“Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” (1943) is an American cartoon, Warner Brothers’ answer to Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). It is seven-minute long comedy set to jazz music and has an all-black cast.
Some say it is one of the best cartoons ever made, yet Cartoon Network, which owns the rights, never shows it. It was pulled from American television in 1968 and became one of the “Censored 11” – cartoons that are so thoroughly racist that editing out a racist joke here or a blackface character there could not save them.
While it is clear that it is well made and that you are supposed to be laughing your head off, it keeps hitting you over the head with image after image of blacks as being little better than monkey men, as creatures with huge lips and big eyes.
The only character who looks like a black person in a cartoon and not some creature is So White, the main character (called Coal Black in the title to avoid trouble with Disney). But even she is a stereotype: she shows way more flesh than Snow White, a sort of early video vixen.
The evil queen is a big, ugly black woman who sounds like a man.
Prince Chawmin wears a zoot suit, drives a big car and has gold teeth.
The cartoon was directed by Bob Clampett, who gave the world Porky Pig, Tweety Bird and Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent. He was white. He loved jazz and got the idea for doing a black cartoon set to jazz from talking to Duke Ellington two years before.
Clampett took great pains to make the cartoon as true to black life as possible:
- He went with his men to Club Alabam in Los Angeles to get a feel for black music and dance.
- Clampett hired as many black musicians as the company would allow.
- He used only black voice actors, like Dorothy Dandridge’s sister, Vivian (she plays So White).
Herb Jeffries, one of the black musicians, was proud of the cartoon. In fact, for its time it was one of the better cartoons featuring blacks!
Yet except for So White, all the black characters are drawn in blackface. Since when do black people have big white lips? But for over a hundred years whites had been watching blackface entertainers – white men with black faces who “acted black” to get laughs. It became how whites saw blacks. So much so that Clampett could not see the difference between black and blackface (neither could Mark Twain).
Even in the 1970s and 1980s Clampett still defended the cartoon:
There was nothing racist or disrespectful toward blacks intended in that film at all… Everybody, including blacks had a good time when these cartoons first came out. All the controversy … has developed in later years merely because of changing attitudes toward black civil rights that have happened since then.