By Milton Gray
[Click here to read feedback about this essay.]
"Well, Hallelujah!" Those words are the first two spoken words in my all-time favorite cartoon, Bob Clampett's classic Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. And I say this having seen the vast majority of all of the American theatrical cartoons ever made.
So, why do I love Coal Black so much? Well, for openers:
Great cartoon drawing
Great cartoon animation
Great cartoon backgrounds
To me that adds up to a great cartoon. How do you measure a great cartoon?
Some people say to me, "But Milt, shouldn't you give some negative points to the cartoon for being racist?" Well, what is "racist"? Acknowledging people's differences?as if "different" means "bad" or "ridiculous"? Personally, I celebrate people's differencesdifferent cultures, different styles of humor and expression. It all adds to the diversity, rather than the monotonous sameness, of human experience. When people marry, they usually choose someone of the opposite gender, specifically for their differences. People often say, about gender, "Viva la difference!" Well, why are other differences not embraced and respected?
And some people say, "If you were black, you'd feel differently." Yet I have several black friends, whom I admire and respect, who love Coal Black as passionately as I do, and for exactly the same reasons. Which leads me to believe that "racism," like beauty, is entirely in the eye of the beholder.
Historically, as far as I know, Coal Black was the first cartoon movie made in which black performers were not merely called in at the last minute to perform the voice recordings, but instead were invited to participate in the writing of the film, in the early storyboard phase. The purpose was to inject as much authentic black humor and expression into the film as possible, along with numerous impressions of black jazz music from the 1930s and early 1940s. It was also Bob Clampett's intention that this film should be as appealing to black audiences as to white. I have personally met two of the black people who were involved in the writing: Eddie Beale, a jazz pianist, and Herb Jeffries, the lead male singer for several years with Duke Ellington's band. Both of these people spoke glowingly of the experiences they had during production, and expressed a great enthusiasm for the finished film.
The artistic merits of Coal Black are so obvious, what can I really say about that? To an audience of cartoon fans, I'll just mention that it is a real education to look at that film frame by frame. (I guess that's not practical on videotape, unless you make a dupe tape that you can afford to let your VCR ruin by still-framing.) In many places in that film, the actions are so wild and so fluid, and those fluid actions could only be achieved by using some of the most ingenious distortions of individual drawings. Some of those distortions are not simply stretch and squash, but are instead the cartoon-drawn equivalents of blurred images. Those cartoon interpretations of blurred images create a feeling of a flow of movement far more fluid than any normal drawings could ever achieveeven drawings with standard stretch and squash.
But not all of the drawings are of the "blurred image" sort; far more are of the most ingenious twists and turns of the human body imaginable, which also gives the action on the screen a particularly loose-jointed and expressive dance-like feeling. Looking at those scenes frame by frame is like looking at a comic strip, the drawings in each frame are so different from each other, and so expressive and inventive. To see those individual drawings, and then see how they flow from one to the next in rapid succession, is a great way to teach oneself how to animate at a rather sophisticated level. More time and effort was put into Coal Black than just about any other Warner cartoonit went way over budgetbut that allowed the best of the Warner animators to go all-out to experiment and invent the very best animation they could, in the unique "Warner style."
For me, this leads to the heart of my most beloved form of art: the inventive, most non-literal interpretations of how things (and people) in real life look and move; the most beautiful abstractions, and dreamlike distortions, that somehow express, in an unexpected way, the literal everyday world. I love this far more than literal illustrations of anything.
But back to the subject of the film, why am I so inclined to read into Coal Black "the beauty of diversity" rather than "anything different belongs in a circus freak show"? I dunno. Perhaps it is rooted in my incredibly boring childhood in an overly strict white family. For years, in the early 1950s, the one bit of entertainment that my parents allowed was to listen to the radio for an hour each Sunday afternoonbetween washing dishes from the after-church Sunday dinner, to getting ready for the evening round of more boring church services. So for an hour each Sunday afternoon we would all listen together, the "typical wholesome white American family," to Jack Benny and Amos and Andy.
Jack Benny was humorous, but for me he was too restrained, too typical of uptight "white people." By contrast, the black Rochester had a much more expressive voice and a much more exuberant personality. For me, Rochester was the best part of the show.
The Amos and Andy show was even better, because all the characters were as colorful (no pun intended) as Rochester. In my childhood, I didn't know that the actors on the Amos and Andy radio show were white -- I always thought that the writers and performers on Amos and Andy were black. Consequently, my admiration and respect for black talent was very, very high.
