Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Racist" Cartoons

I just watched on YouTube (thank the gods for YouTube!) three Warner Bros. cartoons that have been banned from television: "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs", "Goldilocks and the Jivin Bears" and "Uncle Tom's Cabaña."







My primary reason for watching them—aside from them having been censored—was that I was curious about how black women were drawn and caricatured at that time. All of the above films were made in the 1940's. This was THE period of exceptional animation art. For that reason, combined with the fact that there's very little caricature of blacks today, I realized that I could learn from these films. Here are my impressions:

1. The dictionary definition of racist involves superiority, hatred and intolerance. I believe we in the United States confuse racist, prejudice and stereotype too often. For example, the "jive-talking" robots in Transformers 2 were NOT racist. They were a stereotype (no less offensive, but I think it's important to get the terminology correct.) I have the same feeling about the banned cartoons. They are not racist because they don't depict white superiority, hatred or intolerance. What they DO show are stereotypes of blacks: lazy, poorly spoken, shooting dice, zoot suits.

I wasn't offended by these depictions because this was the 1940's for Christ's sake! The one thing that confused me more than offended was the depiction of thick lips. It's not the thickness that bothered me because these are caricatures; exaggerating features is part of cartooning. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids all had thick lips and no one complained. What I DON'T understand is why both the lips and the palms of the hands were shown with such a light color, beige maybe. The contrast of that color against the brown skin of the characters is jarring and just bizarre. Also, the inner-tube design of the lips was weird. I know that was the common way to show black people's lips but it just looks so…odd.

2. Here's what Bob Clampett said in later years regarding Coal Black, taken from Wikipedia:
Bob Clampett himself explained the evolution of "Coal Black" during his public appearances in the 70s and 80s, and during taped interviews: "In 1942, during the height of anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII, I was approached in Hollywood by the cast of an all-black musical off-broadway production called "Jump For Joy" while they were doing some special performances in Low Angeles. They asked me why there weren't any Warner's cartoons with black characters and I didn't have any good answer for that question. So we sat down together and came up with a parody of Disney's "Snow White" and "Coal Black" was the result. They did all the voices for that cartoon, even though Mel Blanc's contract with Warners gave him sole voice credit for all Warners cartoons by then. There was nothing racist or disrespectful toward blacks intended in that film at all, nor in "Tin Pan Alley Cats" which is just a parody of jazz piano great Fats Waller, who was always hamming into the camera during his musical films. Everybody, including blacks had a good time when these cartoons first came out. All the controversy about these two cartoons has developed in later years merely because of changing attitudes toward black civil rights that have happened since then. Hopefully, someday all this overreaction to these innocently-intended cartoons, which we finished in 1943, will settle down and people will be able to see them in their proper historical context."


After reading this, it suddenly occurred to me what the common failing of these films is: they're not depicting the behavior of real people, just show people. In other words, all of the music-playing, dancing around and zoot suits, that's not how the average black person looked, sounded or behaved; that's how the black ENTERTAINERS of the day looked, sounded and behaved. Clampett developed Coal Black with a group of performers. Instead of them infusing the film with genuine behavior, they fell back on the stock performance behavior of blacks during that period.

3. It was surprising that both So White (that's actually the character's name in the film, much to my surprise. Coal Black is just a reference to her hair color.) and Goldie were not caricatured in the stock way. The only reason I can think for this is that despite them being black, they were perceived first as women. And male animators ALWAYS like to draw their women pretty!

So these films were great for my research. The designs for So White and Goldie look like the usual women from that time with some slight exaggeration in the noses and mouths. They're actually quite cute! I made a lot of screenshots of both from which to borrow for my design of Honey.

One last remark about the films: I don't think these, or anything, should be banned. A disclaimer explaining their historical context would be helpful since so many people are ignorant of history. But outright banning ends up burying history. And it's important—especially in a country with so many immigrants—that NONE of America's history be buried. Everyone should know that there was a time that despite their heroic participation in WWII, black GI's were still portrayed as mushmouthed dwarfs.

Out of the three, I thought Coal Black was the weakest. This surprised me since some animation historians think it's one of Clampett's best. Of course the animation is fantastic but the story was all over the place. Maybe combining the Snow White story and GI's simply didn't work. Uncle Tom's Cabaña was better; it had some clever ideas. I could have done without Little Eva's musical number, though (her facial design, too, I intend to borrow from for Honey.) The Jivin Bears was the standout. It was a fun take on the Goldilocks story and held together the best storywise.

I read that some of these banned films will be coming out on DVD soon. I'll be sure to add that to my collection.

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