Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs: Placing an Animated Masterpiece within the Context of a Legacy of Racism

Question 15 points

 

Watch Censored 11 PowerPoint

 

A character style sheet for Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs. 

 

Excerpt from Wikipedia Article on Coal Black an the Sebbin Dwarfs

 

Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs is often praised and defended by film scholars and animation historians, and has often been included on lists of the greatest animated films ever made. One such list, the subject of Jerry Beck's 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, placed Coal Black at number twenty-one, based upon votes from over 1000 members of the American animation industry. Scholarly animation texts including Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, name Coal Black as Clampett's undisputed masterpiece.

 

 

 

Excerpt from:

Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age

Oxford University Press (2003) Page 439

By Michael Barrier

 

The Characters in Coal Black were the first Warner characters to be fully alive, as Disney character were alive, but no one would confuse Clampett’s cartoon with a Disney film…Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs – so seminal a cartoon in other ways – was also the only Warner cartoon of the World War II period to transcend the origins in racial stereotypes.  Clampett traced his conception of the cartoon to a Duke Ellington revue, Jump for Joy, that enjoyed great success in Los Angeles after it opened in 1941.  He said that when he went backstage to meet the performers, ‘they said to me, “Why don’t you ever use us?”’ Out of that encounter grew visits to the studio by members of the cast, auditions for voices, and work on an all-black musical.  Clampett went to an all black nightclub, the Club Alabam, and later took his animator there so they could study the dancing.

            Coal Black’s characters snap and bounce continuously to bright and jazzy music; Clampett said he wanted to have black musicians play the entire score, but management turned him down…Clampett said he invited the performers who came to the studio to criticize the story and the gags they developed.  It is impossible to know how free those performers felt to object to anything they found offensive, especially since they may have believed their jobs were on riding on their opinions… 

            Coal Black does not, however, contain, a great deal of specific elaboration on its basic idea of a reversal of Snow White.  One of the dwarfs is a Fetchit character, and when Prince Chawmin’ flashes a brilliant smile, his two front teeth are dice and all his other teeth are gold.  But other than that, the characters are comic exaggerations of the kind that one would expect in a cartoon, particularly Clampett’s.  It is almost incidental that they are black.  In contrast to other wartime cartoons on racial themes, Coal Black bases its appeal not on the stereotypes themselves, but on the energy that Clampett poured into them in response to the energy he found in black dancers and musicians.  It is a transforming energy; there is no way to read Coal Black as a commentary on racial stereotypes since it does not condemn or endorse them, but it does, in the end, render the irrelevant. 

 

Title card from the opening of the cartoon.

 

 

From Wikipedia Article on Tin Pan Alley Cats

 

. . . some even look at Clampett's Jazz cartoons and cry racism when Clampett was incredibly ahead of his time and was a friend to many of the greats of the LA jazz scene. All of the faces you see in Tin Pan Alley Cats and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs are caricatures of real musicians he hung out with at the Central Avenue jazz and blues clubs of the '40s. He insisted that some of these musicians be in on the recording of the soundtracks for these two cartoons.

 

 

 

From Wikipedia Article on The Censored Eleven

 

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 World War II, 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 Los 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.” 

 

 

Excerpt from the book

The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Film

Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2009

 By Christopher P. Lehman, Ph.D.

 

 

 

            The nationwide exhibitions [of the carton] aroused the ire of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The civil rights group launched an intensive campaign against showings of Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs in April 1943. Of all the “dusky” characters in the film, the comical depictions of African American soldiers angered the organization the most. Julia Baxter of the NAACP’s public relations department called the film a “decided caricature of Negro life and an insult to the race.” She complained, “The production is made even more disgraceful by the fact that the ‘Sebben Dwarfs’ represent seven miniature Negro soldiers.” Fellow member Odette Harper organized a “telephone picketing” on April 9 of many of the eighteen theaters showing the cartoon in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, and nineteen days later the NAACP president issued a formal protest to Warner Brothers’ president Harry Warner, asking him to “take appropriate action.” Warner changed nothing, however, and allowed the cartoon to continue its run.

