Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Different Takes on The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Short Films, 1907-1954

Song of the South is one thing, and cartoon shorts are another.

Christopher P. Lehman, a black associate professor in Minnesota, explores the depiction of blacks in animation in his book, The Colored Cartoon: Representation in American Short Films, 1907-1954.

Various reviewers have had different takes on the work. Michael Barrier, who knows animation and its history as well as almost anybody, defends a couple of the cartoons with which Dr. Lehman has problems, but goes on to write:

... the people who wrote and drew many of the most offensive cartoons weren't making conscious choices that blacks should be depicted in degraded and insulting terms; they were just stuffing into drawings the ignorant assumptions that they shared with a great many other whites. How galling it must have been — how galling it must be — to suffer insult and humiliation at the hands of people who actually aren't paying much attention to you.

It's often true that overlords pay little attention to those in stations beneath them. No doubt the slave-class in ancient Rome was pretty much invisible to Roman citizens. Enslaved workers hauled in from the Middle east or the forests of Germany were fixtures who were simply there, a part of everyday existence like chariots or Roman baths. What was the big deal, anyway? If Romans made fun of "stupid, slothful" slaves from Mesopatamia, well they were Mesopatamians, for God's sake! That's the way those people are!

When I was at Disney, one of the older storymen created black, jive-talking crows (along the lines of those in Dumbo) in the early development of The Fox and the Hound. He didn't see anything wrong with the characters, thought they were funny. (They were also pretty ... ah ... derivative, but that's another story ...)

Studio topkick Ron Miller told him to take them out; he kept resisting until Miller finally said in a meeting: "We're still getting letters about Dumbo! These character have to go!"

And ultimately they did, replaced by a woodpecker and sparrow who talked with a Brooklyn accent. (Another stereotype?)

By the 1970s, you see, the overlords had gotten a clue that the caricatures that had flourished in the 'thirties and 'forties were no longer okay. No longer could they use "What's the big deal?" and have people buy into it.

Emru Townsend at Frames Per Second has a level-headed take on The Colored Cartoon:

Lehman recounts a chronological history of film animation from its beginnings at the hands of J. Stuart Blackton through most of the Golden Age of animation, weaving in descriptions and explanations of the types of racist images used. This really does put things in context, as for the first time we get to see how the evolution of these images and the gags behind them corresponds to the evolution of animation, movies, pop culture and society at large.

After I finished the book—at 137 pages it's a quick read—it occurred to me that The Colored Cartoon is, in itself, an answer to many of the questions and misconceptions that have swirled around this debate for at least as long as I've observed it. Why is it okay to make fun of Elmer Fudd, who is white, but not black characters who chase Bugs Bunny? The seemingly obvious answer is that Elmer Fudd's skin colour isn't the source of the humour, his ineptitude is. For those that argue that a black character's ineptitude isn't necessarily racist, Lehman's long-range view breaks down the different types of stereotypes and why even the most innocuous-looking depictions were part of a larger trend.

I haven't read the book, but only summaries and reviews. But I think I know what Dr. Lehman is getting at. The sharp daggers of ignorance are still daggers, and they still cut.


Floyd Norman said...

Academics writing about animation bore me. Mainly because they just don't get it.

Sure, there were problems in the past. Some of those problems remain to this day. Hopefully, America is beginning to deal with race, and things are improving.

Professor Lehman -- get over it.

Emru Townsend said...

Floyd, I have to say I never imagined my first conversation with you would start like this ^_^

I've never liked "Get over it" as a reply. It's too glib, and assumes that if someone has an axe to grind, then their view must therefore be invalid.

But if you read the book, you'll see that Lehman doesn't have an axe to grind. He's discussing a subject many people are already talking about today, but more cogently than most of those people do. He's elevating the discussion, which is something that's sorely needed.

Floyd Norman said...

Sorry. Didn't mean to offend.

I've been having this discussion for the last forty years. I mean, with some of the old guys who made these cartoons who are now long gone. I thought it might be time to move on and deal with more important matters.

As a guy who researched and produced films on African-American history, I know America's past. Sometimes, I think I know it too well, and I get really pissed off. I guess I just wanted to let it go.

I guess we could discuss this for another forty years. I'm just not sure what good it would do.

Matt Wayne said...

Mr. Norman, I'm a respectful fan of your work and a proud owner of all three "Faster! Cheaper!" volumes. And I'm not sure, either, what good this kind of book does.

But I believe that NOT discussing race does us no good at all. It probably does get boring after 40 years, but that's civics for ya.

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