Thursday, June 11, 2020

What's Going On

Ed Bell's professional animation career spans 34 years, including stints at Disney, Kroyer Films, Hyperion, and Collosal Pictures.  I've known him since we were CalArts kids in the early '80's (and he still returns my calls).   In the wake of the George Floyd murder, I asked him a few questions.  He has generously shared with FLiP his raw feelings about our times, his experience as a protester, and of life as an African-American artist in the animation industry.  Please read and absorb.  -Steve 

By Ed Bell

The times are hitting me hard, this time around.

In ' 92 I was helping clean the streets post Rodney King, volunteering for Maxine Waters in South LA. I saw the place I grew up in after National Guard had rolled in, and there was so much work to be done. So my sense of deja vu and dread is dark and heart breaking. This won't be a well written essay. There's some rambling, off the subject.

So, How were the protests I attended?

Last week I was at the rally at City Hall where I've been many times with the same purpose. With the Mayor, we took a knee.  News cameras and vans were everywhere. Helicopter presence. Police had guys in high windows watching everything. My son said he assumes they were snipers. He is 16. That was a very full block of protesters. People kept a few feet of distance. Wore masks. We heard from the mayor and civil Rights leaders. Jamie Fox spoke. Mothers who have lost their kids to law enforcement spoke. Synchronized voices, calling for justice and for peace in the streets, there was no looting or throwing things. It felt like a familiar ceremony. A little catharsis. A smidgen of solidarity. But I've been a little numb for days at this point. My kid spent hours on his phone watching other cities go bananas, at the same time as we gathered in a well behaved but tense crowd at City Hall. 

The next rally was last Wednesday. The big SF march. I've been to a score of protests in SF and Oakland. But, I have never seen so many humans in one place. Dolores street looked like a beehive. I felt overwhelmed and emotional. The march was long, loud and peaceful. We blocked traffic across the city, followed by a cadre of officers, on horses and in vans. People shouted support from high apartment windows, and rooftops every place we went.  White families pushed baby strollers. Volunteers gave out bottles, offered refreshments at stations along the way. There were no violent rages or bouts of looting. We chanted the names of the most recent people who have died. We called for Justice. I stayed alert to how it was going, watching the occasional provocateur, who had to over shout us with cop bashing.  They were merely a side note to a day of peaceful protests. News helicopter had a live feed going, following the whole time.

My son is soaking up too much of the pain in the daily news, so I'm keeping an extra eye on him. A 16 year old's worst nightmare, of course... Scrutiny! No! "Hey, Dad, stop worrying, I'm not stupid. I won't be one of these knuckleheads"... He met up with a couple of kids to march with. Kids I know, also fed up with it all, angry, and bottled up from the Covid Shelter In Place of the past months. That was the energy all around us, too. Excitement about being in such a social space again. The heat countered that energy by bearing down from cloudless skies, so we had to work to stay cool and hydrated.

When we first got to the rally, at Dolores Park, we tried texting and realized that cell connections were gone. Okay, not cool, but not unheard of in SF. We tried to relax and go with it. Our connection came back around Market Street. We started at 4 o'clock, and curfew was set for 8pm. The main march ended at our Hall Of Justice building, close to the freeway. All the onramps were protected by rows of officers, supported by a few SUVs. No one was going to march on the freeway today. By 7 we were joined by a separate march coming from another section of town, so we kept going, across town, ending up at City Hall again. We made it home around 9pm, exhausted, footsore and amazed at the sheer size of what we had just been part of, on a global level.

I'm still processing that day, but as a person who grew up in South LA terrified of a brutal police presence on my streets, I was impressed at how cooler heads won the day, considering how angry and frustrated the people appear to be. For my part, despair and grief welled up in me, for the dead and the damaged.

Ok. My experience in the (animation) business?

Being Me, I just can't resist overthinking this. Each of us is seeing the industry through our personal lens. And I've only seen it from the outside for the past 10 years. I was awash in so many illusions when I started in the industry, I couldn't see anything through my rose tinted glasses. But by the time I made it into Disney, I had a well developed Code Switching muscle, and I could "agree to disagree" with the best diplomats in the UN. On "Roger Rabbit", everyone was great. These were intelligent, inquisitive, cosmopolitan animation artists, with charm to spare. I felt unbelievably lucky to have landed the gig, partly because I felt comfortable around that crew. But all I had to do was go round the corner, and up the street in Glendale to be called a n!!ger from a moving car. So perspective was always available once I left the building.

