Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs
November 15, 2012
NCh: Hey, post-racial America! You know what?
(NCh shows a shot of the Southern Poverty Law Center website, which mentions various hate groups, 1,018 such groups and growing)
NCh (vo): The Southern Poverty Law Center says that there are no race-based hate groups anymore.
(She shows a shot of various racially-slurred comments on Twitter)
NCh (vo): No one has ever made shit-headed racial slurs on Twitter.
NCh: And most importantly, we have a black president! And so, you know what that means? RACISM IS OVER!
(As she shouts this, this very phrase slides down the screen; she waves her arms around to the sound of people cheering)
NCh: So today, we're going to take a look at a short cartoon from the era of when racism existed.
(A montage of clips from the Looney Tunes cartoon Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs play)
Dwarf: (voiceover) Well, hallelujah!
So White: My hair's coal black, but my name's So White! I wash for days...
(In the short, Prince Chawmin' appears in a limousine, wearing a zoot suit and a monocle and smoking a cigarette in a holder; all but his two front teeth are gold; they look like dice)
NCh: (looking visibly uncomfortable) Okay... Yeah... So, Warner Bros. has this thing colloquially referred to as the (makes "finger quotes") "Censored 11", and basically it's a collection of eleven cartoons withheld from syndication in 1968 after the whole... what's it... civil rights... thing.
(Cut to a montage of titles in this "Censored 11" list)
NCh (vo): These included such titles as Uncle Tom's Bungalow, Jungle Jitters, and Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears.
NCh: Apparently, there's like a common thread with these cartoons. And they had some big names in them, such as Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and the guy we're gonna talk about today, Bob Clampett. And this cartoon, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, is considered his masterpiece. One of them, apparently.
NCh (vo): Fans of animation and civil rights activists clash on the merit of this cartoon, which is considered one of the greatest short subject cartoons ever made.
(More footage is shown, though I can't make out what they're saying - can anyone help?)
NCh: A couple years ago, I compared Warner Bros.'s relationship to Disney to Dreamworks' present-day relationship to Disney, and that Warner Bros. liked to do racy parodies of the wholesome Disney cartoons, and this is very, very much a good example of that.
So White: (at a wishing well) Some folks think I'm kinda dumb, but I know someday my prince will come! (Prince Chawmin' shows up)
NCh (vo): Disney very wisely stayed away from race in its short cartoons. I mean, yeah...
(Footage of Song of the South is shown)
NCh (vo): ...Song of the South happened, but Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs makes Song of the South look like Do the Right Thing.
NCh: But one sometimes sees animation historians defend Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs in the same way that film historians defend Birth of a Nation...
(A clip of Birth of a Nation is shown)
NCh (vo): ...which is also a touch on the regressive side.
NCh: But the thing about Birth of a Nation is, I get how it affected us from a film history point of view. I get that we probably wouldn't have feature films in the way that we do if not for this one film. So I understand the historical context and the artistic merits of Birth of a Nation. Coal Black...
(Cut to footage of the cartoon)
Dwarf #1: So White's gonna kick the bucket!
Dwarf #2: Does you mean the buck-buck-bucket?!
NCh: It's funny, 'cause... (perplexed) black... people... chicken? I will never understand the chicken thing. Is there a single American demographic that doesn't like fried chicken? Dave Chappelle, can you explain this?
(Cut to footage of Dave Chappelle doing stand-up)
Chappelle: All these years I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious. Turns out I'm genetically predisposed to liking chicken.
(Cut back to Coal Black)
NCh (vo): Okay, I've heard people call it progressive, in that it has a black cast, the mains anyway, breaking their contract with Mel Blanc, who did all the Warner Bros. voices at the time, and that's sort of true, although Mel Blanc does pop up. (it is revealed that Blanc voices the evil queen and a few others in this cartoon) But product of its time that it is, whether or not it did have black actors, it does reduce the characters to doofy stereotypes.
(Cut the opening of the short, where a little black girl and a "mammy"-type woman sitting in front of a fireplace, silhouetted with their backs to the camera)
Little girl: (possibly voiced by Blanc as well) I would like to hear 'bout So White and de Sebben Dwa'fs, mammy.
NCh: One might say, "Of course it does, it's a cartoon, cartoons are doofy and have to resort to stereotyping and mathematics for its humor."
(Cut to footage of the Bugs Bunny cartoon Bully For Bugs)
NCh (vo): But here's the thing: there's a big difference between the rascally smarts of Bugs Bunny...
(Cut to Prince Chawmin' in Coal Black)
NCh (vo): ...and... this guy.
Prince Chawmin': That mean ol' queen, she sho's a fright, but her gal So White is dynamite!
(Cut to another clip of the short, where a dwarf is hugging and kissing So White, when Prince Chawmin', now turned into an elderly, Uncle Tom-looking old man, approaches)
NCh (vo): Well, I guess the dwarf is the closest thing that we get to... that.
Prince Chawmin': (to dwarf) Man, what you got that So White think you so hot?