            The NAACP’s reasons for protesting Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs pertained to both civil rights and the U.S. war effort. The organization condemned the caricatures of African American soldiers as yet another manifestation of institutionalized racism toward African American troops. Juxtaposing the depictions with the film’s patriotic symbolism, Harper observed by letter to Walter White of the NAACP: “The soldiers are subjected to indignities which are damaging to national unity. Ironically, the American flag floats over the camp in which the soldiers are quartered.” Preying upon African American discontent with segregation and skepticism toward self-promotion of the United States as the defender of democracy, the Japanese did not hesitate to produce propaganda for black soldiers stationed in the Pacific, citing examples of discrimination against African Americans. To NAACP officers Baxter and Harper, Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs only gave ammunition to the enemy.

            The NAACP accomplished important milestones in protesting stereotypes even though it failed to get the film removed from theaters. Its activities empowered others outside the movie industry to conduct meaningful protest. Harper’s picketing by telephone was important because she was able to educate exhibitors directly about the cartoon’s offensiveness. Sympathetic theater owners then had the option to boycott the film. White’s contact with Warner shows that the NAACP took seriously the complaints that its national officers were receiving from members about cartoon images of African Americans. The fact that Warner Brothers Pictures never re-released this successful film despite the multiple reissues of less successful cartoons proves that the NAACP had, in the long run, achieved its goal.

 

 

 

 

From a review posted on Racialicious

I know that for many of you, watching Coal Black was extremely offensive, even sickening. But I really wanted folks to see this short, and I was really hoping that others would recognize what I saw when I watched the clip, which was such a heavy experience for me that I had to watch it over and over again.

Honestly, I have never seen anything like it, a piece of media that is so offensive yet so crystal-clear in its political message. I wanted everyone to recognize the eons and eons of memes in the narrative and to make the connections between those memes to grasp the overall message.

For me, Coal Black stands as one of the clearest expressions of the relationship between white supremacy, patriarchy, and militarism. Needless to say, the short is rife with almost every racist meme ever projected onto African Americans.

An inventory of the damage:

• Black woman as Mammy (maternal storyteller in opening scene); ugly asexual villain (The Wicked Witch); sexualized Jezebel (So White)

• Black people as subhuman, semi-animal. Characters other than So White (who’s human yet whorish) more closely resemble cartoon whales, gorillas, and ducks (see Prince “Chawmin”) than homo sapiens

• Black folks as prone to extreme violence- Witch’s hiring of the “Murder Incorporated” outfit (Black ghetto version of the benevolent hunter) to “black out So White!”

•Black woman as insatiable whore-So White sleeps with all the members of Murder Inc (suggested by dialogue)—as opposed to pure heart appeal in original version—to avoid assassination attempt.

• Black men as oversexed hustlers (Chawmin), violent criminals, bumbling idiots, and the (classic!) lazy sambos.

These stereotypes are no surprise to those of us who know the racist history of American media. For me, the intense negrophobia of Coal Black, while deeply infuriating, is only one component of the overall political message. What truly makes Coal Black a jingoistic powerhouse is its reframing of (Black) male sexual potency—traditionally cast as violent and predatory—as patriotic, and its use of darky iconography to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment (note that the US was smack in the middle of World War II). Who couldn’t help but gasp at the blink-and-you-miss-it racist message on Murder Inc’s company car?

Let’s take a look at the Sebben (crude jive there, Clampett) Dwarfs. When So White encounters them, they are enlisted GIs training to go to war (giddily singing the plantation-happy refrain: “We’re in the Army now, we’re in the Army now!”) So White’s domestic chores for the Dwarfs in exchange for her room and board are reframed here as sacrifices for the war effort. Their heroism as good fighting men is juxtaposed against the image of Prince Chawmin, the conk-haired, gold tooth/flashy suit/monocle-wearing, Cadillac driving, ghetto debonair suitor who tries to win So White’s heart. (Between you and me, Chawmin looks like Daffy Duck’s evil twin. Seriously.) In both the traditional story and the 1937 Disney blockbuster, The Prince’s kiss is pure and powerful enough to awaken Snow White out of a poison-induced death. Yet here the “Prince,” try as he might, can’t kiss So White awake at all, no matter how hard he tries—and the sheer amount of energy he expends renders him old and weary. (Read: Insatiable woman wears man out.) Yet the smallest GI Dwarf snaps her awake with just one kiss. Chawmin can’t help but ask: “What you got dat make So White think you so hot?” Baby GI Dwarf’s unforgettable answer: “Well dat is a millatery secret!” He then plants a second kiss on So White so potent that her pigtails flip into twin American flags. Damn.

