April 29, 2008
For years (and years, and years) I've been reading the same tired arguments about racist cartoons, particularly those that use black stereotypes. It's a problem that's as old as cartoons themselves; John Stuart Blackton's Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, considered the first cartoon short, made fun of blacks and Jews (Blackton's lightning sketches include two images labelled "Coon" and "Cohen") in 1906, and the image of big-lipped, Stepin Fetchit-inspired characters didn't lose steam in popular American cartoons for another half a century.
The problem began when networks stopped airing these cartoons in their regular lineups, and larger companies were slow to include them in videocassette (and now DVD) compilations unedited. Not that they were never released—I still have my Tex Avery laserdiscs with Uncle Tom's Cabana and a handful of shorts that use blackface gags, for example—but some Warner Bros. cartoons have been considered so over the line that they haven't been aired on TV for decades, and never released by Warner Bros. on any kind of home video. These shorts have acquired a mythical status, and a name: The Censored Eleven.
Talk of these shorts (and similar ones not so blessed as to be tagged with such a dramatic moniker) invariably brings up discussions of the shorts' historical significance, the fact that they were made in a different era, and, at some point, an exhortation to the rightsholders that the shorts should be released unedited. My longstanding complaint about these arguments is that, for the most part, it's a bunch of white guys standing around arguing about what black people should and shouldn't find offensive. (Books like That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960 are a step toward rectifying that problem, as well as the more recent The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, which I'll be reviewing soon; I've also done my bit with essays on the subject and, most recently, a 2006 guest blogging stint on ReFrederator.)
In light of a recent re-emergence of the discussion, Thad Komorowski has nailed the other complaint that I've never fully given voice to: that many cartoon fans, in their desire to own these films, have bent over backwards to claim that these films are not racist. Because, let's face it, they most emphatically are. If a joke is being made with the understanding that something is funny because a character is black, then it's racist. It's a pretty simple equation. (And please spare me the "I have a black friend who loves these cartoons" argument; I think Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is one of the funniest, snappiest, and most brilliant cartoons Bob Clampett ever directed, but denying that it's entirely built around racist imagery is like denying gravity.)
I am more than pleased that someone has come out and called it like it is, and urge you to read Thad's frank commentary. And hey, if you've been itching to see the Censored Eleven for yourself, he's also posted them there for your edification.