Why Is the Villain in Dragon 2 the Only Non-White Character?

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I’ll keep this short.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 could have been great. It could have been an exciting, funny tale of a boy overcoming both a life-altering injury and his close-minded society to become a hero to his people once again. But one detail holds it back from greatness, and that’s the decision of writer and director Dean DeBlois to make the only non-white character in the film the super-evil mega-villain.

Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar fans are used to mostly- and all-white casts (which is part of what makes this fall’s Home so exciting), so the first Dragon was no different in that regard: the film is about Vikings, and Norse Vikings (as far as I know) tended to be white folks. And true to that, Dragon was a jumble of blonde and red-haired characters with Scottish—and sometimes vaguely Australian?—accents, with little variation. The enemy in the first Dragon was not human: the enemy was dragons (or so it seemed) and the intolerance/fear of protagonist Hiccup’s kinsmen. The “big bad guy” was one dragon in particular—a big fat one who commanded all the little dragons to raid villages and bring him sheep to eat. When Hiccup (spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen the first film) defeated him with the help of his adorable dragon-friend Toothless, it was easy to cheer for the win and walk away from the film feeling good about the characters and the story.

But not so with Dragon 2. They don’t show the villain at first, but the audience hears his voice from under his cloak. Hearing it, I was immediately suspicious. “That’s not a Scottish accent,” I thought. It sounded African, vaguely Middle Eastern. I nudged my friend and whispered, “They better not make the bad guy a brown dude.”

But they did.

Drago Bludvist is a darker-skinned, black haired, dreadlocked, nose-not-quite-like-anyone-else-in-the-film, non-white dude, voiced by Djimon Hounsou. I have spoken with a number of friends, some of which read him as an Eastern European character, given his name. Someone also mentioned that he had green eyes, but I’m not sure if I agree. The point, however–whether he was intended to be vaguely African or Middle Eastern– is his Otherness. Where the other characters are fair-skinned and red- and-blond-haired, Drago’s skin is decidedly darker, his accent distinctly foreign from the Scottish and American tongues of the rest of the cast.

Now, films and literature have historically relied on the light-dark dichotomy to differentiate between good and evil. So there is a long tradition of storytelling here that Dragon 2 is making use of. But you know what?

It’s lazy, and it’s racist.

“How can we make sure the audience (kids) know that this guy is bad?” a lazy director/writer might ponder. “Oh, I know! We’ll make him darker-skinned! That way the kiddies will know that he’s a bad guy.” Because….darker-skinned people are…bad? Interesting, too, that Drago Bludvist’s skin is just light enough to make him ethnically ambiguous, which leads me to believe that the “Make him black…but not too black” conversation was had at some point during production. As if an Eastern European name and not-quite-brown skin would be enough to deflect accusations of racism. But the fact remains: Dragon 2 effectively created an Othered character to act as the villain.

Do directors that perpetuate this sort of nonsense believe they’re somehow doing audiences of color a favor by making the villain a person of color? “Sure, you’re not represented anywhere else in this film, but what about the villain! We made him brown!” Not all representation is good representation, and in a film and TV culture already sorely lacking in black and brown faces, the last thing little kids of all colors need is another reinforcement of “white is good, black is bad.”

Sure, we’re talking Vikings here, and as mentioned above, the Norse were typically white, so having a black or brown Viking might not be historically accurate. But you know what else isn’t historically accurate? Motherf@*!ing dragons. So I think an animated film such as this has a little bit of room for creative license. My father agreed. After speaking with my dad about the film, he snorted and said, “I don’t understand why any director would continue to do this crap. If they really want to make the character look evil and scary, they should make him look like Dick Cheney. Now that’s terrifying.”

Good call, pop.

How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel are great films about friendship, family, courage, and overcoming disability to be who you are, and DeBlois showed how creative he can be with his writing and directing. So where is the creativity in having a villain who is dark-skinned and foreign, drawing on old stereotypes that are better laid to rest? You can do better, Mr. DeBlois. I know you can.

