Director Of Disney’s ‘Cool Runnings’ Talks Controversy Over Jamaican Accents
As this October rings in the 30th anniversary of Disney’s hugely popular sports comedy Cool Runnings, the film’s director, Jon Turteltaub, reunited with the cast in an interview with The Independent. However, the conversation unveiled behind-the-scenes issues the cast and crew had with its Disney producers, especially regarding their Jamaican accents.
The film took inspiration from the real-life inaugural Jamaican national bobsleigh team at the 1998 Winter Olympics, but its evolution from the original concept to what came out in theaters was a huge shift for everyone involved. Cool Runnings was not only “Disneyfied” in its content, straying from its original script filled with more adult matters in order to be more family-friendly, but “Americanized” in its approach to showcasing the Jamaican athletes.
“They wanted me to sound like a Black Aladdin,” said Just Leon, who played team member Derice in the film. “They wanted a Disney version. It was tough because if anybody wants to be authentic, it’s me — but I’m a professional, and I had to do the job.”
Another cast member, Malik Yoba, shared that the Disney executives told them that “middle America” would struggle to understand their authentic accents, so they’d have to modify them so viewers in that demographic could comprehend what was being said.
After receiving a stern late-night phone call from former Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to get the accents in order or be fired, Turteltaub told his actors about the predicament.
“The next day, I told the cast, ‘I’m going to get fired if you don’t sound like Sebastian the Crab. Please don’t get me fired,’” he jokingly begged.
Sebastian the Crab is a character from Disney’s 1989 hit film The Little Mermaid with an affected Jamaican accent.
Turteltaub continued by saying that although it wasn’t favorable, they got the job done in a way that was not racially offensive.
“We joked about it, but they got it. They understood. ‘We’re not going to do Sebastian the Crab, but we’re going to make an Americanized version of the movie that people around the world can understand,’” he recounted.
Turteltaub also relayed in the interview that there’s “zero chance” he would and should get the opportunity to direct the movie if it were being developed now. He alluded that his identity as a white man would be taking up space for a better suited, more culturally knowledgeable Black director. Nevertheless, he says, they made a “pretty great movie” despite the “tricky” circumstances.
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