Available for comment

When I was a kid watching Warner Brothers’ cartoons obsessively there were several — eleven, as it turns out — that were deemed too politically incorrect for viewing. But thanks to illicit bootleg VHS tapes and other doings I managed to see Bob Clampett’s “Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves” which was, to say the least, kinda wild and crazy, wonderfully musical and oftentimes hilarious. And incredibly stereotypical.

Now, thanks to YouTube, “Coal Black” is available for viewing. I took the chance to view the cartoon again and once again, my take was mixed. The accompanying comment says it all:

Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (working title: So White and de Sebben

Dwarfs) is a Merrie Melodies animated cartoon directed by Bob Clampett,

produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions, and released to theatres on

January 16, 1943 by Warner Bros. Pictures and The Vitaphone Corporation.

The film is notable for being an all-black parody of the Brothers Grimm

fairy tale Snow-White, known to its audience from the popular 1937 Walt

Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The stylistic

portrayals of the characters, however, is an example of classic racist

darky iconography (see blackface), which was widely accepted in white

American society at the time. As such, it is one of the most

controversial cartoons in the classic Warner Bros. library, has been

rarely seen on television, and has never been officially released on

home video. However, it is often named as one of the best cartoons ever

made, and is considered one of Clampett’s masterpieces.

My brother (who’ll be writing about this in more detail for his day job) hopes that WB will “have the guts to release it on DVD” for a number of reasons:

The important thing about “Coal Black” is that it’s one of the best and

most imaginative cartoons ever made, with a crazy gimmick or wild

experiment in almost every shot, and all kinds of visual ideas that no

one had ever tried before (though Clampett’s trick of changing the

colour of the background to signal a change in mood was probably

inspired by Chuck Jones’s “The Case of the Missing Hare” from the

previous year). Ideas like the words “Blackout So White!” appearing in

print above the Queen as she speaks those words (and then bites off the

phone she’s speaking into); keeping the dwarfs offscreen in one shot

and animating their shadows instead; starting a dance sequence with

Disney-style rotoscoping and suddenly shifting to a cartoonily-animated

jazz dance; having the dwarfs pop up one by one to the rhythm of “Blues

in the Night”: there’s something spectacular or hilarious every second.

And Rod Scribner’s animation of Prince Chawmin’ unsuccessfully trying

to revive So White may be the best piece of animation Scribner — or

maybe anyone — ever did.

And Sterling Fisher, an African-American blogger, naturally has a mixed take but concludes as follows:

I don’t think that “Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs” should be seen by

children. Apart from the racial stereotypes, some of the jokes aren’t

exactly kids’ material anyway. However, I think this cartoon should be

seen, especially in a historical context. While I wasn’t offended

enough by it to be repulsed outright, it will definitely offend some.

However, I don’t think that this cartoon (or any other negative,

offensive portrayals) should be boxed up and locked away. They should

be confronted and discussed. If we can better understand our past, we

will be better able to deal with our future.

So what’s your take? Does it hold up? Is this a good example of Bob Clampett’s crazy genius? I’m glad to have the opportunity to see it again (at least till the WB figures out it’s freely available and tries to shut it down, but let’s face it, YouTube is the new Napster, but better) but like I said, my take is definitely mixed.