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39 thoughts on “Why Is the Villain in Dragon 2 the Only Non-White Character?

  1. SalvaVenia says:

    Racism, of course. Because it is the fuel of America, and second, because it’s Hollywood. Did we ever see a non-racist film from Hollywood?

  2. david says:

    Also, there’s the lack of people of color as sanctioned storytellers. I don’t necessarily think that an upswing in such would inherently always mean that characters who are people of color would be best-served as people. Unfortunately, the way things are is such that many people of color are used to seeing representatives of themselves crafted by people who are white and privileged, and even having those people be champions of their own humanity. But people of color need to be able to see the best of themselves without a sensibility that uses them to define its self as superior or special.

  3. Thank you for noticing what we see all the time, and speaking on it.. High five to you

  4. Alison Loris says:

    Olivia, excellent, as ever. There are bound to be readers who will say, “Why are you always fixated on the same old unfairness?” but I’m pretty sure they won’t be brown people. Until enough white people of goodwill are also fixATED on this problem, it won’t get FIXED.

    • oliviaacole says:

      Amen to that, Alison. They’re tired of hearing about ” the same old” issues. Yeah, well, I’m tired of it too. So it needs to be fixed.

    • Thank you for this comment – until the unfairness is fixed, there needs to be people like Olivia and others fixating on this problem. Anyone who’s tired of hearing about the same old issues can do their part to fix these same old problems. The more voices fixating, the more likely to get fixed.

  5. perarlzic says:

    I didn’t even notice this. I’d like to believe in was the for any racist realm but that may be my naivete speaking. I’d like to think that’s a black character or person may play any role simply because
    1. That what the director wants
    2. They’re good for it and at their job
    Not becuae of any past syigma or stereotypes. Perhaps it’s become so common I don’t even see it as a wrong anymore…But you’re argument is valid and I’ll definitely be paying more attention

  6. Jim Goebel says:

    Your column on what I’m sure is a wonderful children’s movie is naive and pointless…. making up racism where racism doesn’t exist. By the way, the character IS Eastern European, which means he’s white. Does that make it okay? By your logic, we’re portraying white people as villains, and this might make children believe all white people are villains. Doesn’t this offend your sensibilities? Is there such a thing as racism against whites?

    You are clearly intelligent and articulate, and intellectually not-to-be-trifled with. How can you actually believe what you wrote? Not sure if you knew, but we have a black POTUS. He was elected by white America. Twice. There are enough real problems without you creating phantom ones. Please, grow up, and STOP TALKING ABOUT RACISM. We’ve talked about it way, way too much already. You’re holding us back.

    • Hey did you hear that everyone? We have a black president. Racism is dead. And a black celebrity that this guy knows about said that talking about racism is irrelevant. We should all just go home because you know, a problem stops existing if you stop talking about it.

    • oliviaacole says:

      You are the problem, Jim. I will direct you to Peggy McIntosh, from whom you will hopefully learn something: http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

    • oliviaacole says:

      Did you even read the work by Peggy McIntosh, Josh? No, of course you didn’t, because you’re a troll. The minute you dropped “self loathing” into this comment thread is the minute you got reported as spam. Buh-bye.

    • Great post Jim.

      Olivia and her champions here are engaging in a common, of bizarre, ritual of atonement of sorts popular with what they call “the trendy left” in the UK.

      Privileged white people making themselves feel a sense of absolution for the irrational guilt they feel and project onto others by making ridiculous accusations of ‘racism’ online.

      As you rightly point out, the villain in this movie is supposed to be Eastern European and has green eyes. All they’re really exposing is their own Aryanist/Nordicist view of whiteness; they see anyone swarthier than an Anglo as a “person of color”.

      They’re disturbed individuals.

      • akismet-9b7294f8450ebe789c2435d3831634b6 says:

        An Caucasian with dreadlocks, dark skin and speaks with a distinct African accent. You’re being willfully ignorant.

