- Christopher P. Lehman
American animation—the art of constructing the illusion of movement of inanimate objects, especially through sequences of drawings—dates back to the first decade of the twentieth century. Many of the early animators were European immigrants or children of European immigrants. The studios where they worked were composed of animators from many different parts of Europe. They called each other ethnic slurs as part of their process of assimilating into American society, and they put their jokes into their films by drawing derogatory ethnic caricatures. However, no African Americans worked in these studios as animators before 1954. As a result the jokes at their expense were one-sided. Still, animators claimed not to have caricatured African Americans with malice in mind. They considered their humor concerning African Americans as part of the culture around them.
When designing their African American characters for films, animators borrowed from ethnic caricatures in the print cartoons of newspapers and periodicals of the day. Several animators had started their art careers as print cartoonists and simply transferred their drawing styles to animation. Most male characters have large eyes, black button-like noses, large white lips, and no hair. As a result, the head of the figure appears as a cross between that of a primate and that of a blackface minstrel. Female characters look identical, except that most of them have hair styled as either pigtails or unkempt curls. The blackface minstrelsy that shaped the figures had originated in mid-nineteenth-century America as a form of entertainment in which performers had broadly caricatured African Americans by darkening their faces with “burnt cork,” speaking in malapropisms, and singing songs that sentimentalized the antebellum South.
Blackface soon became a practical means for streamlined animated production. When studios developed mass-production animation in the 1910s, they designed characters as minstrels in order to release one cartoon per week to theaters. In those days an animator drew an entire character when producing each movement for the figure. In order for artists to draw as many poses as possible, they minimized the details for the figures by making their entire bodies jet-black. By constructing enormous white eyes and lips, animators made those parts of the figure’s face easier to animate. The blackface model was extremely adaptable. Placing a long tail on the rear made the character look like a monkey. Adding pointed ears to it made it a cat. Round ears and a short tail made it resemble a bear.
Most of the studios that produced commercial short animated films developed a series that starred a recurring African American character. They relied heavily on derivatives of Helen Bannerman’s storybook character Little Black Sambo such as Pat Sullivan’s Sammy Johnsin, Leon Schlesinger’s Bosko, Walter Lantz’s Li’l Eightball, and George Pal’s Jasper. Among the heavyset, kerchief-donned mammies were Mandy and Petunia from Famous Studios and Mammy Two-Shoes from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Amadee Van Beuren took the unique step of adapting an existing property with African American figures—the radio series “Amos ‘n’ Andy”—to animation briefly in 1933.
As animators made designs of characters more detailed and less stylized, they developed recognizable caricatures of celebrities. African American celebrity caricatures shared the physical generalization of huge lips. Studios caricatured only African American actors and musicians with proven visual appeal to European American audiences or with recognizable catch-phrases or both. Likenesses of Stepin Fetchit, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Louis Armstrong, and Cab Calloway graced cartoons from various studios. The stars rarely voiced themselves, but African American actors usually approximated the caricatures’ voices.
With the arrival of sound in animated films in 1928, studios used music to shape African American characterizations. Before Walt Disney gave his blackface-designed star Mickey Mouse speaking lines, the songs of blackface minstrelsy were the sounds that corresponded to his actions. He frolicked to the tunes of “Turkey in the Straw” in Steamboat Willie (1928), “Old Folks at Home” in Mickey’s Follies (1929), and “Dixie” in Mickey’s Choo-Choo (1929). Max Fleischer attracted audiences to his cartoons by allowing African American jazz artists not only to provide songs for films but also to voice characters in them. Walter Lantz and Leon Schlesinger did the same for their cartoons that featured African American stereotypes.
Not every African American style of music attracted animators. When bebop emerged as a popular form of jazz, most studios did not score cartoons to it. Bebop lacked many of the comical stars of swing, largely because many of the new artists resisted visual flamboyance and humor in their performances. No bebop stars appeared as caricatures. The studio United Productions of America (UPA) hired Phil Moore, the bebop pianist and orchestral arranger, to score Rooty Toot Toot (1952) and earned an Academy Award nomination.
Studios sensitive to intensifying complaints of stereotyping drew from folklore to portray more varied images of African Americans. George Pal brought the legend of John Henry, the steel-driving man, to animation with John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946). Pal also filmed a live-action Duke Ellington with animated bottles of perfume for Date with Duke (1947)—one of the few African American cartoon musicals of the 1940s without broad ethnic caricature. Disney animated Joel Chandler Harris’ adaptations of African American folktales Song of the South (1946), but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People disliked the studio’s reliance on antebellum imagery like plantations.
Animation studios rarely presented the segregation of the South. No “white only” or “colored only” signs appear in commercial short cartoons of the Jim Crow era. African American characters in cartoons of the period reflect some of the service and labor jobs available to their real-life counterparts. They work in cotton fields in Lantz’s Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat (1941) and MGM’s The Goose Goes South (1941). They clean houses and cook meals in MGM’s “Tom and Jerry” and Famous Studios’ “Little Lulu” series. They serve as porters in Loose in the Caboose (1947). They are personal drivers in Warner Brothers’ The Mouse that Jack Built (1959).
UPA was unique in that it not only depicted segregation but also openly challenged discrimination and bigotry. Using stylized, angular figures and limited animation, the studio’s Hell-Bent for Election (1944) depicts a pro-segregation political candidate as a train labeled the “Jim Crow Special.” The similarly-designed Brotherhood of Man (1946) tells the story of several different ethnic groups suddenly living in one neighborhood and learning about their biological similarities despite their cultural differences. UPA produced several scenes in which the European American and African American figures stand next to one another. In some of those scenes, they are the only two characters in view. The United Auto Workers union commissioned the film in order to ease tension in some of its southern branches, but positive word of mouth spread to the point that commercial theaters and public libraries requested copies for exhibition. The studio stopped producing socially conscious cartoons in 1948, when Columbia Pictures contracted with them to make commercial films like the “Mister Magoo” series.
