SUMMARY: A parody of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ featuring an all black cast.
WHY IT’S HERE: Like D.W. Griffiths’ ‘Birth of a Nation’ in relation to live-action film history, Bob Clampett’s ‘Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs’ is an ideologically problematic film that cannot be left out of any serious list of important animated shorts. It should be clear even from a glimpse at the title what makes this cartoon such a sticky wicket. The cast of this parody of Disney’s masterpiece are exclusively black stereotypes and, while there is an element of the celebratory in its use of black jazz and swing music, there is a far more overbearing sense of ‘let’s all have a laugh at the darkies’. Unfortunate then, as with Griffiths’ film, that there is so much to admire technically amongst the repulsive racial politics. The mixture of energetic animation and great music makes ‘Coal Black…’ a positively compelling experience and, content aside, is an example of Bob Clampett at his very best.
‘Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs’ became one of the Censored Eleven in 1968. The Censored Eleven were eleven cartoons that Warner Bros. withdrew from distribution due to racially insensitive content. Since then, ‘Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs’ has often been defended by critics who hail it a masterpiece. There are many cartoons from animation’s Golden age that are still in distribution and which still feature scenes as or more offensive that anything in this short. But few are quite so consistently offensive as ‘Coal Black…’, their stereotypes usually confined to one gag of a few seconds, rather than an entire seven minute runtime. While I don’t believe ‘Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs’ should remain completely banned as if it never happened, this is an important cartoon that requires delicately handled distribution that acknowledges all the cultural and historical context in a more delicate way than simply saying ‘Hell, they did that kind of thing all the time in old movies’. See it, but be aware of what you’re seeing first.