Restoring Order with Imagination: Why I Don’t Care If Walt Was a Bigot

In the emotional climax of Disney’s latest live action film Saving Mr. Banks, Walt Disney sits across from PL Travers over a cup of tea and whiskey and asks her to give him the rights to her beloved character, Mary Poppins. Travers is reluctant because the source material is very dear to her heart due to her complicated childhood, involving an alcoholic but much beloved father. So Walt appeals to her as a fellow storyteller.

“George Banks, and all he stands for, will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

Why do I bring this up? Well, because I think it’s a good message for the controversy recently surrounding said film, mostly started by one Meryl Streep.

In case you’ve missed the hoopla, during the National Board of Review gala, Streep awarded Emma Thompson for her much lauded performance as the aforementioned PL Travers in Saving Mr Banks. She took this as an opportunity to, in the guise of praising Thompson, thoroughly bash Walt for, well, all the usual things.

“Disney, who brought joy, arguably, to billions of people, was perhaps, or had some…racist proclivities. He formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby. And he was certainly, on the evidence of his company’s policies, a gender bigot.”

You can read the full speech here. As you can imagine, this started a rather large online debate about whether or not Walt was a bigot. Matters weren’t helped when Abigail Disney, the grand-niece of Walt, jumped online to support Streep’s claims and condemn Saving Mr. Banks for making “a saint of the man.”

And this is where I jump into the discussion. I’m not going to argue whether or not Walt was a racist because, well, I didn’t know the guy. For all I know he could have been a bigot. But then, for all I know he could have secretly been a wizard who taught at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on weekends. I only know his work. The stories that he told. Those are the things that have had a more powerful and lasting impact on society than almost any mortal man ever could.

And that’s what Saving Mr. Banks is. A story. In fact, it’s a great story. It tells the tale of two creative geniuses, both fiercely protective of their work, battling to see their own visions come to life. It’s about overcoming your demons and transforming them into something beautiful for generations to enjoy.

So where would Walt the cat-and-woman hating, racist, anti-semitic have fit into that story? The movie was a character study of Travers, not Walt. We only saw his “executive” side, and, to be fair to the movie, it did show Walt smoking and even cursing. No, it didn’t show him saying hateful things about any black or jewish people but — considering the (Jewish) Sherman brothers have stated many times that Walt was always wonderful towards them — there really wasn’t an opportunity or even any earthly reason for that. Any bigotry in the movie would just have seemed out of place and edgy-for-the-sake-of-being-edgy. Especially since Walt’s hypothetical “irascibility” is pure speculation and rumor.

Which brings me back to the speech I opened up with. The very message of the movie is that stories have the power to heal both their creator and its audience. There is a time and a place for a complex, realistic portrayal of Walt’s life, but this movie wasn’t it.

“Aren’t you tired, Mrs. Travers?” Walt asks Mrs. Travers of her troubled past. “We all have our tales, but don’t you want to find a way to finish the story? Let it all go and have a life that isn’t dictated by a past?”

We can hold on to this historically questionable notion that Walt was a bigot. But that doesn’t seem very practical to me. Because, thankfully, hatred is not his legacy. Hope is. Love is. Beauty is. Wishing upon a star is.

So we can argue about the turmoils of the past, or we can stop and realize that, like most religions, we followers of Disney will never know the truth unless we happened to be there. All we can do is learn our morals and enjoy our stories. And I plan to enjoy Saving Mr. Banks, exactly as it is, for years to come.