    • akismet-9b7294f8450ebe789c2435d3831634b6 says:

      If the villain was just another viking, it’d have simply fit the narrative that there are some bad apples in every society. By making the villain distinctly different than the rest of the characters, the filmmaker introduced another more insidious narrative, that villains have a certain make up that’s different than the norm.

      I agree with Morgan Freeman that there should not be a black history month. I vehemently disagree with him that we should stop talking about racism. He failed to adhere to his own standard when he accused the Tea Party as a bunch of racists. He was talking about racism.

    • semioplex says:

      Obama wasn’t elected by white people. Most white people voted for the white guy, both times. And the villain has dark skin, dreadlocks and a “foreign” accent. Doesn’t matter if he’s supposed to be “white”. And if you don’t want white villains stop making all the heroes white.

  7. djalidin6 says:

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  8. Angela Black says:

    Thanks for writing this. I noticed this right away as well, and was very disappointed since other than this I loved the movie. I felt they did a real injustice when they decided the only non-white character HAD to be the bad guy and bad role-model. Way to program the children of society. UGH don’t they know how long it takes to unprogram that crap?

  9. I just saw this movie and was extremely disappointed by the overt tribalism, nepotism, monarchism, and yes barely subsumed racism in this “modern” movie. It seemed like it was designed to make white people feel like they were justified in colonizing the planet before the Drogos of the world did it first, so that they could be the benign oligarchs policing the planet for great justice. In reality, the vikings were the real Drogos, and the rest of Europe was far more monstrous.

    • damon242 says:

      It’s always nice to see someone try to argue against racism by being racist themselves. Odd of me to think that individuality exists, and that we aren’t all just part of the sum of our colour. I guess all Asians are Genghis Khan, all Eastern Europeans are Stalin, all middle Easterners are Sadam Hussein, all Africans are Idi Amin, all British are the many, many evil white-skinned characters, and who are the good guys exactly? Nonsensical. You see the world in groups of colours and all actions shared. You might want to see yourself as doing the right thing but you are only spreading prejudice.

  10. […] #2: The Smart Bitches review also links off to this post, which raises a very fair point: i.e., the only non-white character in this story is the bad guy. […]

  11. I was quite disturbed by the obvious ethnicity of the villain. I said nothing to my grandson who came with me to the movie and loved it, but I need to voice my concerns somewhere. Was this deliberate or an oversight? I am heartbroken that this mentality still persists. I remember when it was ok to portray “Red Skins” as the villains in cowboy movies. I hope someone prominent speaks out on this gaffe.

    • oliviaacole says:

      I truly hope it was an oversight, but I never trust Hollywood to do the right thing so I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if it was deliberate. I too hope that someone with more of a platform than I points this out. It’s extremely disappointing.

  12. Angie Lolly says:

    Parents, teach your kids to be kind and to think for themselves that way subtle racism, intended or unintended won’t influence your child.

  13. Marcy Arlin says:

    After seeing the film, which was a lot of fun, something kept nagging nagging at me. Then: dreads, hooked nose, wide mouth, dark skin, vague “foreign” accent, uncompromising, refusing to negotiate evil dark dragon… One could almost say “swarthy”!
    Thanks for giving an articulate, sane voice to the unpleasantness in the film.

  14. […] it, except for a couple of glaring points that made me feel sad inside. Links to those reasons: Here, here and […]

  15. Ser Awit says:

    My kids and I have been waiting for over a year for this film. I’m pissed that I paid $21 to expose my kids to this toxicity. Of course the kids didn’t pick up on it, as they passively absorb such social toxins. I usually don’t take my kids to a movie until I have thoroughly vetted the content. With this one I simply let my guards down because the first one was such an awesome and inspiring film.

    We suspended belief during the first movie that some of the most barbaric and violent people in ancient history, the vikings, were treated as wholesome people. That was easy because the message of the first film was uplifting. But when Hiccup proclaimed his people are peaceful people and are eventually turn the rest of the world into a peaceful place piece by piece, I was like Bush Doctrine!

