Coal Black and de Sebben DwarfsAn Appreciation
By Milton Gray
[Click here to read feedback about this essay.]
"Well, Hallelujah!" Those words are the first two spoken
words in my all-time favorite cartoon, Bob Clampett's classic Coal
Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. And I say this having seen the vast
majority of all of the American theatrical cartoons ever made.
So, why do I love Coal Black so much? Well, for openers:
Great cartoon drawing
Great cartoon animation
Great cartoon backgrounds
To me that adds up to a great cartoon. How do you measure a great
Some people say to me, "But Milt, shouldn't you give some
negative points to the cartoon for being racist?" Well, what
is "racist"? Acknowledging people's differences?as
if "different" means "bad" or "ridiculous"?
Personally, I celebrate people's differencesdifferent cultures,
different styles of humor and expression. It all adds to the diversity,
rather than the monotonous sameness, of human experience. When people
marry, they usually choose someone of the opposite gender, specifically
for their differences. People often say, about gender, "Viva
la difference!" Well, why are other differences not embraced
And some people say, "If you were black, you'd feel differently."
Yet I have several black friends, whom I admire and respect, who
love Coal Black as passionately as I do, and for exactly
the same reasons. Which leads me to believe that "racism,"
like beauty, is entirely in the eye of the beholder.
Historically, as far as I know, Coal Black was the first
cartoon movie made in which black performers were not merely called
in at the last minute to perform the voice recordings, but instead
were invited to participate in the writing of the film, in the early
storyboard phase. The purpose was to inject as much authentic black
humor and expression into the film as possible, along with numerous
impressions of black jazz music from the 1930s and early 1940s.
It was also Bob Clampett's intention that this film should be as
appealing to black audiences as to white. I have personally met
two of the black people who were involved in the writing: Eddie
Beale, a jazz pianist, and Herb Jeffries, the lead male singer for
several years with Duke Ellington's band. Both of these people spoke
glowingly of the experiences they had during production, and expressed
a great enthusiasm for the finished film.
The artistic merits of Coal Black are so obvious, what can
I really say about that? To an audience of cartoon fans, I'll just
mention that it is a real education to look at that film frame by
frame. (I guess that's not practical on videotape, unless you make
a dupe tape that you can afford to let your VCR ruin by still-framing.)
In many places in that film, the actions are so wild and so fluid,
and those fluid actions could only be achieved by using some of
the most ingenious distortions of individual drawings. Some of those
distortions are not simply stretch and squash, but are instead the
cartoon-drawn equivalents of blurred images. Those cartoon interpretations
of blurred images create a feeling of a flow of movement far more
fluid than any normal drawings could ever achieveeven drawings
with standard stretch and squash.
But not all of the drawings are of the "blurred image"
sort; far more are of the most ingenious twists and turns of the
human body imaginable, which also gives the action on the screen
a particularly loose-jointed and expressive dance-like feeling.
Looking at those scenes frame by frame is like looking at a comic
strip, the drawings in each frame are so different from each other,
and so expressive and inventive. To see those individual drawings,
and then see how they flow from one to the next in rapid succession,
is a great way to teach oneself how to animate at a rather sophisticated
level. More time and effort was put into Coal Black than
just about any other Warner cartoonit went way over budgetbut
that allowed the best of the Warner animators to go all-out to experiment
and invent the very best animation they could, in the unique "Warner
For me, this leads to the heart of my most beloved form of art:
the inventive, most non-literal interpretations of how things (and
people) in real life look and move; the most beautiful abstractions,
and dreamlike distortions, that somehow express, in an unexpected
way, the literal everyday world. I love this far more than literal
illustrations of anything.
But back to the subject of the film, why am I so inclined to read
into Coal Black "the beauty of diversity" rather
than "anything different belongs in a circus freak show"?
I dunno. Perhaps it is rooted in my incredibly boring childhood
in an overly strict white family. For years, in the early 1950s,
the one bit of entertainment that my parents allowed was to listen
to the radio for an hour each Sunday afternoonbetween washing
dishes from the after-church Sunday dinner, to getting ready for
the evening round of more boring church services. So for an hour
each Sunday afternoon we would all listen together, the "typical
wholesome white American family," to Jack Benny and Amos and
Jack Benny was humorous, but for me he was too restrained, too
typical of uptight "white people." By contrast, the black
Rochester had a much more expressive voice and a much more exuberant
personality. For me, Rochester was the best part of the show.
The Amos and Andy show was even better, because all the characters
were as colorful (no pun intended) as Rochester. In my childhood,
I didn't know that the actors on the Amos and Andy radio show were
white -- I always thought that the writers and performers on Amos
and Andy were black. Consequently, my admiration and respect for
black talent was very, very high.