But you have to understand that daily experience among white colleagues has always, as far back as my high school days, always required a measure of ... lets call it social charity. A generosity toward the ignorant, and the haters.  I was a baptist kid at heart, and that was put into us from early ages. My Mom and Grandmother expected us to give everyone the same “Brotherly Love” no matter how we felt about they're behavior. As kids, they would take us to LA kid's venues, beaches, Public Attractions where white strangers would take time out of their day to smile at my Mom and insult us. I was too young to know how to react, but people would remark on our natural charms as kids by telling my Mom “They’re so well behaved for Negra children." "I haven't ever seen black children so quiet." "They're not roudy.!" or "They speak so clearly!"

And, by the way, Mom never asked strangers what they thought of her fucking kids! Haha! I mean, imagine....

So, what does a young Mom say to her young kids that can explain that? Our Mom did her best, but her message to us was always urging us to not take in the point of view, to see opinions as what they are, to remember that we are an unbelievable beautiful, brilliant diaspora of people. A misunderstood, misrepresented People. She put it to me like that. And she asked me to look into myself and see my own biases, and always trying to work free of those biases. She said tribalism is unavoidably human.

When we went to white parts of LA or Pasadena,  my brothers and sisters and I can still remember the voices that carried like stones through the air, as though we wouldn't hear it. Words that reduce us to monkeys.... or nigras... or coons. “Spearchucker!” was always hilarious and original, so when we got older and developed a sense of gallows humor, that one made me laugh particularly hard. Cruelty brings out a deep well of inventiveness with language, does it not?

The assumptions and stereotypes were all negative in the late 70s and 80s. Very dehumanizing. In cartoons and in life, I would see my black body represented as simian, apelike, stooped, and confused. You have all seen the imagery and heard the rhetoric, I'm sure. I won't waste our time going through the list. Feel free to dm me if you want my take on how 20th century news and media made us all racist.

My grandmother lived through and told us about Jim Crow days in Virginia and Georgia, where she grew up. We got first hand accounts from her, of the terror we lived in, when the laws made it impossible to live and flourish as a person in the South.  She explained what happened so it would be seared into the back of my eyeballs, so I'd watch my back out in the world. She described lynching parties, the burning of Black young men in public, with the police standing by and looking on, or no where in sight.

In the schoolyard, we used those foul words with each other when grown ups were out of range of hearing. Why? How the hell would a second grade Ed know why we adopted words like that, for schoolyard smut talk?  When we wanted to feign total disdain for each other? Guess what, at my Black and Latino Los Angeles grade school, we were all terrified of the world. The world did not want any of us around, and we were clear on that. News and entertainment were jam packed with the same message, repeated over and over in a million messages. 

My CalArts class was made up of people from all over White America, and I got to hear what young artists thought of Black Men in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Orange County, Wealthy San Diego, Colorado, Oregon, Nebraska, and Brooklyn, NY. Let's just say the picture they painted was limited.  And lets face it, I was a sensitive nerd trying to fit in everywhere I could in the CalArts environment. I made friends in every department, and stayed open to the idea that people were not set in stone, but works-in-progress who can improve as they gain insights. I KNEW that this shit was nothing compared to how it would be with real grownups at Disney. Back in South Central it was pretty much the advice I got from my community. "Reach for understanding, build bridges, exclude no one from your embrace." White Folks would come around when they saw us being excellent.

I learned that most Earthlings just don't put much thought into how they think or what they believe at that age. And back then we had just begun to see the patterns in our lives. One pattern you become aware of when you get to college is the media forms their sense of how everything works. How people are, how systems of government work, what we should want, what we should do with our money, and so on. I began to see everyone, me included, as the end product of years of indoctrination of one kind or another. People are an amalgam of experiences, rather than a series of choices. We were all realizing that as individuals, and it was the topic of so many late night chat sessions at Denny's, where we got to be wise adults on the topics of religion and race. Our awareness of Hollywood’s bag of tropes was something we were proud of, and it showed in our work at that time. See “Bring Me The Head Of Charlie Brown” On YouTube as a good example. That's our class at it's most "Us" (At least the comedic voice we shared).

One of the best lessons I learned in art-school was how to hold onto my initial reactions to people. How to just listen. Then reflect. Then respond. It was just a self-protective-shy-person coping mechanism that worked for me. What we know now in the Aught twenties is that Black people tend to Code Switch in order to ease their way in non-black society. Code switching means putting each encounter perspective, and holding onto our first, instinctive reactions to the people we have to deal with. It means you cultivate a charming patter that calms the nerves of non black people so they don’t jump to any conclusions that will derail the possibility of making a friend, or getting a job.