    Olivia, you’re much kinder in your take on this film. I thought it was a piece of garbage. I felt exactly as you did when I first heard Drago speak. I wanted to walk out and should have when I saw his face and dreadlocks. It only got worse from there on.

  16. […] I love this excerpt from Olivia A. Cole’s blog: […]

  17. Thanks for the excellent analysis. When I first saw what looked like dreadlocks, I thought, oh no, they’re not going to go there…but I was wrong. Then I thought, maybe his skin isn’t really dark it’s just in shadow. Then I noticed the nose, the eyebrows and I was shocked. I was ready to walk out but I hoped for some redemption. Nope. Now I need to have another talk with my daughter about racist stereotypes. Drago incorporates so many that he makes a great example. Shame on Dreamworks!

  18. The character in question is swarthy but is still clearly caucasian and does in fact have green eyes.

    If the fact that this make believe puppet is swarthy compared to the rest of the puppets, who are either blondes or gingers, ruins the movie for you, you really need to see a mental health professional or at least get out more and take a 15 minute break from obsessing in race once in a while.

    This is really a ridiculous complaint. When you grow this is the sort of thing that will make you say “god I was such an ass when I was a kid!”

  19. damon242 says:

    I’m sorry but you are wrong here. The villain is a foreign invader who has a European army, the name ‘Bludvist’, has an undetectable accent (despite the identity of the voice actor, he has not injected his accent into the role), etc. it is certainly an attempt to brand him as an “other” as he is the last if whatever village he arrives from, however, the dragon-tale and scourge is only Europe-based. There isn’t any racism here, it’s just a scary looking villain that’s identified with classic hallmarks like pitch black hair, a heavy brow, a wide but crooked smile, scars, and while the good guys are painted in bright colours and lots of light his are borderline monochromatic and he has a permanent shadow on him. That’s just old-fashioned art.

    You’re argument for it being racist is that he looks less white and is voiced by an darker-skinned actor. That’s all, despite the setting of the story, his company and culture (the character remains Viking-like in his attire and behaviour), and the absence of a discernible accent. If anything, it’s a concern that you view such little evidence as strong ties to the film being racist when it comes to the villain.

    • damon242 says:

      I apologise for the typos, using a smartphone here.

    • semioplex says:

      So it’s okay to due black hair as a hallmark for a villain? It’s okay for a “European” villain to have dark skin, dreaklocks and voiced by an African? Please, this is racist, to the core and you CHOOSE ignore, either due to ignorance or just plain inability to accept the grim reality.

  20. neopare says:

    I walked out of this film and thought “do we let our 2 yr old watch this? How do we convince her that dad isn’t inherently badder than mom because he’s got much darker skin?” She’s too young to understand any of the arguments about ‘Viking culture’ offered in mitigation.

  21. Kerasi says:

    Making the villain a big fat character is just as lazy. Fat people aren’t bad, they aren’t lazy, they don’t send people to gather all the food for them. This has been used historically in animation to portray the villain as well, and fat people have continued to face discrimination and oppression at record rates because of the depictions of them in media. The fact that you say this character is easy to root against shows you aren’t quite as progressive in your thinking as you try to promote.

  22. This article I stumbled across is appalling, and the majority of the comments I have read on here have made me very sad and frustrated. I, like perarlzic did not even notice the colour of the villains skin, it didn’t even register.

    This is also the case when I have dealings with other races, I spend no thinking time considering their skin colour. Why would I? it’s not relevant to my relationship with them in anyway.

    The vast majority of you on here racists, with the exception of perarlzic, Jim Goebel and damon242. You are blind to the fact that you are the very thing you seek to destroy.

    By attempting to influence movie directors by reducing their potential pool of villains based on skin colour is prejudice, and the essence of racism. Good and evil has no association with skin colour, therefore should not be a consideration in determining a characters appearance.

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