it hit the screens never veers into such racially exploitative, lazy hack comedy.
By the way, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “sounding black” or using AAVE or snapping one’s fingers or working one’s neck or any of the other recognizable mainstream media markers of blackness. AAVE and intelligence are not mutually exclusive. When we fight for better representation, it’s dangerous to think that “better”= whiter. The signifiers of blackness that we see all too often are problematic when we are portrayed as ONLY the sassy backtalk or the neckroll, and not humans first.
In the majority-white landscape of mainstream film and television, we’re still seeing too many Magical Negroes and Sassy Black Women, characters who are not really fleshed out and are literally just the tropes come to life, painted in one solid color and with broad strokes. Plopping a token black character into a white landscape may give us more black faces on an increased number of screens, but true progress is going to be trickier than that.
True progress is not ruling out AAVE or whitewashing our blackness. It’s more fully realized characters who reflect the wide spectrum of who we are as people. Everything about us, from our skin tones to our manners of speech, is as individual as we are and fall at different points on a very long continuum. When we are portrayed as a monolith, spouting clichéd catchphrases and Mammy-isms, the reductive image of us is perpetuated.
The success of the character of Donkey is but one part of an overall successful film. We shouldn’t really be surprised that a creative team witty enough to set an expository scene against the torture of the Gingerbread Man by the evil Lord Farquaad that involves dipping him into a glass of milk could also create a multi-dimensional black character. Shrek also gets bonus points from me for finding ways to be entertaining to adults that don’t cross over into crassness. That’s always a concern with animated features; the target audience is usually in elementary school and will have adults present as transportation or chaperones that the filmmakers would rather not bore to tears.
Donkey is a multi-faceted character and his blackness is a part of him, not the only thing that he is. Yes, he sounds like Donkey From The Block, but he is also tender and caring and has his own romantic subplot with his own little happy ending. He says some hilarious things and he also has great bits of physical comedy. He spontaneously sings, but what he sings ranges from Bette Midler’s “Friends” to Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” to Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” to The Monkees’ classic “I’m a Believer,” which was also covered for the film by the music group Smash Mouth.
Listening to the filmmakers’ commentary, they refer to Mr. Murphy’s voice as “warm” and praise his ad-lib bits, (including references to some that were deleted for being too “blue”–shocker!) They talk about Mr. Murphy as the valuable talent that he is, and never drop into industry code words for blackness. It’s clear that they wanted to use a talented actor who is black and not willfully infuse their film with some grotesque idea of “blackness” like so many other animated films do. Donkey is well-rounded and hilarious and integral to the story, and, most importantly, I don’t covertly roll my eyes when I watch Shrek with my nieces.