Minstrel Show


Bob Clampett's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, a 1943 cartoon for Warner Brothers, is the Birth of a Nation of animation: It is both revered as a piece of filmmaking and damned for its racial stereotypes, though there are some all-or-nothing critics out there who try to wish its contradictions away. One group acts as though its blackface imagery erases its other qualities. The others point to Clampett's good intentions—he was an admirer of jazz and black culture, and didn't intend the film to be demeaning—as though they somehow mean the movie isn't demeaning, whether or not it was made with malice.

Most people don't take any stance at all. The short is one of the "Censored Eleven," a group of cartoons withdrawn from circulation since the '60s because of their racial content. Until this year, it was available only on bootleg videocassettes. Now, thanks to YouTube, you can see it for yourself, draw your own conclusions, and debate them in a Hit & Run comment thread.

(Warning: The clip begins with a test pattern and a high-pitched tone. You might want to turn down the volume on your computer before you click through.)

Bonus links: Writing in The Believer in 2004, Robert Christgau explores the recent wave of scholarship about the minstrel show. Writing in Reason in 2002, Damon Root looks at the links between minstrelsy and country music. And here's Bob Clampett's real masterpiece: Porky in Wackyland.