May 26, 2008
Countless column inches, magazine pages and pixels have been devoted to the question/problem of racist black stereotypes in animation, and at some point someone says these cartoons need to be framed or presented in their historical context. It's unstated, but that phrase often means "Let's acknowledge that these cartoons were produced in a less enlightened time, and that the images are offensive. But man, are they funny. Can we go back to watching them, please?"
Not that the first sentence is untrue, but it's a simplistic reading at best. If you really want context, then start with Henry T. Sampson's That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960, which catalogues the many American cartoons that used these images, along with plot descriptions, production credits, and industry publication reviews—necessary and welcome, but maybe a little too clinical. The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954, in contrast, takes the same kind of data as That's Enough Folks and shapes it into a decades-long narrative.
Lehman recounts a chronological history of film animation from its beginnings at the hands of J. Stuart Blackton through most of the Golden Age of animation, weaving in descriptions and explanations of the types of racist images used. This really does put things in context, as for the first time we get to see how the evolution of these images and the gags behind them corresponds to the evolution of animation, movies, pop culture and society at large.
After I finished the book—at 137 pages it's a quick read—it occurred to me that The Colored Cartoon is, in itself, an answer to many of the questions and misconceptions that have swirled around this debate for at least as long as I've observed it. Why is it okay to make fun of Elmer Fudd, who is white, but not black characters who chase Bugs Bunny? The seemingly obvious answer is that Elmer Fudd's skin colour isn't the source of the humour, his ineptitude is. For those that argue that a black character's ineptitude isn't necessarily racist, Lehman's long-range view breaks down the different types of stereotypes and why even the most innocuous-looking depictions were part of a larger trend. Is the call to stop broadcasting cartoons with these images a recent example of political correctness run amok? Hardly. The NAACP—you know, black people—have been protesting these cartoons since World War II. (If you'd read Donald Bogle's Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, you'd know that. But if your reading list is restricted to animation books, The Colored Cartoon will fill you in.)
The Colored Cartoon isn't perfect. Far from it, in fact. While I liked how Lehman sometimes talked about simple economic or technological issues (like the trouble early animators had with lip sync) and how they affected what was seen and heard onscreen, I was less enthused by some of his conjectures that were presented as fact. Was Bugs Bunny a descendant of African-American mythical trickster figures like Br'er Rabbit? Sure, I can get behind that interpretation. Does that make him, and his trademark cool, an example of black culture being mined and transformed for cartoons? Maybe, but that leads to the thorny question of intent. While animation artists like Bill Littlejohn and Martha Sigall weigh in throughout the book, they don't offer any insights here, which leaves Lehman's assertion as an untestable theory.
I'd have preferred if the book was longer (but then, with good books I usually do), held back on the theorizing and gave us more animator interviews, more in-depth stories of activism (I like Lehman's frank description of the NAACP's missteps, and I'd like to see more interviews in that area) and more industry insights—for starters. Still, imperfect doesn't mean bad. At the very least, The Colored Cartoon is a start—a start at providing the often-cited context for this debate that will allow it to move on to a different level. That alone makes it a worthy entry in this still-nascent field.
Where to Get It
Buy The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954 from Amazon.com
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.