Tuesday, February 14, 2006

BHM: "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs"

(Finally, the first Black History Month post. I was going to do a thoughtful, complex post about the blackface gag but I decided to narrow it down a bit. A lot of what I was going to put in that post makes its way into this one which focuses on a Looney Tune that relatively few people have seen.)

I am a big fan of classic animation. I enjoy old Disney films, Tom & Jerry, the MGM Tex Avery cartoons, and, of course, Looney Tunes. However, as a kid, I never realized that some offensive gags had been taken out of the cartoons. While I knew that old movies had some offensive and stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans, I didn't realize that old cartoons did too until a fateful day watching Cartoon Network a few years back.

I was watching a classic Tex Avery cartoon called "Magical Maestro" when I suddenly saw a gag I had never seen before. The opera singer got ink splattered on him and suddenly, he was in blackface...singing in an old Southern way. I didn't laugh at it. I was more surprised to see it there than anything.

I didn't get a computer until I went to college and one random day while surfing the net, I came across a Censored Cartoons page. It detailed all the edits to various cartoons. It also told of the "Censored 11," a group of cartoons banned from syndication due to their offensive content. One such cartoon was Robert Clampett's "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs."

"Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs" is a black version of the Snow White fairy tale. The cartoon begins as Mammy tells a little (black) girl the story. The evil Queen is an ugly, Mammy-type character who wants to get with Prince Chawmin'. However, he has eyes for So White (despite the title, there's no character named Coal Black) instead. The Queen gets so mad at this that she hires hitmen to take out So White. Instead of killing her, the hitmen drop So White off in the middle of nowhere which is where she runs into the "Sebben Dwarfs." Things pretty much go just like the original fairy tale after that although the cartoon's ending differs from the real story.

After reading some stuff online about the cartoon, I became interested in seeing it. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to find a copy of the cartoon online and, after watching it a few times, it leaves me incredibly conflicted.

I guess I'll start with the negative. First, there are just tons of stereotypes to be found in "Coal Black." The person telling the story is Mammy. I don't mean that she is a "Mammy." The little girl at the beginning of the cartoon calls her Mammy and although you only see her in silhouette, you can tell that she is wearing the traditional getup of a mammy. The evil Queen in the cartoon is also built like a Mammy, although she has an incredibly deep voice. Prince Chawmin' dresses in a zoot suit like many did during the period that this cartoon was made. However, to go one step further, his mouth is all gold except for his two front teeth...which are dice. With the notable exception of So White, every character in the cartoon is drawn with huge lips that are several shades lighter than the characters' dark skin. Also, one of the "Sebben Dwarfs" is a parody of Stepin Fetchit. So White is subtly portrayed as a loose woman. She kisses (or is kissed by) every guy in the cartoon. There are also some stereotypes in the musical cues. One song has the dwarfs singing "We're in the army now/ We're not behind the plow" and one sequence has the song "Dixieland" as backing music.

Even with all that negative stuff, there is actually a lot to admire about the cartoon. For one thing, it is by far the fastest pace Looney Tune I have ever seen. Gags come unbelievably quick and most of them are pretty funny. Along with the rapid-fire gags comes peppier, jazzier music than a traditional Looney Tune. Carl Stalling's traditional cues are still there but overall, the music is very different from other WB cartoons. Also, it sounds like there are actual black actors providing some of the voices. The voices of Mammy, So White, and Prince Chawmin' seem to have been provided by black actors, which would be quite a rarity at the time that this cartoon was made.

The other thing that has to be noted is that despite all the stereotypes, the portrayal of black characters in this cartoon was not nearly as bad as other films and cartoons. "Coal Black" never seems mean-spirited. In fact, it seems downright jubilant. It has the same wacky, cartoony feel of other Robert Clampett cartoons except it's applied to black characters. It's also interesting to note that this cartoon was produced during wartime and features the dwarfs as Army men. It actually acknowledges black men as members of the Army which is kind of interesting given that WWII brought us the Tuskegee Airmen.

