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  • Writer's pictureAaron Fonseca

The Depressing Truth About Willy Wonka's Oompa Loompa

This week's Your Nerd Side Show:

They were discovered by the eccentric Willy Wonka, who invited them to live and work at his wondrous chocolate factory. The three film adaptations of Roald Dahl's children's novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, introduced the Oompa Loompas to viewers differently. In 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory revealed them to be smaller than average humanoid creatures with orange skin and cartoonish features. Tim Burton's 2005 adaptation of the story depicted them as identical workers -- all played by actor Deep Roy -- dressed in flashy clothes. The 2023 prequel Wonka follows the visual style of the 1971 film, with a single orange Oompa Loompa played by Hugh Grant. All three versions depict them as happy in their work, and the factory as a kind of fairy-tale kingdom where they can live in safety.

However, that dreamy portrayal was far from the truth. Even in Willy Wonka's world of pure imagination, concerning signs about the Oompa Loompas never truly diminished. Traces of slavery, white supremacy and capitalistic exploitation existed in every corner: hidden in the plain sight of a lighthearted, magical factory. The issue stems from Dahl's book, and all three movie adaptations have taken steps to address those dynamics, with varying degrees of success.

The Racist Implications of the Original Oompa Loompas

Published in 1964, Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reflected a rise in British social anxieties as immigrants and New Commonwealth citizens entered the labor market. This, of course, led to suspicion and paranoia in the story in the form of Charlie Bucket's Grandpa Joe. As a formally laid-off employee of the chocolate factory (in the 2005 film), Grandpa Joe whispered to Charlie about the new secret workers in the factory: "Not people, Charlie. Not ordinary people, anyway."

In the first edition of Dahl's novel, Oompa Loompas were Black pygmies Willy Wonka imported from "the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle," according to Jeremy Treglown's Roald Dahl: A Biography. In 1970, the NAACP issued a statement expressing concerns about the racist portrayal of the Oompa Loompas in light of the then-upcoming film. Dahl himself showed sympathy for their stance, and re-imagined them in the 1973 edition as having "golden-brown hair" and "rosy-white" skin.

Despite that change in description, the Oompa Loompas' exploitative origin remained. Wonka smuggled them from their home to work at his factory. They worked tirelessly in exchange for cocoa beans, even as the chocolatier earned real money for their labor. They were prisoners restricted to areas inside the factory. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka learned the tribal language when negotiating a deal with the Oompa Loompas, but he was proud that "they all speak English now."

Besides the unreasonable wage and inhumane treatment, Oompa Loompas were Wonka's test subjects for new inventions. Although the film showed "Whips - All Shapes and Sizes" as cows being whipped to produce cream, the rooms could have been another indication of the chocolatier's full ownership of Oompa Loompas. Wonka believed that he had "rescued" them from the dangerous jungles, deadly diseases and starvation, expressing a pro-slavery sentiment that echoed the "positive good" defense of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

The Willy Wonka Movies Make Changes to the Oompa Loompas

The filmmakers for all three movies were aware of the problematic nature of the Oompa Loompas and the implicit exploitation of their status in the factory. All three lean into the idea of the factory as a magical kingdom and its workers akin to fairies or elves rather than maltreated minorities. The 1971 movie omits mention of how they're paid, only that Wonka wishes them to live in peace and safety. (Though they are still experimented upon: Wonka states that a number of Oompa Loompas were turned into blueberries before Violet Beauregard.) And the British setting is subtly changed to an unnamed city, shot in Munich to enhance a sense of fairy tale timelessness rather than Dahl's late imperialist sensibilities.

The 2005 version directed by Tim Burton adheres more closely to the Dahl text -- presumably in an effort to distance itself from its predecessor -- which brings the Oompa Loompas' problematic qualities into the forefront. It includes a visual depiction of Loompaland as a savage jungle, and the inhabitants as coded primitives worshiping cacao beans. Wonka still offers to pay them in chocolate, and they're still the subjects of experimentation. The film flirts with other problematic stereotypes as well -- such as the story of a foolish Indian prince who commissions a palace built out of chocolate -- and its innate sympathy with Wonka as a misunderstood outsider tends to compound his exploitative practices. (Wilder's Wonka has more overtly sinister qualities.)

Of the three, Wonka (2023) addresses the problem most directly: taking advantage of its status as a prequel to step outside of Dahl's text. A young Wonka traps an Oompa Loompa named Lofty, who was exiled from Loompaland after Wonka himself unknowingly stole several cacao beans on his watch. Lofty has been claiming his chocolates in repayment for the debt, and Wonka's responsibility on that front -- however unintentional -- becomes a key point in the plot. Loompaland itself is stripped of its colonialist implications: portrayed as an uncharted island in an unnamed sea, with the Oompa Loompas dressed in modern striped suits. (Lofty is sent in exile wearing a wealthy yachtsman's outfit and piloting a speed boat.) Wonka -- portrayed as a champion of the downtrodden who is himself exploited through most of the film -- offers Lofty a job as the "head of the tasting department" in his new factory which he builds effortlessly through magic rather than requiring manual labor. It implies that the Oompa Loompas are equal partners in his endeavor, and makes Wonka's bottomless generosity an overt anomaly among rival candy makers motivated entirely by greed.

Are Oompa Loompas Slaves?

Violet asked her father for an Oompa Loompa, and he promised he would obtain one for her by the end of the day. That suggested a transfer of ownership and reinforced the slave aspect of the Oompa Loompas' condition from a privileged, white supremacist viewpoint. Yet, viewers often overlooked this troubling aspect under the blind worship of the chocolatier.

As Donald Yacovene explains, Chocolate has a direct, historical link to slavery, starting with the first cocoa shipments to Europe in 1585. Great Britain has been knee-deep in the colonial business since the mid-17th century. The cocoa trade significantly impacted countries in Central America and the Caribbean. However, most of the world's cocoa production shifted to West Africa due to Britain's involvement. Many crops exploited enslaved people and child laborers to obtain a more significant profit. Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807. However, slavery and exploitation in cocoa production continue in other ways even today.

Through deconstructing the seemingly wonderful supernatural beings of the Oompa Loompas, viewers come to understand the underlying colonial context and severe racial and social issues associated with the beloved children's story. Willy Wonka was certainly not a man to worship, and his chocolate factory, as dreamy as it was, was built on exploitation. Subsequent adaptations have been obligated to either show that exploitation more plainly, or re-imagine both Wonka and the Oompa Loompas as different than the text portrays them.

Wonka is now playing in theaters.

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