(By the time I was in the seventh grade we finally had television, and a few years later we could see black performers playing Amos and Andy, and they were great!)
I also had a few 78 rpm kiddie record albums, including Walt Disney's Tales of Uncle Remus. Here again, I didn't know that Uncle Remus was the fictitious invention of a white writer. I believed that there really had been an uneducated but brilliant black man who was, like the Greek slave Aesop, a black ex-slave whose stories were heard and written down by Joel Chandler Harris.
So there's an unexpected twist on history, eh folks? Rochester, Amos and Andy, Uncle Remusthe very icons of black ridicule and humiliation, according to some people, were the very reasons why I had the very highest respect and admiration for black people. Since I didn't know any black people yet in real life, I was eager to meet some, someday.
Then, for Christmas 1959, during my senior year in high school, my parents decided that I should be allowed to have my own radio, which fit into the headboard of my bed. Having my own radio, I discovered 1950s rock and roll -- which admittedly all the other kids in high school took for granted. And every Saturday night, a really great local disc jockey would play the top rock and roll hits from the previous years. My parents strictly forbade listening to such "sinful" music, so I would go to bed early on Saturday nights -- "to be all the better rested for Sunday School the next morning" -- and I would turn on my radio so low that it was practically inaudible, and press one ear to the radio speaker -- sort of like wearing one earphone -- and in that cramped position I would listen to the radio for hours, until I fell asleep. By far, the best rock and roll was by the black performersChuck Berry, Little Richard, the Coasters, Little Willie John, Bo Diddley, etc.their performances were bursting with emotion and humor. I sincerely wished that I could express myself the way they did. I hated Elvis; to me he was a waste of valuable air time, a pale (no pun intended) imitationan impostorof far better talent. Once again, my admiration and respect for black performers soared to immeasurable heights.
Whenever black talent could be used in cartoons, it just added so much more artistic richness, and made those cartoons so much more fun, more interesting, more exciting.
In cartoons, whether of black or white characters, I have always been enormously fascinated by the expression of exuberant emotions, and the broadest caricatures of people's appearances and of how they move. For years, I was curious to see how differently caricatures of white people might be created, as seen through the eyes of non-whites. Among other things, I was especially curious to see some Japanese-made World War Two propaganda cartoonsif any had been madebecause those should contain the strongest, most daring caricatures of all. Why? Because the more that people try to be polite, the less broad the caricatures they drawthe closer they adhere to a dignified, literal illustration. But in a wartime propaganda film, presumably inspired by hatred, the artists would probably go all out in their broad and unflattering caricatures.
Finally, I got to see just such Japanese-made World War Two propaganda cartoons at an ASIFA-Hollywood screening, courtesy of black cartoonist and cartoon collector Milton Knight. But to my surprise, I was quite disappointedI was expecting to see something quite bizarre, but the Japanese's most derogatory caricatures of American white people merely depicted us as ugly and whiney, with large noses and devil's horns. In other words, these caricatures were no more grotesque (or inventive) than those that we frequently do of ourselves! It seems, then, that it's only when we do comedic caricatures of non-whites that people cry "foul," as if we are treating people unequally.
In the late 1970s I worked at Filmation on several shows, including the Bill Cosby Fat Albert series. While I was there, I heard some interesting stories from the artists who had been there at the inception of the first Fat Albert show.
When Bill Cosby first came to Filmation, he had no character designsthe studio artists were asked to design the characters. Even then, there had already been so much Politically Correct hysteria around that the artists were unsure how to design these black characters so that they wouldn't "offend" black pressure groups. The main criteria, it seemed, was that "we're all the same." and black people "shouldn't look different." So what could the artists do? They drew generic (white) children and colored their skin brown, to symbolize African-Americans. Bill Cosby insisted that the designs were all wrong. He wanted black children to be able to identify with the black cartoon characters, and so he insisted that the artists draw the very things that the artists had been so severely condemned for doing years earlier: drawing Negro characters with large lips, broad noses, nappy hair, long legs, large feetI'm gonna be crucified just for saying those words. How racist! But Bill Cosby insisted that that's what he wanted. The rest is history. But if those same artists had drawn those same exact characters without Bill Cosby to "legitimize" it, how much hell would have come down?