My studio experience is all over the place. But mostly LA and SF.  I actively sought to find a space in Animation as free of the bullshit as I could because I knew I had to focus deeply on the craft if I had a hope of being any good at it. Colossal Pictures turned out to be that oasis for me, but only after stints at WB [shorts and TV), Bakshi, Birdworks (Family Dog), Kroyer Films, Paramount, Spumco, and the Mouse House. I would say it was several rolls of the dice. Each gig had me in the presence of masters. As a newbie kid, I didn't have any political radar. 

Maybe I had a different lens on, but when I worked at the studios, the defect I saw most was not in individual interactions. It was that the content we always ended up creating. The content was always conceived of from the premise of a White Anglo Saxon Reality. The big shots running the studios were rehashing old tropes we needed to update or bury. American Life itself seemed to always be the same model, where words like "Average Guy" and "Normal" meant the same type of protagonist. And we all had to sort of adopt that worldview to pitch ideas, to get characters approved, stories told, shows considered. Only very rarely did we try to focus on people of color, or even people form the working-class or poor people.

The 80's was all about aspirational wealth and some kind of (magical?) upward mobility myth. And high hair. The 90's was a caricatured version of that same attitude: Our unexamined worship of the Rich. The certainty that wealthy people have a secret we all need a little taste of in order to reach their level in life. At the same time, lots of old tropes and tired cliches were being dropped from the list in Animation circles, so that gave the impression things could change with enough evolution of the crafts people doing the craft.

Those studios were a blur of good times - solid, satisfying work - and massively mind-blowing learning opportunities. People, on the whole, were pretty enlightened in matters of cultural identity, in general. When I got into Hollywood studios, I was coming on the heels of powerful Black energy and talent that had already blazed trails! The Lenord Robinsons, Bruce Smiths and Dan Hasketts of the world (And a host of other creators and producers of color in LA and NYC ) were art-idols of ours from before graduation, and I benefited from their presence in the industry.

I don't know if I have any advice for White supporters, other than what you've been seeing on social media. Just recognize, right at this moment, that the Black people in your lives are pretty weary of conditions that are just coming into the light for everyone to see. Don't ask Black friends to be your educational tour guide through real life. There are things you and your parents never learned about our history, so it's kind of on you to become aware of that missing data, so your picture of how things work: the whole history of Guns, Germs and Steel, as Jared Diamond calls it in his history of world power structures, can be a complete picture. You are doing well to listen without immediate reactions. Maybe stop reaching for my son's hair without asking him first. 😑 Cringe....

Seriously, I have been researching this subject for a PBS project since 2016. The series pilot for our shorts series is supposed to air in July on PBS digital. But they are so skittish about the show, I can't promise anything. The series starts in 1618 and ends on Trump's election. They only funded 3 of our 15 storylines.

We as a nation never talk openly about how we got to be so powerful. We never look at social systems and how they limit the everyday experience of our own citizens. We never talk about human behavior, cognitive fallacies and everyday blind-spots in our perception that can make the difference between life and death for some of us. We never work through our fears and issues and hang ups with mental health, and the traps and biases that we all are prone to. 

I'd like to ask people who want an end to a militarized police that abuses us to consider how we can reset the department of justice, and the police unions, because our mayors and governors are under their thumbs, and can't advance any changes that will save lives, until we face the Big Bosses at the top of the law enforcement "game." That's where our activism will have to be focused if we want to improve the situation with lasting changes in place.

Here's a list of recommended reading/listening for anyone interested in going a little deeper:

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
History Of White People- by Nell Irvin Painter - (great audible listen)
The 1619 Podcast - New York Times

"The Path" by Ed Bell


  1. Thanks for sharing Ed. Much love.

  2. thanks Ed! good to "hear" you again; and even better to read what's in your head.

  3. Ed,your mom's words of wisdom thankfully echo the advice mine gave to me. It would have been cool had they met. (My mom's from WV) Thank you for adding your voice and vision. I for one will write to PBS and encourage them to do more!

  4. Thank you for Sharing Maestro, you gave me lots to think about.

  5. Ed, thank you! Much respect for sharing your thoughts and wisdom! Your generosity and kindness shines through in your words and deeds. Best of luck with your show, I hope it goes all the way to 15 and by the time it reaches it, we are in a much better world.

  6. (2nd try) ;). Ed, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us. Your kindness and generosity shines through in your words and deeds. I hope your show goes to 15 but by the time we get there, I hope we are in a much better world!