One of the more intriguing programs at the TCM Festival was a collection of Warner Brothers shorts that were taken out of circulation in 1968 due to negative racial stereotypes, introduced and contextualized by film historian Donald Bogle, who has written several books about the representation of African-Americans in cinema. As a cartoon fan, I was particularly interested in seeing these films which aren’t on DVD and don’t play on television at all, but even though I’m aware of the way these stereotypes played out at the time in live-action, music, art, and literature, I was not really prepared for some of these cartoons. I’m glad to have seen them, but for once in my life, I’m actually in agreement that most of these should not be shown without appropriate contextualization and that they’re more valuable for historical study than for entertainment. I’ve since discovered that many of them are readily available on YouTube, so I’ll link them for you to watch yourself if you’d like.
A lot of what Bogle said in introduction is pretty close to what you’ll learn from documentaries like Ethnic Notions, a mainstay in classes about race; I watched it with a course I took on the Harlem Renaissance, and it really is an excellent and highly watchable introduction to the portrayals of black stereotypes in popular culture from the mid-1800s through 1950s or so. Most of them stem from the enormously popular minstrel shows of the 19th century, which involved white performers in blackface – these lasted right up into the 1930s, with famous portrayals on film including Al Jolson in the first sound film, The Jazz Singer. Minstrel shows were particularly popular in the north, where there was a lot of curiosity due to the lower black population there – a situation that meant blacks were seen as unfamiliar, other, and both fascinating and potentially threatening. Minstrel shows developed several “types” that were all really intended to take away the potential fear of otherness – the kind old Uncle Tom figure, the nurturing Mammy, the lazy but harmless coon, the highly sexualized younger woman (usually very light-skinned, suggesting mulatto heritage), etc. These four types come up again and again in popular culture, never more exaggerated than they are in the cartoons of the era. One thing to remember is that these cartoons, like most of the films of the time, are not intentionally racist the way such films made today would be – they’re products of pervasive and institutionalized cultural racism. These minstrel show holdover types are essentially the ONLY widespread depictions of African-Americans you’ll find in popular culture at the time, and that’s the real problem here.
Having already seen Ethnic Notions and understanding some of this background, I think I expected to see these offensive stereotypes in this set of cartoons, but I expected to also see cartoons that were worthwhile aside from that. That is, I expected to be able to look with my academically-trained eyes and say “yes, that is an inappropriate depiction of black Americans that is untrue and offensive, but the quality of the animation and the writing, while not enough to overcome the negativity of the stereotypes, still makes the short worth watching.” And that’s true of several of the cartoons, but there is at least one that is essentially nothing BUT the stereotypes – no gags that aren’t racially-based, no particular design or animation quality that is put toward anything but perpetuating stereotypes, and essentially nothing worthwhile at all. Several of the cartoons have entire sections that are like that, even if there are redeeming features here and there. In other cases, the stereotypes distracted from things that actually would’ve been funny otherwise.
There are eleven films altogether that Warner Brothers pulled out of circulation in 1968 (other have been essentially pulled since then, especially a few wartime cartoons with negative Japanese stereotypes, but are not usually considered as part of the Censored Eleven, as the 1968 censored films are known); Bogle showed us eight. Those eight are as follows after the jump, in the order he screened them (mostly chronological, but not quite, so as to keep shorts from the same director together).
Would you like to know more…?