Kids’ Movies with Anti-Racist Themes

Educating kids on racism is a great way to raise kids who stand up against racism. These kids' movies with anti-racism themes are a great way to start.

Images from Zootopia and Trolls

Anti-racism isn’t about tolerance or asking other groups to conform, but about accepting people for who they are. It is also about learning what stereotypes are, what history is to be believed and how to think independently about both.

That’s not always easy for parents to tackle when talking to younger children about anti-racism. Exposing kids to various cultures is a great start, but so is giving them a background in anti-racist teachings. There are movies for younger audiences that they’ll love that also have underlying themes of accepting others and combating problematic histories.

Newer cinema has given parents a roadmap to help show kids how a society can work toward a common goal of anti-racism. Here are three movies to help parents start the conversation.

Trolls World Tour

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Photo via DreamWorks Animation

The plot

The newest Trolls movie gives Poppy a chance to be queen, and immediately questions how she is as a leader. Surprise! The Troll kingdom isn’t just relegated to our friends Poppy, Branch, Biggie and Mr. Dinkles. There are lots more trolls, and it turns out that they all once played together in harmony.

The trolls we know from the first movie – the Pop Trolls – are joined by the Rock Trolls, the Country Trolls, the Funk Trolls, the Classical Trolls and the Techno Trolls, and each one group has its own string. Barb, the queen of the Rock Trolls, is stealing all the strings to try to create a guitar that will sound the ultimate power chord and turn all of the trolls into Rock Trolls. Poppy is on a mission to stop her.

What to watch for

When Poppy learns about the existence of the strings from her dad, the king of the Pop Trolls, he tells a story of how the other trolls all became intolerant of each other’s music, and all agreed to take their strings and go their separate ways.

When Poppy meets the Funk Trolls, they tell a very different story, explaining that the Pop Trolls made the first move in history to steal the strings. When Poppy protests that version of the story, she’s told that the history she learned was “cut-out, glued and glittered by the winners.”

Think about what you and maybe even your kids were taught in school. Was it a history of systemic racism in our cities and neighborhoods? How do we learn the history of others in our area, the real story that isn’t always told? That’s a big step toward learning anti-racism.

What to talk to kids about

Queen Barb is trying to make all trolls Rock Trolls and then she can rule them all. In the end, her dad tells her “Just let everyone be what they want to be.” That means that Funk Trolls can also be Hip-Hop Trolls. Expecting every Funk Troll or every Pop Troll to be the same is the same thing as stereotyping, a major factor in racial profiling.

Talk to your kids about recognizing stereotypes and avoiding jumping to those conclusions. Kids should learn about people as individuals and not judge based on skin color, religion, gender or birth place.

Also, ask kids about how they feel about what they’re learning in school. Revisionist history is a part of our past, and kids can learn to call it out when they hear it in other adults. Are they learning from 1990s history books that teach tolerance instead of overall anti-racism and acceptance? Are they comfortable learning that brand of history?

Let kids lead a conversation and then talk to them about the systemic racism in your neighborhood or your city. Explain what that is, even if the conversation isn’t comfortable for you. Educate yourself about your own area so that you can honestly answer questions that your kids ask.

Other sources

Encourage teens and young adults to read This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell, which includes 20 things kids can do to combat racism around them. (Better yet, read it with them and talk about what you have learned as a family.)

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo helps adults have conversations with other adults about race, calling out racist jokes and helping to right wrongs in their own actions.

Frozen II

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The plot

Elsa and Anna have created a happy kingdom in Arendelle, surrounded by friends and family who love each other. Then, Elsa is hearing a voice, calling her away from Arendelle, but she doesn’t know what it means.

The gang – Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Sven and Olaf – travel to an enchanted forest that the women were told about when they were girls, a place where magic exists in nature.

Once there, they meet a tribe of people, the Northuldra, who have been stuck inside by a magic fog for more than 30 years. Elsa must figure out what she has to do to answer the voice she’s hearing and free the tribe from its prison in the forest.

What to watch for

*Spoiler alert* On the island of Ahtohallan, Elsa learns that the forest was put under the magical mist because of a misdeed by her grandfather. He tried to steal the magic from the Northuldra by attacking the Northuldra leader, who was unarmed.

A battle ensued and her grandfather was killed and her mother, born Northuldra, saved her father who had been knocked unconscious. When both Elsa and Anna were confronted with the history of their past, they had to ask themselves what was “the next right thing.”

