This week, Warner Home Video is releasing two more in its majestic series of DVD sets of Looney Tunes, cleaned up to look more gorgeous than you could ever have imagined if you grew up watching them on TV. However, out of roughly a thousand Looney Tunes, we will not be seeing a certain Censored Eleven, and they are the ones focused on — you guessed it — black caricatures.
The titles alone of many give you a sense of why United Artists pulled them out of circulation in 1968: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves, Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears, Clean Pastures, All This and Rabbit Stew, Tin Pan Alley Cats, Uncle Tom's Bungalow, Sunday Go to Meetin' Time, Jungle Jitters, Hittin' the Trail for Hallelujah Land, The Isle of Pingo Pongo and Angel Puss.
Yet many of these are amazing pieces of art — and all but a few black people would thoroughly enjoy them. There is a healthy contingent of black fans amid the constant blog-site chatter about these cartoons, and a few months ago in Los Angeles, Donald Bogle, author of the classic black film history Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes and Bucks, hosted a cinema screening of eight of them.
Bogle is quite concerned with stereotyping of blacks in vintage American pop culture. Yet he sees the Censored Eleven as, after 70 years, worthy of examination, and Warner Home Video's George Feltenstein spearheaded the Bogle event as a step toward getting these cartoons out of the vaults.
Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves, for example, is one of the 10 best Looney Tunes ever made. The Snow White tale is retold in eight glorious minutes to a driving boogie-woogie beat, with director Bob Clampett's hot, rubbery animation yanking characters into the camera lens like Ren and Stimpy on acid. Clampett took his animators to black clubs in L.A. to get a look at the dance moves, and it shows. Clampett got the idea for the cartoon from seeing a Duke Ellington revue in L.A., after which the cast themselves suggested he do a cartoon with the same feel.
He made sure that some local black musicians got to play on the soundtrack, and protagonist So White is voiced by Dorothy Dandridge's sister Vivian. They and other blacks who helped create it reportedly had a great time. I will never forget my first look at this one at a film festival when I was 12 — I had to remember to breathe.
Now, to be sure, these cartoons feature minstrel-style caricatures. But Looney Tunes were all about caricature. Italians were swivel-tongued hotheads. Women were eyelash-batting gold diggers, battle-ax spouses or dotty spinsters. Mexicans were impecunious slowpokes — upon which it bears mentioning that Speedy Gonzales is popular in Mexico, and when the Cartoon Network banned his cartoons, Mexican Americans were amply represented among the disappointed, and the ban was lifted in 2002.
Funny Comes in All Colors
In that context, in 2010 can't we take a joke too? All This and Rabbit Stew has Bugs Bunny pursued by a slow-witted black hunter, who basically does precisely the things Elmer Fudd usually did. The only difference is that whenever the black hunter runs, it's to a driving boogie vamp, which is just plain catchy.
Well, there's a little more — in a single sequence, the hunter shoots some craps. You know — "black people shoot craps, ha-ha," at least in 1941. But is that going to send any black people to the other room in tears?
To be sure, in 1943 the NAACP protested Coal Black. But in those days, things like this were almost the only depiction of blacks in mainstream pop culture. Today we are long past that — or even by the early '80s, when The Cosby Show was heralded as showing whites that not all black people were poor.
There's a reason restaurateur B. Smith is no longer hot news. In our times, Spike Lee movies, Tyler Perry's universe, the first family and even the likes of bread-and-butter TV successes like Sister, Sister and That's So Raven — the passing nature of those last two only underscores the point — show us that black depictions in the media have done a lot of overcoming. Eight minutes of jiving cartoon high jinks can hardly be blamed for defining black people.
Sound familiar? All of it is right out of the rap catalog — the lingo, the butts, the violence, right down to the gold teeth. If Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent are classic, then why aren't the Censored Eleven? These cartoons are pieces of black performance history in their way. Stylized, to be sure. But so is rap. Stereotyped, to be sure. But … need I go on?
Primly holding these 11 cartoons back in the vaults in 2010 makes black people look, frankly, weak. Why can't we take a joke as, say, Yunte Huang can about Charlie Chan, as recounted in a recent New Yorker? Charlie Chan gets anthologized on DVD sets with all of us admitting that the past is the past (when the Chinese past in America was quite hideous). But we can only get peeks at the Censored Eleven from muddy prints of some of them on YouTube.
It's high time for Warner Home Video to do a DVD with all 11 of these historical curios. They should include sage commentary before each one and preface the whole thing with a nice apologia by someone black. I suggest Whoopi Goldberg, who was brought in for similar purpose in earlier Looney Tunes DVD sets, or Oprah. Or maybe even Dr. Dre.
Yes, there will be a flutter or two of protest from people who can't take a joke even at 70 years' remove. But the sky will not fall in, and the kerfuffle will only increase the profits on a DVD that will sell like hotcakes from minute one. And that will not be because the cartoons are racist — though they are — but because they are, in spite of themselves, one part history and one part just plain fierce.
John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University and a contributing editor to The New Republic.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.