(Reprinted from the April, 1998 The Doctor Is In column, appearing on The Animation Nerd's Paradise website, by permission of the author.)
This January marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of one of the greatest, most energetic cartoon shorts ever made. Nearly every animation critic and historian extant believe this short to be an unmitigated masterpiece. It's creator, possibly at the height of his imaginative powers at the time he produced this work, is a legendary member of the Animation Hall of Fame. When 1,000 animation professionals gathered in 1994 to select the fifty greatest cartoons of all time, this cartoon finished in the top half of that revered roll call. Yet, many ardent animation aficionados have likely never seen it. It will not be released to theaters. It will probably never air on network or cable television. And it can only be found on tape if one really knows where to look. By now you have probably guessed the identity of The Toon That Dares Not Speak Its Name...Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs.
Sometime during 1941 Bob Clampett, one of the most talented and rambunctious directors in the Warner stable, studied Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld. Once absorbed by the Clampett imagination, the expressive caricatures in that book fused with his love of jazz, his manic energy, his irrepressible bent for parody, and the wartime zeitgeist that united America during a grim struggle against the Axis powers. As Clampett's vision became clearer, he took his animation unit (including Rod Scribner, Virgil Ross, and Mike Sasanoff) out to Central Avenue in Los Angeles to one black jazz nightclub after another. There, among the jitterbug, jazz, and jive crowd they sought to capture some semblance of the vitality of black culture and nightlife. Intending to parody Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Clampett developed these experiences into a short called So White and de Sebben Dwarfs.
In order to stay true to his original idea, Clampett managed to round up an all-star black cast for his opus. It wasn't difficult; Vivian Dandridge (now enjoying renewed, if posthumous popularity) willingly signed on to voice So White. Her mother, Ruby Dandridge, took the role of the heavy, the evil stepmother Queenie. Zoot Watson eagerly lent his vocal talents to the role of Prince Chawmin', and Eddie Beals contributed the masterful jazz-and-boogie pastiche that comprises the score. Clampett wanted an entire big band composed of leading black musicians, but either Leon Schlesinger or Carl Stalling objected, depending on which version one hears. One of the legends around the film is that it was originally intended to be a two-reeler with even more outlandish gags and fiery jazz. Clampett himself has denied this, stating that Schlesinger would never have sprung for the extra cost. In order to avoid confusion (or perhaps lawsuits), the short was retitled Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, even though the lead character refers to herself as "So White" early in the film.
The short, (which seems to be directed at five times normal speed) manages to meet every goal Clampett envisioned and it fully deserves its place as one of the greatest cartoons ever made. In lieu of a full synopsis, suffice it to say that no other film of that era symbolizes the energy, power, confidence, and determination that an aroused America would unleash upon the Axis powers and their proxies. Not quite like Coal Black did. Contained in this seven-minute cartoon is the unerring spirit of a nation that is delivering a message to its foes: "You've picked on the wrong guy. You WILL be sorry!" World War Two turned an antiquated army and a largely isolationist nation into a super-industrialized juggernaut virtually capable of subduing a planet overnight. For Bob Clampett, that incredible sense of speed and almost inhuman vitality found its expression through the soul of black jazz and culture; it is literally the "military secret" that the "Dopey" dwarf uses when he kisses So White back to life at the film's conclusion, the power of that kiss causing her pigtails to explode into twin American flags.
Because the film is a cartoon masterpiece, a cultural tour de force of 1940's America, and a vital example of how animation is often able to capture a nation's social nuances in ways that live-action films can never hope to do, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs should be seen by animation fans and anyone else interested in the evolution of our cultural mythos. There is, however, a problem. The film contains what are today considered shockingly racist images. In fact, one might say that in some circles its reputation is blacker than coal. Defenders of this short are quick to point out that the cartoon was made without malice, meanness of spirit, and with the full cooperation of black performers who by all accounts found the cartoon hilariously entertaining. It has been noted that Clampett, by insisting on using Watson, Beals, and the Dandridges, struck a blow against the inherent racism of 1940's Hollywood. Again, the concept of black men (though in caricature) wearing US Army uniforms while performing heroic deeds has been lauded in some quarters as one of the few depictions of blacks in that sort of role during the war years. Because the country adopted racist attitudes, it has been reasoned, cartoons carried these images forth, as did radio, stage, and movies. For good or ill, such were the times.