Dwarf: Well, that is a military secret! (kisses So White; the bows on her pigtails turn into American flags)
NCh (vo): Oh, did I mention this was war propaganda?
NCh: Let's draw another comparison.
(Cut to footage of Blazing Saddles)
NCh (vo): Blazing Saddles came out only thirty years later, by the by, and to this day, people say about it that this is some sharp satire.
Governor William J. Le Petomane: (whistles; low voice) I've got to talk to you, come here. (takes a hold of Bart and takes him aside) Have you gone berserk? Can't you see that man is a ni– (sees Bart; looks surprised)
NCh: Think about it: in thirty years, we went from this...
(Cut to Coal Black)
Prince Chawmin': So White, you're right, for I... has... come!
NCh: ...to this.
(Cut to another clip of Blazing Saddles)
Jim: (calls out to a pair of Klansmen) Hey, boys! (shows Bart to the Klansmen)
Bart: Hey, where are the white women at?
NCh: How do their comments on the subject of race differ?
(Cut to more footage of Coal Black)
NCh (vo): People understand that Coal Black is offensive, but they have a hard time articulating why. Well, this is pretty much it. There's no satire in Coal Black. It's not subverting stereotypes, it's reinforcing them, which is why I find it kind of hard to defend on any grounds other than... here's a cartoon studio that... admits that black people exist?
NCh: But it's also kind of hard to defend, because unlike Red Hot Riding Hood or Der Fuehrer’s Face, (grimaces) it's... really not very funny.
(Cut to a clip of Der Fuehrer's Face)
NCh (vo): Der Fuehrer's Face is funny because it's satirizing Nazi extremism...
(Cut to footage of Red Hot Riding Hood)
NCh (vo): ...and Red Hot Riding Hood is funny because all the jokes are at the expense of the entitled, disrespectful wolf who never learns a lesson.
(Cut back to Coal Black)
NCh (vo): All the humor in Coal Black really is just... black people are funny 'cause... poor; black people are funny 'cause... talk funny; kill all Japanese...
(Cut to a shot of Murder, Inc., in this cartoon, which states they kill anyone for a dollar, midgets for half price, and Japanese for free)
NCh (vo): Oh, did I forget to mention that? That happens.
NCh: (looking uncomfortable) Also, this...
(In the cartoon, the evil queen is seen eating a box of Chattanooga Chew-Chews; next to her is a bottle of Eli Whitney Cotton Gin; a huge arrow points to the bottle while a buzzer sounds)
NCh: Yep! A slavery joke! The institution, arguably the most monstrous blood on our nation's history, had not yet been dead at the time for 80 years... and there's a slavery joke... at the expense of being slaved... Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh...
NCh (vo): Once the admittedly hilarious shock value wears off – and it is hilarious to see Warner Bros. being so unapologetically awful – you're left with nothing but a mean-spirited reinforcement of just who's in the underclass. America had no interest in seeing black characters that were anything other than buffoons or poverty-stricken or maids.
NCh: So, in effect, the white majority had a way that they liked to see the black minority portrayed: illiterate; doofy; most importantly, non-threatening, and Coal Black was that. It was very, very that.
NCh (vo): People now like to use the term "politically incorrect" to condone oppressive speech to confirm the status quo and dress it up like they're being rebellious, and that's kinda how I see this cartoon.
NCh: And while this is considered one of the greatest cartoons ever for some reason, I have a hard time finding any value in it, other than... "Wow! Greatest generation, huh?"
NCh (vo): Yes, I know Bob Clampett is considered one of the greats from this era, and yes, I know historians preen themselves over this shit. But I don't think this thing has been buried by the sands of time because people are...
NCh: (makes "finger quotes") ..."too sensitive". It's just not that great.
NCh (vo): It has no substance, and it's not funny to us now, except that in ways that it wasn't meant to be.
NCh: Get it? Cotton gin! ...'Cause slavery!
NCh (vo): Did it mean to be a tool of oppression? No, of course not. They were well-enough intentioned, I guess. Clampett claims to have been a big fan of jazz and black culture, but didn't seem to realize how awful the status quo in which he existed was and just made a dumb cartoon reinforcing it. And that's the problem with even going there: it's not subversive, it's not clever, it's not funny. I guess it's well-enough animated for something that came out during the war...
(Cut to a clip of Der Fuehrer's Face)
NCh (vo): ...although, for my money, Disney did much, much better work.
NCh: And Disney's not exactly burying their heads in the sand. I mean, hell, (holds up a DVD set of "Walt Disney Treasures: Disney On the Front Lines") they're still making money off of their wartime cartoons.
(Cut back to Coal Black)
NCh (vo): Point being, I don't think time is going to eventually prove this one as a misunderstood gem.
NCh: It is pretty much exactly as bad as you think it is. But evil? No. Worth studying? Sure. Unfairly maligned masterpiece? (cringes slightly) No. Relevant to us today? Of course not. As we have established, racism is over. (smiles)
(Cut to Dave Chappelle's stand-up show; he points in random directions)
Chappelle: Look at him. He loves it. Just like it said in the encyclopedia.