(By the time I was in the seventh grade we finally had television,
and a few years later we could see black performers playing Amos
and Andy, and they were great!)
I also had a few 78 rpm kiddie record albums, including Walt Disney's
Tales of Uncle Remus. Here again, I didn't know that Uncle Remus
was the fictitious invention of a white writer. I believed that
there really had been an uneducated but brilliant black man who
was, like the Greek slave Aesop, a black ex-slave whose stories
were heard and written down by Joel Chandler Harris.
So there's an unexpected twist on history, eh folks? Rochester,
Amos and Andy, Uncle Remusthe very icons of black ridicule
and humiliation, according to some people, were the very reasons
why I had the very highest respect and admiration for black people.
Since I didn't know any black people yet in real life, I was eager
to meet some, someday.
Then, for Christmas 1959, during my senior year in high school,
my parents decided that I should be allowed to have my own radio,
which fit into the headboard of my bed. Having my own radio, I discovered
1950s rock and roll -- which admittedly all the other kids in high
school took for granted. And every Saturday night, a really great
local disc jockey would play the top rock and roll hits from the
previous years. My parents strictly forbade listening to such "sinful"
music, so I would go to bed early on Saturday nights -- "to
be all the better rested for Sunday School the next morning"
-- and I would turn on my radio so low that it was practically inaudible,
and press one ear to the radio speaker -- sort of like wearing one
earphone -- and in that cramped position I would listen to the radio
for hours, until I fell asleep. By far, the best rock and roll was
by the black performersChuck Berry, Little Richard, the Coasters,
Little Willie John, Bo Diddley, etc.their performances were
bursting with emotion and humor. I sincerely wished that I could
express myself the way they did. I hated Elvis; to me he was a waste
of valuable air time, a pale (no pun intended) imitationan
impostorof far better talent. Once again, my admiration and
respect for black performers soared to immeasurable heights.
Whenever black talent could be used in cartoons, it just added
so much more artistic richness, and made those cartoons so much
more fun, more interesting, more exciting.
In cartoons, whether of black or white characters, I have always
been enormously fascinated by the expression of exuberant emotions,
and the broadest caricatures of people's appearances and of how
they move. For years, I was curious to see how differently caricatures
of white people might be created, as seen through the eyes of non-whites.
Among other things, I was especially curious to see some Japanese-made
World War Two propaganda cartoonsif any had been madebecause
those should contain the strongest, most daring caricatures of all.
Why? Because the more that people try to be polite, the less broad
the caricatures they drawthe closer they adhere to a dignified,
literal illustration. But in a wartime propaganda film, presumably
inspired by hatred, the artists would probably go all out in their
broad and unflattering caricatures.
Finally, I got to see just such Japanese-made World War Two propaganda
cartoons at an ASIFA-Hollywood screening, courtesy of black cartoonist
and cartoon collector Milton Knight. But to my surprise, I was quite
disappointedI was expecting to see something quite bizarre,
but the Japanese's most derogatory caricatures of American white
people merely depicted us as ugly and whiney, with large noses and
devil's horns. In other words, these caricatures were no more grotesque
(or inventive) than those that we frequently do of ourselves! It
seems, then, that it's only when we do comedic caricatures of non-whites
that people cry "foul," as if we are treating people unequally.
In the late 1970s I worked at Filmation on several shows, including
the Bill Cosby Fat Albert series. While I was there, I heard some
interesting stories from the artists who had been there at the inception
of the first Fat Albert show.
When Bill Cosby first came to Filmation, he had no character designsthe
studio artists were asked to design the characters. Even then, there
had already been so much Politically Correct hysteria around that
the artists were unsure how to design these black characters so
that they wouldn't "offend" black pressure groups. The
main criteria, it seemed, was that "we're all the same."
and black people "shouldn't look different." So what could
the artists do? They drew generic (white) children and colored their
skin brown, to symbolize African-Americans. Bill Cosby insisted
that the designs were all wrong. He wanted black children to be
able to identify with the black cartoon characters, and so he insisted
that the artists draw the very things that the artists had been
so severely condemned for doing years earlier: drawing Negro characters
with large lips, broad noses, nappy hair, long legs, large feetI'm
gonna be crucified just for saying those words. How racist! But
Bill Cosby insisted that that's what he wanted. The rest is history.
But if those same artists had drawn those same exact characters
without Bill Cosby to "legitimize" it, how much hell would
have come down?
