Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, & Jared Bush.
Written by Jared Bush.
Featuring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J K Simmons, and Shakira.
I saw this movie because my wife insisted upon it. She had gone to see it with a friend, and she called me right as she was walking out of the theater. “It’s about crack cocaine in L.A.,” she said. “The mayor is Reagan.”
That got my attention.
It turns out that, indeed, Zootopia, which is an allegory about racism, is also about the CIA delivering crack cocaine to L.A. and the mayor is Reagan. And the assistant mayor is George H. W. Bush. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The film begins cute – a little farm town bunny rabbit, Judy Hopps, wants to become a big city cop. Everything lines up against her, including her well-meaning parents. Despite these obstacles, she achieves her dream of becoming a police officer in the city known as Zootopia.
In what unfolds in a surprisingly dark drama, Judy Hopps finds what other L.A. noir detectives have found – that corruption runs thick in government corridors. She meets up with a ne’er-do-well fox named Nick Wilde and at first they hate each other, but then gradually become buddies. However, although the plot has conventional and even cliché moments, the structure is in the service of an effective story – one with revelations far deeper than run through a typical film, particularly a cartoon.
I am probably more inclined to accept cartoon characters in a serious context – my own play Clowntime is Over uses a children’s program to make some fairly controversial and even distressing points – but this film rewards suspension of disbelief with an inescapable and clever allegory. Jared Bush, who wrote and co-directed the picture, introduces some dark elements right away in the story, and then ups the ante. It seems that several animals are missing in Zootopia, and they’re all predators. Which turns out to be important because these predators, who have lived peacefully among their animal kin for thousands of years, have suddenly begun to turn ‘savage.’ That is, they revert to their ancestral form as meat-eating killing machines. Judy Hopps becomes the unlikely cop on the trail of savages.
Now screenwriter Bush selects the term ‘savage’ with purpose, knowing that it has a racist history, especially with Native Turtle Islanders. And there is other judicious use of words – Hopps herself remarks to a well-meaning officer, “It’s one thing for a bunny to refer to another bunny as ‘cute,’ but for others –” which leads to much apologizing.
However, beyond the aspects of racial justice and feminism, and even, indeed, the invocation of slavery – are the parallels in the cause for the savagery. Judy and Nick follow the trail and eventually stumble upon a conspiracy, in which a “night howler” – a kind of flower is synthesized into a pure form which converts formerly civil animals into savage killers – one might even suggest “super predators.” And it turns out that this process goes all the way to the top – in this context, all the way to the mayor’s office.
A BRIEF HISTORY
It is not possible to get into every aspect of what this film is addressing, but we need some background to understand the parallels between reality and the story. Drugs have been a major part of history for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, and power has followed the use and production of mind-altering chemicals. The CIA’s interest in drugs goes back decades – but the centerpiece for our purposes begins with the Contras, which is where the (screenwriter) Bush seems to have drawn inspiration.
The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were in some sense the ‘parents’ of the CIA, which was birthed in 1947 coming out of the World War II. Both the ONI and the OSS worked with mobsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, and in fact George Patton flew Luciano’s colors when the Seventh Army’s Third Division drilled its way across Italy in 1943. They would also later work closely with opium smuggling gangs from the Golden Triangle. In the 1950s, Corsican gangs and their CIA paymasters would form the famous ‘French connection’ out of Marseille. In fact, General Edward Lansdale – a well-known name to students of the JFK assassination – formed “some kind of truce” with Corsican heroin dealers.[i]
The use and abuse of drugs around the world forms the root of much of the current conflict, and helps explain some of U.S. foreign policy. As the chart below shows, opium production actually bottomed out in 2001 – under the Taliban – and immediately exploded after the U.S. invasion.
What Zootopia is really on about, however, is the specific allegation made by Gary Webb in his seminal book Dark Alliance – that the crack epidemic in L.A. was fostered and arranged by the American CIA. In the film, the drugs that turn animals ‘savage’ are called Night Howlers – and even bear some resemblance to the fields of poppy flowers from which one derives cocaine. A reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, Webb found that drug supplier Freeway Ricky Ross had been working for Danilo Blandon, who had simultaneously been flooding the streets of L.A. with crack and sending money – via the FDN group – to the Nicaraguan Contras. Ross had been arrested “by an apparently honest federal agent,” but not before he “…had bought and resold several metric tons of cocaine.”
Some of the money was then laundered in American banks before being deposited in Contra accounts by one Oliver North. In North’s own notebook, for example, he recorded being told by Reagan official and retired Air Force Colonel Richard Secord that “14 M to finance [the arms in the warehouse] came from drugs.” By 1986, in fact, Secord, along with North and Robert Owen, had been so successful that they had gotten rid of most of the competition among the suppliers for the Contras.
This is real life, and it dwarfs the conventions of drama – but the fact that Zootopia goes there, and stays there, and sees it through – makes for remarkable filmmaking. When Judy and Nick follow the trail led by the disappearance of Emmett Otter (a pleasing reference to a certain jug-band) they find that it leads to the highest office in the land – the mayor’s office. It isn’t the mayor behind it all, however; an ethically-challenged dupe, he lacks strength of intellect and purpose. Instead, the real boss running the operation is the Assistant Mayor, a lamb named Bellwether who keeps getting overlooked. The allegory is apt; remember this cover?
And yet it was George Bush who was the key player in Iran-Contra, who was running Ollie North and the drug operation all from the White House. And when the drug and gun running CIA pilot Barry Seal was shot to death in 1986, he had George Bush’s private phone number in his possession. (Also see Daniel Hopsicker’s excellent book, Barry and the Boys.)
FORGET IT, JUDY!
Now we shouldn’t forget this is a kids cartoon, however dark some of the imagery and serious the scares are likely to be for little ones. That leaves the filmmakers a problem, since although a lot of this is as dark as a James Ellroy novel or Polanski’s Chinatown, we can’t end on a note like that. So at the end, just as Bellwether seems to have the upper hand on our poor bunny and fox, the forces of good come to the rescue. That’s because (it turns out) the police aren’t all corrupt, but merely tricked by Bellwether, and they come to their senses and arrest the evil lamb and all is well with the world.
And that’s OK. I am willing to give the film a pass for not having an animal equivalent of the “sister/daughter” Faye Dunaway slapping sequence, and for not having the bunny get mauled by a ravenous fox as the lamb wins re-election. Most movies are for escape, after all, especially cartoons. But Zootopia flirts with the Truth, and gets far closer than the vast majority of even adult films ever get on such topics.
 McCoy, Alfred W. The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Lawrence Hill Books: Brooklyn, NY 1991), 250.
 Potash, John. Drugs as Weapons Against Us (TrineDay: Walterville OR 2015), 283.
 Webb, Gary. Dark Alliance (Seven Stories Press: NY 1999), 245.
 Dale Scott, Peter, and Jonathan Marshall. Cocaine Politics (University of Berkeley Press: CA 1991), 117.
This is Joe Green's blog.