I can already hear readers saying, "But Milt, you're missing the whole pointthe problem with Coal Black is not its celebration of ethnic diversity, but the ridiculing of the characters, such as with the dice in Prince Chawmin's front teeth, and (in one scene) the yellow stripe up his back." Well okay, let's address that.
It's always struck me as an odd double standard that, in these Politically Correct times, if a black person does somethinganythingit's automatically okay, but if a white person says that a black person did something, then that's demeaning.
Throughout the Twentieth Century, increasing numbers of American blacks have been decorating their teeth with inlaid images, and the image of dice has been particularly popular. I saw a newspaper article around 1977, which I thought I had saved but now I can't find it, that showed a photo of a black sports star who had his front teeth inlaid with the images of the four suits of cardsthe diamond, heart, spade and club. Another article that I do have, from the New York Times, dated February 8, 1990, tells of a growing fad among black teenagers in some of the major cities to wear "gold caps over the two front teeth, sometimes etched with initials or dice or another emblem." It seems pretty believable to me, in Coal Black, that such a flamboyant character as the zoot-suited Prince Chawmin' would be the type most likely to decorate his teeth with the image of dice. It's just another expression of his extravagant persona.
I also have a newspaper clipping from the Los Angeles Times, dated January 18, 1975, that quotes black boxing champion Joe Frazier publicly heckling Muhammad Ali, stating, "He's a black man with a yellow streak right down the middle of his back." To this day I have never heard of any public outcry against that statement, coming from Joe Frazier.
Around the late 1970s I was feeling angry about the way Chuck Jones kept incessantly attacking the reputation of Bob Clampett, and saying, among other things, that Clampett's films are all in such bad taste. At that time, I gained access to a print of the Chuck Jones cartoonAngel Puss, which I felt was, unlike the uplifting spirit of Coal Black, a rather derogatory portrayal of a black male child (notice I didn't say "boy"), who had been paid fifty cents to drown a cat. The cat escapes temporarily, and frightens the black child in a cemetery and in a haunted house, until the black child grabs a gun and shoots the cat, only to be menaced by nine cat ghosts.
So one day a woman was visiting me, who had a very sour attitude toward everything and was an incessant complainer. She was not a cartoon fan, but I knew that in her later childhood she had been exposed to a lot of Warner cartoons on TV, so I said to her, "Let me show you a cartoon that I'm sure you've never seen before, because of its derogatory racial content." I ran the cartoon, with the eager anticipation of hearing her bitching to high heaven about how this Chuck Jones cartoon is in such bad taste. During the cartoon there was not a single chuckle, and when it ended I was very surprised to hear her say, "Am I missing something? Apart from the central character being black, I didn't see anything that I haven't seen in any number of other Warner cartoons." And for the first time, I realizedthat's right! Elmer Fudd has been shooting cats (and rabbits and ducks) countless times, sometimes to be haunted by nine cat ghosts, and the spectacles of non-black characters gambling, and walking fearfully through cemeteries and haunted houses, are common staples of Warner cartoon comedy.
This also got me to thinking: You could probably take almost any cartoon, particularly a comedy with white human characters, and recolor the characters' skin as brown, so that audiences would think that the characters are intended to be Negroes, and suddenly a whole lot of cartoons that nobody ever complained about would receive the most virulent accusations of "racism."
Take for example Disney's Ichabod and the Headless Horseman. If the characters were painted brown, here's a Politically Correct movie review that we could expect to see:
"Racist Disney: Walt Disney's latest release, Ichabod and the Headless Horseman, is the most offensively racist film yet from Hollywood, being a virtual encyclopedia of racial clichés and stereotypes. Ichabod Crane, the lead character, is the most derogatory black caricature since Stepin Fetchit. Ichabod is depicted as excessively ugly, and displays gangly long limbs with awkwardly large hands and feet. He is lazy, scheming, vain and superstitious. Even the movie's title song pointedly ridicules Ichabod's build and character. The action takes place in a small and (we are pointedly told) superstitious community named Sleepy Hollow. Brom Bones, the local black buck, is singularly deceitful; the rest of the men are depicted as dummies. Katrina, the excessively buxom female lead, exploits black women. Rated G."
Well folks, there's a lot more I could add to this, and since I fully expect to be hit with some smug and accusatory comments for this "Politically Incorrect" article from at least a few people, I'm sure there will be motivation enough for me to add more stories and observations. I do ask, though, folks, please be honest. Don't presume to "remind" me of "facts" that are not true.
© Milton Gray