Let your kids know that they don’t have to agree with the actions of their family members, especially if those actions harmed the well-being of others.

What to talk to kids about

First, ask your kids how they think the Northuldra people feel being stuck in the mist for 30 years. The mist is a great analogy for the racial policies of the United States for the last 400 years. Policies were constantly changing to keep Black people from seeing the sky, be it slavery or Jim Crow laws or voter suppression.

Then, talk to your kids about history in your own family, as comfortable or uncomfortable as it may be. It’s OK to not agree with the actions of your own ancestors, or of leaders of our country. The Founding Fathers were not all-knowing and benevolent; many were slave holders themselves and wrote laws that kept Black slaves from becoming citizens.

This is a big one: When confronted with the wrong-doing of their grandfather, both Elsa and Anna made it their mission to right the wrong. Though they had nothing to do with the original misdeed, the sisters found ways to fix the problem. Kids need to know that they will be called on to “do the next right thing” to make anti-racist decisions to change policies that they had nothing to do with setting.

Other sources

As a parent, listen to Revisionist History, a podcast series by New York Times bestseller Malcolm Gladwell. He talks about how the history we know isn’t the truth in topics ranging from tokenism to music to McDonald’s.

Read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, a book about how racist ideas were created and spread in America.

Zootopia

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The plot

Judy Hopps is a bunny with a dream — to be a police officer. In her world, bunnies are considered prey, small and unable to be successful on a police force. However, when she graduates the top of her class from the police academy, she joins the Zootopia police force as part of its Mammal Inclusion Initiative (affirmative action), and is quickly relegated to parking duty.

She stumbles on information that leads her to help solve the mystery of the disappearance of several animals in Zootopia, a city where predators and prey live side-by-side in harmony (all of the missing animals were predators).

She also works hand-in-hand with a fox named Nick Wilde, which is an important move for Judy, who had been taught by her parents in her small farming town that fox are to be feared and will never change. The underlying themes of the movie stem on race, stereotypes and how racism impacts policing.

What to watch for

Disney achieves the feat of teaching kids about race and racism by using stereotypes they understand — bunnies are small, foxes are scheming, elephants are big, and sloths are slow. It also tries to turn those stereotypes on their heads in explaining how all of these animals can live and work together. In Zootopia, 10 percent of the population are predator animals while the other 90 percent is prey. Those are not arbitrary numbers; census data showed that the 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2010 was Black. The movie is representing Black people as predators, who have a long history of stereotyping by non-Blacks in the country, to show viewers about the negative impacts of assumptions.

What to talk to kids about

Judy Hopps was successful in the police academy, but that didn’t translate into an automatic positive placement in the workforce. Judy, too, was the victim of the kind of stereotyping that frequently happens to minorities, who work twice as hard to be successful academically, but are still not given the opportunities professionally.

Kids should be aware to watch out for this kind of academic stereotyping within their own school and clubs. Are there any areas where they can stand up for their friends or themselves against stereotypes at school?

In a montage about his youth, we see how Nick Wilde was deterred from his dream of success because he was “muzzled” at a scout meeting as a predator. Though he helps crack the case of the missing animals, when Judy holds a press conference, she says “clearly there’s a biological component. Predators may be reverting back to their savage ways.”

Judy jumped to her own conclusions without knowing why and how the animals who were abducted were turned into vicious attack predators. She later saw how those actions, and her use of stereotypes, hurt those around her who lost their jobs because they were judged as a group, not an individual. Kids can understand that heroes are sometimes wrong. It is also the choices they make to correct the wrong (solve the real mystery) that make them heroes.

Judy’s parents were farm bunnies who feared predators and taught her to fear them too (the Hopps family taught racism). When Judy moved to Zootopia to join the police force and began working with a fox, the Hopps family also started a partnership with the predators in their community. Judy worked toward policy change and change started, literally, at home. Kids might not agree with their parents or grandparents on race relations, but their own choices can make an impact in the community.

Particularly relevant now is the impact of stereotyping on policing. The movie doesn’t end when the missing animals are found. It turns out that the deputy mayor, a prey, had created a serum that turned a predator into its stereotypical attack animal. She then changed the police units to work against the predators in Zootopia. Talk to kids about how stereotyping impacts policing in your community, and what actions your family can take to alter those policies.

Other sources

The University of Chicago wrote a media review of Zootopia in 2017 that is particularly helpful to educators and parents.

Design for Change US gives parents and teachers resources to talk to kids about many different stereotypes and how to combat them at home.

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