I have seen "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs" referred to as one of the greatest cartoons ever made and I can definitely see why it would merit that distinction. Quite simply, there is no other WB cartoon like it. However, looking at it now, it conjures up feelings of both admiration and scorn. I showed this cartoon to members of my family over the weekend and all of them have had similar reactions of shock, laughter, and disdain. Both my mom and my aunt mentioned that they remembered seeing the cartoon with only my mom remembering that she saw it as a child. The interesting thing about the reaction of my family is that none of them said that they hated the cartoon.

Because of years and years of being portrayed inaccurately in all forms of media, many African-Americans are very sensitive about any and all portrayals of themselves. A lot of us still harbor the fear (and rightfully so) that negative, stereotypical, and incorrect portrayals will somehow be thought of as the true and correct portrayal. With African-Americans, there is the fear that there is no balance like there is with whites. It would be considered incredibly ridiculous to think that all white people are racists based on a movie because everyone knows that this isn't the case. However, some of us have a fear that people will actually think that all young black men are gangsters based on hip-hop videos. The assumption of balance somehow doesn't apply.

I don't think that "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs" should be seen by children. Apart from the racial stereotypes, some of the jokes aren't exactly kids' material anyway. However, I think this cartoon should be seen, especially in a historical context. While I wasn't offended enough by it to be repulsed outright, it will definitely offend some. However, I don't think that this cartoon (or any other negative, offensive portrayals) should be boxed up and locked away. They should be confronted and discussed. If we can better understand our past, we will be better able to deal with our future.

4 comments:

  1. Hi Sterling,
    Was linked to this article from animationnation.com forums.
    The gag in Magical Maestro is actually a visual pun of sorts. The character gets ink on him and the singing style is actually that of an old group called The Ink Spots. Afaik "Everything I Have Is Yours" is an actual song. The Ink Spots were known for having a spoken Lyric as a bridge in their songs. Perhaps the ofensive part of this gag is when he gets clunked on the head and squaushes and says in a croaky sounding dialect (I surmise a take-off on the spoken lyric routine)."Everything you has is mine...".
    Believe me, many fans have the same mixed emotions about Coal Black too.

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  2. Anonymous1:42 PM

    I like the way Coal Black has fun with the stereotypes. A lot of animators back then were into jazz and black culture, so the stereotypes are more affectionate than cruel. There were also crude Jewish caricatures in Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the time(despite the Fleischers being Jewish).

    At the time it was all in good fun. Modern day cartoons have had relatively few ethnic characters, because everyones afraid of being insensitive. The Rescuers down Under(1991) was originally to have featured an aboriginal kid, but it was decided that the designs were too caricatured. Which is a shame, because caricature is what animation is all about. Disney are so afraid of portraying a black character in a negative light, that they haven't come up with fun black characters since Song of the South. It was the same deal with the Native Americans in Pocahontas. What a bunch of dull bores!

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  3. Charles Ilardi9:12 PM

    Your comments on "Coal Black" are balanced and informed. I first saw this cartoon in my college; they had it to show as an example of negative stereotypes in Hollywood film. But like you, I thought the film was worth more than that. Over the years, I've found out a few things about it. One reason for the lack of mean-spiritedness AND the liveliness was that Clampett took his whole unit out to the bebop clubs and dance halls where African-Americans were "cutting a rug" through the night (and inspiring mainstream dances) to get inspiration. And yes, though Mel Blanc is doing some of the voices, he got his friends from the "Amos n Andy" show-Dorothy and Ruby Dandridge and Zoot Watson, who, unlike the title performers, were actually black!-to do the other voices. So I could not agree with you more that this short should be shown provided the proper context were provided. Incidentally, among animation purists, "Coal Black" is considered the best short animated film ever made on a technical basis.

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  4. Anonymous12:11 AM

    Hey, I just thought you might want to know. The working title for "Coal Black" was "So White & de Sebben Dwarfs", However, since the name sounded too similar to Disney's trademark title "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (to which this cartoon was a parody to), the execs had the tittle changed.

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