Driven by a desire to retreat into the warm comforts of nostalgia, I recently coughed up $2.99 to rent 1996’s A Goofy Movie on Amazon Prime. Before long, I was six years old again, bopping along to Max Goof’s school assembly disrupting performance of “Stand Out,” a song by the movie’s fictional and widely beloved pop star Powerline. The feeling lasted until Principal Mazur, the head of Max’s high school, castigates Goofy about his son’s disruption, saying Max, “dressed like a gang member, caused the entire student body to break into a riotous frenzy,” warning Goofy to intervene before his son “ends up in the electric chair!” Just like that, what was a kids’ movie with timeless bops about a father’s attempt to connect with his son, became, also, a kids’ movie about race and representation.
I’m late to this party. Citing Max Goof’s characterization as a cool black nerd teenager and that Powerline was modeled after Bobby Brown and voiced by Tevin Campbell, the black millennial position is clear that “A Goofy Movie is unequivocally the Blackest Disney movie of all time.” It offers positive representations of identifiably black characters, whose situations speak uniquely to a black audience, and should therefore be praised.
However, Goofy is rarely mentioned in these arguments about the movie’s blackness, even though he too must be black. Watch A Goofy Movie and it’s not hard to see why, as Goofy’s presence in his own movie undermines the claim that it offers an unequivocally positive representation of blackness, and the broader claim that the movie is black.
At a glance, Goofy is obviously a dog — black, sure, but in the way Labradors are sometimes black but are dogs just the same, as evidenced by his snout, his floppy ears, and what is likely a tail underneath his pants. But then again, here’s Goofy’s original animator, Art Babbitt, on Goofy’s origins in 1934: "Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless, good-natured colored boy and a hick…His brain is rather vapoury. He laughs at his own jokes, because he can't understand any others. He is very courteous and apologetic and his faux pas embarrass him, but he tries to laugh off his errors…”
So, Goofy is obviously not just a dog. He is, in part, a representation of stereotypes of poor black people from the country, re-imagined for the entertainment of white people — a new kind of minstrel performer. Early commercial animation wasn’t shy about employing visual referents to black face minstrelsy, whose structure and themes were absorbed and reproduced in vaudeville, whose structure and themes would, in turn, influence animation. Characters with blackened-faces, white gloves, and accentuated facial features perform on stages in cartoons like The Minstrel Show (1932) and Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933).
The latter is one of Goofy’s earliest performances, as he works as a stagehand for Mickey’s stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In postwar America, Goofy transitioned from a minstrel clown into a kind of common man used to comment on modern culture in shorts like How To Play Football (1944) and Aquamania (1961). Fading popularity stopped Goofy solo productions in the late ’60s; his hiatus lasted until the 1987 TV special Sport Goofy in Soccermania, which paved the way for the 1992 series Goof Troop, which depicted his life in suburbia raising his son as a single father — the functional prequel to A Goofy Movie.
A Goofy Movie’s plot is pretty straightforwardly about a father’s attempts to connect with his teenage son, despite his son’s attempts to create separation. It takes place in an animated world of anthropomorphic dogs, without, so far as we know, explicit racial categories. Even so, there are subtle assumptions pegged to its era: Max wears an oversized sweatshirt, and baggy pants; most of his peers sport a skin color some gradient of beige or brown. Specifically, Max is a cool black nerd because he’s shy and obsessed with Powerline, but he’s also a good dancer, and eventually gets a kiss from the girl he’s crushing on at the end of the movie.
Goofy, in a fashion consistent with his original character design, is gullible, eternally optimistic, a half-wit, and a hick. He is seemingly asexual even though he does have a son, and gets along better with small children, underscoring the fact that he is more child than adult. Max experiences incredible distress at his father’s behavior because they feed into his anxieties about becoming his father, which are established at the start of the movie.
In the opening scene, what is at first an idyllic dream in which Max and his crush Roxanne frolic in a field becomes a nightmare when Max fails to suppress his father’s signature “ah-hyuck,” and transforms into him before waking up in horror. Throughout the movie Max consistently struggles to constrain this expression that identifies him as the progeny of Goofy, who continually engages in what’s supposed to be imbecilic and cringe-inducing behaviors, in part because that is how Max feels. In the last scene of the movie, Max “ah-hyuck” again after Roxanne kisses him, but his embarrassment passes after she assures him she likes him. It’s supposedly heartwarming, but key here is that Max struggles and fails to suppress this laugh leaving him no option but resignation to the fact of his ancestry and his future.
Which is to say, there’s the sense that not only will Max become a version of Goofy, but that he already is a version of Goofy. Like his father, Max seems born to entertain an audience, even if by different means: While Goofy practices physical comedy, Max employs pop music. Because of both Max’s performances — at the assembly and at the Powerline concert that takes place at the movie’s climax — are read as modern and cool, he becomes modern and cool. In the process he reifies a different kind of stereotypical representation of a blackness: that of the cool, hip black entertainer, who seems radical and revolutionary because he appears to have more agency, seems in control of his sexuality, and wields cultural influence and capital.
Lest we leave the movie thinking it has all been about Max’s quest to get the girl of his dreams free of his father’s interference, an exploding car sends a flying Goofy crashing through the roof of Roxanne’s house, drawing everyone’s attention during the final moments.
And so, I couldn’t stop thinking about Goofy. Knowing Goofy is the product of a limited imagination addled by race and class animus — indeed, because Goofy is animated by that very animus — inflamed my anxieties about race and class. He reminded me of that infamous Chris Rock bit, which I can intellectually reject as tortured, reductive, and rude without being free of its underlying presumptions. In Goofy, I saw the nigga whose behavior recalls an ignominious past. I felt dread that no matter how I style or present myself, someone will see some Goofy in me — and shame, too, at being emotionally invested in the very ideas I reject. The movie reminded me that I have no real control over the production of representations of blackness, nor their essential meaning, and very little over the gut level feeling these representations evoke in me. (It’s worth noting here that the director and three credited writers of A Goofy Movie are all white.)
I’m aware this all might seem hilariously (or annoyingly) overblown — maybe I’ve made a mountain out of a movie whose intended audience attends primary school. If, on balance, most black people who watch this movie recognize something of themselves and feel good, doesn’t that make A Goofy Movie good enough black representation? Maybe. But I’m willing to risk charges of obnoxious pedantry to suggest that a critique of pop culture should go beyond making determinations about the extent to which something offers a progressive or regressive representation of an underrepresented group, even if doing so invites plunging disillusionment followed by a haze of ambivalence.
As the movie ended, I felt that haze settle in, newly reminded of nostalgia’s precarity. After a few minutes, I remembered the sequel, An Extremely Goofy Movie streams on Netflix. I remembered loving that one, too, and didn’t remember any racial subtext. But 26 minutes in, Goofy, who matriculated at the same college as his son, shows up in Max’s lecture rocking an afro and bell bottoms, ah-hyucking, heedless of his classmates’ condescending laughter (the primary antagonist, the president of a fraternity, says in reference to Goofy “Who is that goon?”) and the panic his presence causes his son. Ninety minutes of escapism is getting harder and harder to come by.