Yet for many, the coat-of arms bearing dice and switchblades, the dice that serve as Prince Chawmin's front teeth, the wild-eyed jitterbugging, the black dialect, and the thick-lipped caricatures mark this cartoon as far from harmless. Even though Clampett may have meant to show the Teutonic Master Race that even the blacks they despised were a formidable foe to reckon with when gathered under the American flag, the racist images speak only of contempt, bigotry, and ridicule. Some feel that this cartoon is so offensive to African-Americans that it should be consigned to the censor's vault for all eternity, lest any showing of it at all spark an outpouring of anger, shame, and outrage among blacks and indeed, all who rightfully seek to eradicate racism from our society.
Thus far, the latter group has held sway. Cartoons with racial themes and caricatures slowly began to disappear from the movie screen and were quietly pulled from the playlists of the new medium, television. The civil rights movement may have been one factor. There may have also been a realization that a country which fought hot wars to defeat fascism and cold ones to preserve democracy could no longer afford the hypocrisy of overt racism. Noted animation scholar Karl Cohen also posits that with cartoons becoming increasingly expensive to produce, the studios could not afford to lose money by offending anyone anymore. And so Coal Black and other films like it seemingly vanished. Memories of the Walter Lantz Cartunes, bursting with bouncy boogie-woogie, faded away. Certain adventures of Popeye, Bugs Bunny, and a few of Friz Freleng's early efforts at Warner were never seen again. And no, Cartoon Network fans, you have not seen the complete catalogue of Tex Avery's shorts. For good or ill, such are the times.
Each side has very good points and both can, in their own manner, lay claim to the truth. Coal Black, as our archetypal example, was considered a harmless film at the time and was representative, nay, typical in its portrayal of blacks. Audiences of both races ate it up with great relish, seemingly never thinking twice about racist content. This was a snapshot of America in 1943, distorted through the lens of Bob Clampett's frenetic imagination, and should be viewed as such. On the other hand, the cartoon is undeniably racist and offensive in 1990's America, and no matter how animation has avoided racial stereotypes since the days of Coal Black, this film is an unforgivable sin. So where does that leave the animation fan who wants to view this piece of work?
Let's consider the one bottom line that neither side can deny: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs exists. It was conceived, written, animated, produced and shown. There really is such a film, and no one can sanely say that there isn't. It cannot be unmade, and even if every copy were destroyed and every reference to it eradicated, there would still be those who remembered it. Orwell was, and is wrong. To pretend that Coal Black will somehow go away is to perpetuate a lie about animation and our culture's relationship to that art, and we cannot afford the lie of censorship anymore than we can afford racism. Unfortunately, after more than a decade of multiculturalism, sensitivity training, diversity agendas, affirmative action debates, dialogues on race, Rodney King, OJ Simpson, Louis Farrakhan, Bell Curves, Aryan Nations, separatism and reverse discrimination and white backlash the verdict has to be...race relations in America have a long, hard way to go, and any subject has the potential to become a raging battlefield.
The key lies in context. In order for Coal Black and other such cartoons to be shown today, the context should be educational rather than entertaining. It needs to be carefully explained that these images, while unacceptable today, were once reflective of a certain period in our cultural history. While the short should be enjoyed, this enjoyment ought to be more the result of seeing a well-crafted, lively cartoon masterpiece than the cheap risibility of laughing at offensive stereotypes. Despite our divisions, we have made some progress. We can replace censorship with a deeper understanding of the cultural forces that shaped our entertainment and the way we responded (and continue to respond) to it. Barring the dark day when some vicious hate group somehow gets hold of an Adobe Workstation and finds a way to mass-distribute their poisonous product, animation will likely remain free of racist content in the future; a good thing indeed. Perhaps it's time that we should be able to view Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs once again, but not as a symbol of the prejudices that still divide us. Let us instead try to regard this cartoon as one way to understand the forces that not only conquered the Axis powers in the 1940's but later drove us to try, in our difficult and halting way, to come to terms with the legacy of American racism in the 1990's.
E-mail your comments regarding this column to Dr. Toon.
Updated August 17, 2006