That’s said it all, folks.

What also hit home for me about this sixty-three year old cartoon is the realization of how we simultaneously romanticize the past and forget history. With all the debate these days about “violence in the media” and the ever-growing pornification and raunchiness of mainstream culture, who would have ever thunk that cartoons from the wholesome 1940s could be so full of sex and violence?

 

 

 

Review from IMDB

As has been well documented elsewhere, the unfortunate fact is that, at the time of Coal Black's making, African-Americans were rarely treated as equals to whites on the silver screen…And unsubtle stereotypes abound. Just to hit the highlights, "Prince Chawmin'" is a jive-spouting hero with dice for teeth (and he literally turns yellow when So White calls for him to rescue her). "De Sebben Dwarfs" are little more than thick-lipped comic relief.

And the movie begins with the tale being told by a loving "mammy" to her child.

Yet the underlying irony is that the racial aspect is merely a smokescreen for what this cartoon is really about: sex. This film's Wicked Queen doesn't even consider whether she's the fairest one of all; her first words in the story are "Magic mirror on the wall, send me a prince about six feet tall." So White, far from Disney's virginal image of Snow White, wears a low-cut blouse and thigh-high shorts, and she sends blazes of erotic ecstasy through every male she meets. If it weren't for the movie's parody approach, it's difficult to believe that the same censors who got all worked up about Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood series would have let Clampett get away with such brazenness.

The irony is that Bob Clampett intended his cartoon as a tribute to black culture. The movie's hot jazz score (by Eddie Beals) surpasses even Carl Stalling's usual high standards, with some incredible scat singing and white-hot trumpet playing. And So White is voiced by Vivian Dandridge, Dorothy Dandridge's sister, and the Evil Queen is voiced by their mother Ruby, which is enough to at least give the movie a legitimate pedigree. Beyond that, this cartoon is to Clampett's oeuvre what What's Opera, Doc? is to Chuck Jones's canon--a look at a Warner Bros. cartoon director at the height of his control. Like Jones's opera parody/tribute, Coal Black goes beyond funny to just plain astounding. Even in fifth-generation bootlegs, the cartoon is rich in the sort of frame-exploding work that has made Clampett's reputation. Even though many of the wartime references (to shortages and the military) date this cartoon far worse that most WB efforts, the jokes still come across quite clearly. (When Mammy tells us how rich the Evil Queen is, the camera pans across her riches: piles of stockpiled sugar and rubber tires.)

There is plenty to be offended about in Coal Black an de Sebben Dwarfs, if offense is all that you seek. But the most memorable cartoons are usually the ones that get somebody's dander up.

 

 

 

From Vincent Alexander: If there’s any cartoon that desperately needs to be taken into the proper context, it’s Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs. Now, that can mean a variety of things. On the one hand, I might be saying that one must remember how black people were mistreated and mocked at this time, and Coal Black is a sad representation of that fact. On the other hand, I might be insinuating that such stereotypes were so common at that time, that Clampett and his team cannot be accused of being racist, but instead "racially insensitive." So which one do I mean?

Neither.

After Coal Black has been called an example of wartime views, racism and bigotry at its worst, a celebration of racial differences, a respectful tribute to classic jazz and a historical artifact, I think it’s time we see it for what it is: a Warner Bros. cartoon directed by Bob Clampett.

That being said, I don’t think the characters in Coal Black are racist or deferential in any way. Clearly, the only intent was to make the characters look and act as funny as possible, and they succeeded in that very well. The cast of the film was given the same respect that any other Clampett character receives—in other words, none. It’s hard to argue that the white characters in The Wacky Wabbit, The Wise-Quacking Duck and Buckaroo Bugs are treated with more dignity than Clampett’s black characters. Caricatures are meant to take people’s features and exaggerate and distort them to outlandish proportions, not to insult but to simply make people look funny. If you have a problem with that, then you have a problem with cartoons in general.

 

 

You have read several opinions about this film.  What is yours? Answer the following questions:

 

1.       What would be the potential harm in allowing Coal Black an de Sebbin Dwarfs to return to regular television broadcast? 

 

2.      What is your opinion of the film?

 

3.      Different reviewers have said the cartoon is about different things.  What do you think Coal Black is really about?  

 

4.      Do you think it is appropriate to show in a high school animation class, when proper background information is provided?   

 

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