The tragedy of art is that it’s a product once out of your hands.
The tragedy of art as well is that while in your hands, it’s just a dream.
Season 4 Episode 8 Recap
In an effort to exculpate B.A.N. from any misrepresentation, we are greeted by a disclaimer that the following is fact-checked to the best of their abilities and that not everything could be endorsed by The Walt Disney Company. I think we’re in for a wild (dark) ride.
Journalist Jenna Wortham sets the stage: it’s the early 90s. The Little Mermaid has fished The Walt Disney Company out of debt. Beauty and the Beast stun as the first and only animated couple to grace the Oscars’ Best Picture Category and The Lion King cements the House of Mouse as something not to be trifled with.
Oppositely, just a hop, skip and jump away from sunny Burbank, the sky is ablaze, precipitated by the cowardly beating of Rodney King and the officers’ subsequent acquittal.
This was a milestone for black history, but it wasn’t the only one that took place that day. Behind closed doors, Disney named its first black movie & TV head, Thomas “Tom” Washington (Eric Berryman).
Welcome to “The Goof Who Sat by the Door”: the Thomas Washington Story.
The first interviewee is Thomas’ mother, Evelyn (Ann Nesby). The boy was named after Tom Jones (a Welsh singer who you could’ve sworn was African American if you didn’t see his face) as his dad Ronald courted her by playing his music.
According to Thomas’ cousin Philip (Jay DeVon Johnson), he was never seen without a pencil in hand, drawing. Astro Boy was his obsession and only wished for him to materialize into being to save the world from itself. Pretty deep for a little kid if you ask me.
Growing up, Thomas wanted to fit in, but being different meant that he was called on it, especially due to his desire to draw.
In 1987, Thomas attended the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). A professor, Mark Dillard (Jerry Winsett) admits that though black attendance at the time was scant, Thomas radiated ambition, going so far as to submit a flipbook with his application, detailing his journey from SCAD to Disney.
Art Babbitt came to SCAD to lecture on his creation of the character Goofy. This truly affected Thomas, who immediately took to Babbitt’s characterization of the dog as “… a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless, good-natured colored boy,” and “philosopher of the barber shop variety”. This is what Thomas used as the core of his sketches called ‘Goofy, Please’.
These would soon lay the foundation for The Goofy Movie. Philip recalls how Thomas maintained that Goofy was blacker than most thought.
His potential was ostensible in his freshman thesis, an animated take on the Little Prince with a sad Prince Rogers Nelson on the moon, probably spurred on by the untimely death of his father. The work was either massively comedic or tragic depending on who saw it and when.
Mr. Dillard is convinced the short is what shot him to Disney, straight out of college.
Thomas is enrolled in their Diversity Program, something former Disney Executive Leonard Trussell (Lindsay Ayliffe) is mighty proud about.
Starting out as an assistant animator on the Ducktales movie, Tom’s living alright… until the uprisings started.
It’s 1992. While racial tensions were boiling over in L.A., Thomas was gainfully employed mere miles away. Though his desire to join the masses was strong, Evelyn assured him the most effective way to riot was through his medium. If he ever had the chance to do a movie, he wasn’t going to pull punches.
This revolution was to come quicker than anybody imagined. The person Michael Eisner put in charge while he went on sabbatical happened to take a dirt nap.
As Fate would have it, though the board would vote for a “Tom” Washington (white), they would find out, they would vote instead for Thomas Washington, a black animator with a head full of radical ideas.
With much scrutiny on the heels of their landmark Beauty and the Beast home run, Thomas took the opportunity to step up, not aside. Disney was headed in a new direction by default, not by design. This had the pasty-white board sweatin’ fierce.
Former animator Gary Welch (Pat Dorch) explains how the first day in office, Thomas had shown all of the crew a frame of animation with Mickey pulling Pluto on a leash, questioning if Goofy is also canine, why he’d allow his own to be treated as less than.
Director Frank Rolls (Fracaswell Hyman) knew that “T” had the company shook from the first day as CEO. As an “in-betweener” (the grunt work of animation), Frank didn’t see much in terms of upward trajectory, but with Tom at the helm, he was moved to lead director on “the blackest movie of all time.”
Tom wanted to make a film about black fatherhood, broaching subjects from segregation to the amount of cheese in African American diets. He wanted to start a revolution on painted celluloid with Goofy as the vessel. Thus, A Goofy Movie was born.
He desired to show that though viewed by the public as dumb, Goofy was dealing with systemic factors way beyond the comprehension of lily-white asses filling theater seats: shitty job, angry kid, embarrassment from lack of influence. Heavy stuff coming from someone with a solid home life…
His wife, Anna Speilman (Sherry Richards) married young, and without much, but her husband never let it get them down. If they couldn’t afford it, he’d draw it, like the custom Tex Avery-Esque pictures he drew for their wedding in lieu of a professional photographer.
They also had their son, Maxwell pretty early on. Thomas asserted that the Goofy Movie was for Max to the point of wanting Anna to show him the movie if he’s not around.
This was in reaction to the zeitgeist. Black masculinity was either withered down to faux queerness a la “Men On…” segments or an ice demeanor a la Nino Brown. Goofy stands in stark defiance as just a man whose main concern is to take care of his family.
Jenna believes Goofy’s philosophy was to love your children for who they are, accept them and deal with the pain that the world won’t ever love them as you do.