I can already hear readers saying, "But Milt, you're missing
the whole pointthe problem with Coal Black is not its celebration
of ethnic diversity, but the ridiculing of the characters, such
as with the dice in Prince Chawmin's front teeth, and (in one scene)
the yellow stripe up his back." Well okay, let's address that.
It's always struck me as an odd double standard that, in these
Politically Correct times, if a black person does somethinganythingit's
automatically okay, but if a white person says that a black person
did something, then that's demeaning.
Throughout the Twentieth Century, increasing numbers of American
blacks have been decorating their teeth with inlaid images, and
the image of dice has been particularly popular. I saw a newspaper
article around 1977, which I thought I had saved but now I can't
find it, that showed a photo of a black sports star who had his
front teeth inlaid with the images of the four suits of cardsthe
diamond, heart, spade and club. Another article that I do have,
from the New York Times, dated February 8, 1990, tells of
a growing fad among black teenagers in some of the major cities
to wear "gold caps over the two front teeth, sometimes etched
with initials or dice or another emblem." It seems pretty believable
to me, in Coal Black, that such a flamboyant character as
the zoot-suited Prince Chawmin' would be the type most likely to
decorate his teeth with the image of dice. It's just another expression
of his extravagant persona.
I also have a newspaper clipping from the Los Angeles Times,
dated January 18, 1975, that quotes black boxing champion Joe Frazier
publicly heckling Muhammad Ali, stating, "He's a black man
with a yellow streak right down the middle of his back." To
this day I have never heard of any public outcry against that statement,
coming from Joe Frazier.
Around the late 1970s I was feeling angry about the way Chuck Jones
kept incessantly attacking the reputation of Bob Clampett, and saying,
among other things, that Clampett's films are all in such bad taste.
At that time, I gained access to a print of the Chuck Jones cartoonAngel
Puss, which I felt was, unlike the uplifting spirit of Coal
Black, a rather derogatory portrayal of a black male child (notice
I didn't say "boy"), who had been paid fifty cents to
drown a cat. The cat escapes temporarily, and frightens the black
child in a cemetery and in a haunted house, until the black child
grabs a gun and shoots the cat, only to be menaced by nine cat ghosts.
So one day a woman was visiting me, who had a very sour attitude
toward everything and was an incessant complainer. She was not a
cartoon fan, but I knew that in her later childhood she had been
exposed to a lot of Warner cartoons on TV, so I said to her, "Let
me show you a cartoon that I'm sure you've never seen before, because
of its derogatory racial content." I ran the cartoon, with
the eager anticipation of hearing her bitching to high heaven about
how this Chuck Jones cartoon is in such bad taste. During the cartoon
there was not a single chuckle, and when it ended I was very surprised
to hear her say, "Am I missing something? Apart from the central
character being black, I didn't see anything that I haven't seen
in any number of other Warner cartoons." And for the first
time, I realizedthat's right! Elmer Fudd has been shooting
cats (and rabbits and ducks) countless times, sometimes to be haunted
by nine cat ghosts, and the spectacles of non-black characters gambling,
and walking fearfully through cemeteries and haunted houses, are
common staples of Warner cartoon comedy.
This also got me to thinking: You could probably take almost any
cartoon, particularly a comedy with white human characters, and
recolor the characters' skin as brown, so that audiences would think
that the characters are intended to be Negroes, and suddenly a whole
lot of cartoons that nobody ever complained about would receive
the most virulent accusations of "racism."
Take for example Disney's Ichabod and the Headless Horseman. If
the characters were painted brown, here's a Politically Correct
movie review that we could expect to see:
"Racist Disney: Walt Disney's latest release, Ichabod and
the Headless Horseman, is the most offensively racist film yet
from Hollywood, being a virtual encyclopedia of racial clichés
and stereotypes. Ichabod Crane, the lead character, is the most
derogatory black caricature since Stepin Fetchit. Ichabod is depicted
as excessively ugly, and displays gangly long limbs with awkwardly
large hands and feet. He is lazy, scheming, vain and superstitious.
Even the movie's title song pointedly ridicules Ichabod's build
and character. The action takes place in a small and (we are pointedly
told) superstitious community named Sleepy Hollow. Brom Bones, the
local black buck, is singularly deceitful; the rest of the men are
depicted as dummies. Katrina, the excessively buxom female lead,
exploits black women. Rated G."
Well folks, there's a lot more I could add to this, and since I
fully expect to be hit with some smug and accusatory comments for
this "Politically Incorrect" article from at least a few
people, I'm sure there will be motivation enough for me to add more
stories and observations. I do ask, though, folks, please be honest.
Don't presume to "remind" me of "facts" that
are not true.
© Milton Gray