That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960

by Henry T. Sampson

Published by Scarecrow Press

249 pages, 1998


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When Enough is Enough

Reviewed by Emru Townsend

 

One of the more vexing situations a person can find themselves in is to be a black cartoon fan. Once you've hit that state, it's probably for life: asking a serious animation aficionado to stop loving cartoons will probably net you as much success as asking someone to stop being black. It's so ingrained it might as well be genetic.

Blacks have a harder time with this sort of thing because we've been mistreated so badly in the Hollywood cartoons of the Golden Age (that nebulously defined period between Disney's Steamboat Willie and the death of the theatrical cartoon short around 1965) that it still affects the industry to this day.

One could argue that this is equally true of the film and television industry -- that even though we're past the "Toms, coons, mulattoes and bucks" dissected in Donald Bogle's book of the same name, there are recent enough issues with live-action black portrayals on the screen. The difference, however, is that the past is not buried. Renting or buying Gone With the Wind with Hattie McDaniel as Mammy is as easy as walking to your nearest video store. On the other hand, finding any cartoon with a Mammy character is almost a Herculean labor.

The frustration mounts because racist imagery can be found in some of Hollywood's most brilliant cartoons. In some cases, like Tex Avery's 1952 laugh riot Magical Maestro or Disney's 1940 Fantasia, the offending images are edited out; in other cases, whole productions quietly disappear from distribution, such as Disney's Song of the South.

To the animation purist, this is unacceptable. It amounts to revising history, pretending that the ugliness of racism completely bypassed animation. But how do you reconcile the images put forth by these brilliant directors and producers? What do you do when Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves, with its unparalleled humor and frenetic timing, is also a pastiche of every black stereotype known to man? Do you laugh or cry?

These questions and more are not answered in Henry T. Sampson's That's Enough, Folks: Black Images in Animated Cartoons, 1900-1960. It's a shame, because there's so much here to discuss and there's never been a book on the subject before. Sampson was given unprecedented access to film archives, and the very thought of an exhaustive exploration into this area is intriguing. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite follow through on its promise.

The book's first seven pages pages (the preface and the first chapter, an historical overview) set everything up nicely, though perhaps a bit hurriedly, explaining the types of stereotypes used in Hollywood cartoons, and the apparent contradictions in the words and deeds of the studio heads.

Chapter 2 sets the tone for most of the rest of the book. Its topic is "Black Stars of Animated Cartoon Series", and it provides a short description of the genesis and life of such characters as Sammy Johnsin, Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid, Li'l Eightball, Inki, and Mammy Two-Shows. Each character's filmography is listed, along with summaries of each cartoon and -- most interestingly -- reviews of each film from contemporary publications.

This last is the most fascinating because of the blithe racism that appears in so many of the reviews prior to the 1940s. It's hard to decide which is more chilling: a 1917 Bioscope review that describes Sammy Johnsin as "that delightful nigger mite", or the 1937 Selected Motion Pictures review for exhibitors that sums up its rating of the appalling Bosko and the Cannibals with the single-word sentence, "Family."

Partway through Chapter 3 ("Way Down in the Jungle: The Animated Safari"), though, the structure gets tiring. For one thing, films are listed in alphabetical order, rather than chronological. Without any sense of the evolution of the characters or the types of images -- did Bosko's behavior become more or less stereotypical over time? -- it becomes clear that the reader is just perusing a detailed list. Further, the reviews become less relevant to the theme of the book. (Of Terrytoons' The Lion Hunt, which features big-lipped natives, Selected Motion Pictures wrote, "Paul Terry-toon cartoon. An ingenious and amusing version of the old fable Lion and Mouse. Excellent. Family and Junior Matinee.")

The space wasted by irrelevant reviews could have been put to better use. Throughout the book, Sampson teases us by bringing up thought-provoking topics and leaving them unpursued. What of the black actors who sometimes provided voices for racist cartoons? Why isn't it mentioned that Coal Black was based on direct observation of black nightclubs? Where's the discussion over current controversies surrounding the release of racist cartoons for the collector's market?

The list goes on: one cartoon which promotes unity and brotherhood is listed without explanation; there is no attempt at interviewing Chuck Jones or any of the few Golden Age animators still alive, or their children; a section on black-furred or -feathered animals which is shaky at best, and yet omits the very real caricatures portrayed by the crows in Dumbo.

Sampson put forth a subject well worth exploring and had all the resources, but opted for more breadth than depth. That the book hints at what might have been just makes the omissions harder to bear, reducing what could have been a thought-provoking tome to a 249-page catalog. That's not enough. | May 1999

 

Emru Townsend is a freelance writer living in Montreal.