When civil rights groups like the NAACP successfully pressured Hollywood to ban some films with African American stereotypes from theater exhibition and television broadcast in the 1940s and 1950s, animation studios chose to produce cartoons without African American characters at all. That way, they stood less of a chance of losing money by a film’s withdrawal from the marketplace. Studios rewrote stories without African American characters when updating their films. MGM remade The Little Orphan (1949) as Feedin’ the Kiddie (1957) by removing the scene of Mammy Two-Shoes placing food on a table as Jerry Mouse approaches it. In the new version, the table is already set when Jerry arrives. African Americans remained absent from cartoon shorts until studios stopped producing them altogether by the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, African Americans made inroads in the animation industry through animation itself. Floyd Norman, in the 1950s, was the first African American hired to animate a commercial cartoon.
Advancements in Imagery.
Cartoons made for television did not initially feature African Americans. By 1970, after networks had allowed more leading roles for African American performers, they also permitted cartoons starring African American characters. The networks mostly approved of established properties. Hanna-Barbera Productions developed comedy adventures for caricatures of the famous basketball team the Harlem Globetrotters. The studio also brought to animation the comic book series Josie and the Pussycats, which featured an African American female character. African Americans co-produced animated versions of their performances, such as the characters from Bill Cosby’s stand-up routines in Fat Albert and Flip Wilson’s routines in the Clerow Wilson specials. Well into the 1990s, famous African Americans, from boxer Muhammad Ali and actor Gary Coleman to rappers MC Hammer and Kid ‘n’ Play, lent their celebrity to animated Saturday morning television. In the new millennium, Aaron McGruder continued the tradition by animating his daily newspaper comic strip The Boondocks.
Animation studios found ways to develop African American characters without resorting to ethnic humor. Hanna-Barbera relied on African American consultants to keep the studio from using stereotypes. John and Faith Hubley followed UPA’s lead in using limited animation and African American figures for cartoons about social issues. Their work won the support of many African American entertainers, and jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones contributed to the studio’s films. In addition, studios no longer hired European Americans to voice African American characters. Instead, African Americans voiced African American figures from the 1970s onward.
As for theatrical animation, no studio dared to invest in a feature combining African Americans and animation for over a quarter-century after Song of the South. Finally in 1973 the Jewish American animator and director Ralph Bakshi broke the trend with the movie Heavy Traffic. By this time the movie industry had started allowing depictions of cross-ethnic romantic relationships in movies, and Heavy Traffic took advantage of the new sensibility by illustrating a courtship between a Jewish American man and an African American woman in an urban environment. Bakshi’s depiction of this partnership also reflected the industry’s relaxed rules against profanity and sexual content in films, thus earning an “X” rating for the animated feature. More important, the African American figures were original creations—neither animated versions of established properties nor modernized versions of tropes like the mammy.
Bakshi decided to attack these racist stereotypes directly in his next film. With similar amounts of profanity and nudity, he tried to lampoon Song of the South in his movie Coonskin (1975). It features live-action scenes of an elderly African American man telling a young African American man stories. As in Disney’s movie, Bakshi’s movie uses animation to illustrate the elder’s tales. The film also depicts traditional stereotypical figures carrying out violent acts—a break from the standard passivity of the tropes. The movie’s failure to attract audiences, however, helped ensure that Hollywood would no longer invest in animated films that commented bluntly on African American culture.
African American Animation Today.
African American and African culture remained staples of cartoon films in subtle ways, even if African Americans did not play leading roles. African American music especially became centerpieces of feature films. A thick-lipped crab sings Caribbean music in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989). Africans are animalized in Disney’s The Lion King (1994) and sing songs with lyrics containing African phrases. In 2009, however, the studio produced an African American version of one of its most prized figures: the fairy-tale princess. The Princess and the Frog has all the elements of Disney’s other “princess films” dating back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)—a love story, comic sidekicks, and an evil foil. In the new film, a young woman and a foreign prince are the romantic leads, but they appear as frogs through a significant length of the movie. The movie also diversified depictions of African Americans. Set in New Orleans, the film consists of Creole and Cajun characters in protagonist roles, but a practitioner of voodoo is an antagonist.
In American animation’s second century, African Americans are better positioned to depict themselves and to control their imagery than in the first century. Some African Americans work in major animation studios, but others operate independent facilities. The industry no longer relies heavily on ethnic humor for cartoons as it did before the 1960s. As a result, African American animators do not have to conform to stereotypes constructed by others. Moreover, now that Hollywood discourages offending ethnic segments of its audience, the challenge for studios is to create stylized designs for African American figures without caricaturing their culture.
- Cabarga, Leslie. The Fleischer Story. New York: Da Capo, 1988. This book describes how African American musicians contributed to animation.
- Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898–1928. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1982. This book provides a concise history of animation before sound synchronization.
- Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900–1942. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. This book is a significant resource on the history of African Americans in the American movie industry.
- Culhane, Shamus. Talking Animals and Other People. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. This memoir of a former animator provides insight into the ethnic humor of early animation.
- Klein, Norman M. Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon. London: Verso, 1993. This book gives a creative sociopolitical analysis of African American cartoon figures.
- Lehman, Christopher P. The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907–1954. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. This book discusses how African American images evolved in cartoon shorts over four decades.
- Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. This book presents the history of individual cartoon studios.
- Sampson, Henry T. That’s Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900–1960. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1998. This book is a thorough encyclopedic listing of cartoons with African American figures.