At the beginning of Abigail E. Disney and Kathleen Hughes’s provocatively titled The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, a recent last-minute addition to this year’s online Sundance, the co-director with the globally famous last name describes the feeling as if she’d been born with a «weird superpower» she’d never asked for. Yet this granddaughter of fantasyland royalty – specifically Roy, who Disney describes as the business-minded Jiminy Cricket to his brother Walt’s dreaming Pinocchio – also admits to feeling a bit like a «goldfish.» A childhood in which trips to «the park» were routine was just part of the water that the now sexagenarian activist filmmaker swam in. It’s a terrifically astute assertion. A reminder that the higher up in the economic ladder one climbs (or is birthed into), the more obscured the view below. And the more insulated one becomes from her own blindspots.
Indeed, this is perhaps the most significant revelation in The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, which is basically Disney’s own personal quest to figure out how the heck we got from her grandpa’s «no-frills» (for a CEO) lifestyle to Bob Iger’s becoming a Covid-era billionaire at the same time The Walt Disney Company was laying off thousands of its employees. And it is through this lens we get to see the wider free-market picture – literally sold to a primed American public via snake oil salesman Milton Friedman’s «freedom is not fairness» original sin. (Or in the words of 80s icon Gordon Gekko, «greed, for lack of a better word, is good.»)
A reminder that the higher up in the economic ladder one climbs (or is birthed into), the more obscured the view below.
The catalyst for this project actually occurred back in 2018, when Disney received a Facebook message from one of the victims of today’s smash-and-grab capitalism – a Disney theme park janitor (or, in «happiest place on Earth» parlance, «cast member») who asked for her help in seeking a living wage. The filmmaker took him up on the offer (though she initially wasn’t even sure how to go about doing so. Though she’d inherited shares in the company, Disney has no involvement whatsoever in the business, as evidenced by the fact that her requests for a meeting with Iger got her referred to an HR flack). Next thing you know, Roy’s grandkid, her co-director, and team, are in Anaheim meeting with Disneyland cleaners at labour union headquarters, tagging along as Covid-furloughed workers access the cast members’ food pantry, and ultimately making the corporate media rounds and even testifying before Congress. (Though not with the camera at Capitol Hill – as Republican House members’ grandstanding resulted in her crew being told to leave. She later learned that a Disney Company lobbyist had pressured lawmakers to kick out the crew. Of course.)
Though much of the film contextualizes today’s situation through familiar talking head tidbits – «sales of super-yachts were up 46%» during the pandemic as workers relied on government assistance to get by, Reagan’s dog-whistling racism aimed at fearful whites allowed the behind the scenes bloodless coup by the business elite, etc. – the very fact that Disney herself is absorbing these abstract facts on the ground with flesh-and-blood human beings is surprisingly touching to watch. It’s no secret that the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker has long been a champion of causes aimed at addressing inequity. (In addition to serving as president of Fork Films, as the chair and co-founder of Level Forward, and as the founder of Peace is Loud and the Daphne Foundation, she’s also the host of the podcast «All Ears,» where she «interviews bold thinkers on America’s inequality and race crises.») Nevertheless, the view is always quite different from one’s backyard. If only you’re brave enough to look.