All grown up, Maxwell believes dad slipped a lot into the movie for him. When Max sings and dunks to the cheering of his peers, a case could be made of commentary on the notion that smart, erudite blacks are the exception, not the rule, and assimilation is key to survival.
Thomas wanted to blow those notions out of the water and had done so by including the real-life fishing trips he used to take his son on as the basis for the journey of the film.
To Frank, the initial intention of the trip in the movie was as a “freedom ride” of sorts with the map representing Goofy’s trust in his own son, giving the viewer a sense of how the Green Book worked as an invaluable navigational tool through Jim Crow south.
Everybody knew the film had deeper meanings, but it meant a ton more in Thomas’ eyes. He wanted every black in America to feel as if they were a road trip away from being part of a movement, even if the kids couldn’t see the bigger picture.
In a meeting, Thomas speaks on how authentically black characters have yet to be drawn before a white animator on crutches hobbles in. This is Thomas’ goal. This worker can now be on his path to drawing a black character because he got his ass beat at a black cookout.
Thomas tried pulling back his methods, but the train of thought was too full Steamboat Willie ahead.
Thomas knew he was going to invariably get fired, so he wanted to make his time at the company count. This included forcing the animators to properly animate dancing and dapping throughout 18-hour days.
Fingers bloodied, Chris couldn’t take it, so he went up to have a word with Mr. Washington, only to find him in the company of Janet, Sinbad, Townsend, and Howard. He was sent back with a chorus of laughter and a white joke at his expense.
Brian, for instance, recalls how Bryan Adams’ ballad for the movie was swiftly replaced with Tevin Campbell on Thomas’ insistence.
Sinbad knew that Thomas had a mean side if you challenged his blackness though. Frank believes it stemmed from a harbored insecurity of not being black enough due to his profession as an animator and the only way to solidify it was to inject the culture into his career, not the other way around.
Brian knows pressure was beset on all sides of Thomas. Frank recalls once Thomas showed him the heat he was packing in a suitcase. His reason? A reminder to himself of how under the radar he is.
Then the cracks begin to show. He’d been stepping out and drinking more, gaining more of a nasty streak among his family. This included raising his hand to his only begotten son.
Anna knew if the path didn’t change, he’d lose his son, to which he asserted that everything ever done was for him.
His wife left him, leaving Thomas to fall fast, all coming to a head one day at a budget meeting, where Thomas maniacally declared himself Goofy before the board of trustees. I mean, what could Disney do but try for an emergency buyout to the tune of $75 millie over 10 years?
He refused. It’s a matter of principle.
Paranoia became increasingly problematic to the point of employing the Nation of Islam as security, with Thomas going all over, touting the film’s future success. He might’ve made one too many deals.
Frank thinks it came down to the movie’s finale. According to Chris, Thomas originally wanted both Goofy and Max to meet their demise at a traffic stop. As intense as it sounds, according to Philip, pops was supposed to be merked once he rushed the stage at the Powerline concert.
When asked by director Devonte if he believes Thomas’ death was an accident, Philip would rather not answer. Chris doesn’t believe it was due to the last known video footage shown (with the family’s permission).
It shows an inebriated Thomas singing “Eye To Eye”. He is clearly becoming unglued, affirming to himself that he’s “so close” and distraught, assures the camera he’s “gotta finish it.”
Once Thomas was officially out, the company let him back on the lot for a screening of the piecemeal product, completed behind his back.
The corrupted result was a blow to Thomas, especially the Bigfoot scene, which supplanted Goofy and Max wandering into a thrift store, finding Huey P. Newton’s rattan throne and Max sitting on it. This was the executives comparing Thomas’ vision to Bigfoot: an elusive fantasy. Maybe he was overshooting with that one.
The last bit of tape has Thomas addressing his son, saying that he’s doing it for him as well as everybody before breaking down.
At the screening, Chris could see Tom get up and leave. Frank saw the look in his eye before he left and knew it couldn’t be good, for on January 14th, 1995, investigators found his Impala at the bottom of the same lake he used to take Max fishing.
Anna now takes solace in viewing the movie, as if it’s a piece of him still with them. Max attributes a popular meme to his father because its essence draws back to Thomas’ early college sketches: black people living their lives, being funny, free, and real.
At least he made “the blackest movie of all time.”
Season 4 Episode 8 Takeaway
The Black American Network is back beh-beh!
Directed by Donald Glover himself, and just like the first season’s “B.A.N” episode under his direction, we are introduced to a Whole New World. The fact that Disney allowed Glover and co. to use this amount of footage is “indescribable”. The Astro Boy intercuts were an extremely welcomed surprise as well. Gave me throwback chills.
From the tender scenes of Thomas’ thesis to the cleverly animated explanation of the animation process itself, almost looking like actual cels, this whole episode was a revisionist fucking work of art.
Having grown up on The Goofy Movie so much, I’d place it as one of the first movies I’d actually worn out on VHS (before the discovery of adult entertainment), I’d have to say the narrative of this entire documentary was nothing short of brilliant.
Dealing with the rise and inevitable fallout from being thrust into a high-ranking position overnight with so many thoughts in your head of where you can take entertainment was handled with deftness and without prejudice, just like a good documentary piece should be.
The camera lens holds zero bias. It is for us, the viewer to decide. Then again, how would you like to be held under a lens?
The sheer majesty of both clips of The Goofy Movie and Astro Boy being interwoven with a beautiful and haunting score only bolstered this episode to the heights of something I’d watch a full-fledged movie of.
Hey, it’s what the Doc ordered.