Racist Shorts and Fair Use

by on April 27, 2008 · 23 comments

The New York Times casts its spotlight on the “Censored 11,” 11 racially-charged cartoons from the middle of the last century that have been unavailable to the public for decades. But despite repeated attempts to take them down, they keep popping up online. You can see some of them here, and the most notorious is “Coal Black and the De Sebben Dwarfs,” which as you can imagine from the title is pretty offensive:

Preventing people from watching them seems pretty silly to me. I wouldn’t want them on heavy rotation on the cartoon network, but people are entitled to know about their history, and I doubt letting people see them will cause anybody to be more racist. But this creates a dillema for Disney and Warner Brothers. If they release them in an official capacity, they’re opening themselves up to a lot of negative publicity and highlighting a part of their past they’re probably not too proud of. This wouldn’t be a problem if we didn’t grant copyrights for such absurd lengths of time. If we had the rules on the books at the time most of these videos were made–28 years, renewable once–then all films made before 1952 would now be in the public domain, which would encompass the vast majority of these cartoons. That would allow the studios to officially disavow any support for them while allowing people to view them.

It’s an interesting question whether putting these films on YouTube could constitute fair use. The fact that the entire work is being shown obviously strongly cuts against it with regard to the third factor. However, the second and fourth factors would cut strongly in favor of fair use—there is no commercial market, and the work is of particular historical importance. As to the first factor, one could argue that the cultural climate in 2008 is so different from the climate in 1935 that the act of showing it in 2008 has a fundamentally different “purpose and character” than when it was first shown, thereby rendering the simple act of showing the video, at least on a non-profit basis, transformative.

Update: OK, this one is even worse.

  • http://www.mcgath.com/blog Gary McGath

    “Coal Black” was a top-quality Warner cartoon, using energetic jazz music, parodying Disney’s “Snow White,” and giving us a cartoon character who’s sexier than Jessica Rabbit. The one item in it I can see that’s offensive is directed at a different ethnic group; Murder, Inc. offers to kill “Japs FREE!” Since the cartoon was made during World War II, that bit isn’t too surprising.

    People keep saying it’s offensive. Could someone tell me exactly how?

  • Tim Lee

    Gary, the problem seems to be “unflattering and stereotypical use of darky iconography.”

  • http://cordblomquist.com Cord Blomquist

    The cartoon is a pretty damned offensive. For the same reasons why watching The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson performing in black face would make modern audiences uncomfortable. Though many argue that Jolson, a Jewish immigrant, was anti-racist and portrayed African-Americans in a favorable light, black face is nonetheless offensive to modern audiences.

    The cartoon also portrays the African-American characters as stupid, replacing the word “seven” with “sebben” and prince with “pwince.” I don’t think this can be explained away as a benign way of accounting for a peculiar accent, but rather meant to portray African-Americans in a negative light.

    I agree that the storyline isn’t offensive in that it mainly follows the original story, but the clearly racists caricatures used in the cartoon I’m sure weren’t well received by African-American audiences and some more enlightened individuals at the time it was realeased at and hopefully shouldn’t be received well by anyone now.

    However, I have to agree that not allowing these to be seen now is a shame. To see what kind of openly racist material was mainstream only 60 years ago is shocking, no matter how familiar you are with the era.

    I think this should be incorporated into history courses in high school. Rather than teaching out kids that the U.S. was an enlightened land of equality fighting evil, racist Nazis we should show them the world has many more shades of gray. While the U.S. was fighting the most hideously racist regime in history, we were busy oppressing minority groups at home.

    Showing kids the real, ubiquitous racism that existed only two generations ago will hopefully educate them on how far we’ve come since then and how far we have to go.

  • http://www.mcgath.com/blog Gary McGath

    “Coal Black” was a top-quality Warner cartoon, using energetic jazz music, parodying Disney’s “Snow White,” and giving us a cartoon character who’s sexier than Jessica Rabbit. The one item in it I can see that’s offensive is directed at a different ethnic group; Murder, Inc. offers to kill “Japs FREE!” Since the cartoon was made during World War II, that bit isn’t too surprising.

    People keep saying it’s offensive. Could someone tell me exactly how?

  • Tim Lee

    Gary, the problem seems to be “unflattering and stereotypical use of darky iconography.”

  • http://www.mcgath.com/blog Gary McGath

    Cartoons are, more or less by definition, caricatures. How much does Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam represent an actual white human being?

    The use of dialect as an element of humor was common in the forties, and not restricted to blacks. Taking the most obvious Warner’s example, look at the Pepe le Pew cartoons. Those make me cringe because I know how little Pepe’s language has to do with actual French, but no one could say that the intent is to present him as stupid. (He’s blind to his own defects, yes, but that’s shown by other means.)

    There are other Warner cartoons of the period that clearly are racist. “All This and Rabbit Stew” may be the most blatant; it shows a black kid who’s slow, stupid, and addicted to gambling. “Confederate Honey” has a really disgusting moment in which the blacks picking cotton are shown as lazy and doing hardly any physical work. If it’s desirable to show examples of racism in cartoons to modern school kids, I’d choose those two as among the most obvious.

    But portraying “Coal Black” as racist requires applying a different standard to it than to other cartoon work of the same period.

  • http://cordblomquist.com Cord Blomquist

    The cartoon is a pretty damned offensive. For the same reasons why watching The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson performing in black face would make modern audiences uncomfortable. Though many argue that Jolson, a Jewish immigrant, was anti-racist and portrayed African-Americans in a favorable light, black face is nonetheless offensive to modern audiences.

    The cartoon also portrays the African-American characters as stupid, replacing the word “seven” with “sebben” and prince with “pwince.” I don’t think this can be explained away as a benign way of accounting for a peculiar accent, but rather meant to portray African-Americans in a negative light.

    I agree that the storyline isn’t offensive in that it mainly follows the original story, but the clearly racists caricatures used in the cartoon I’m sure weren’t well received by African-American audiences and some more enlightened individuals at the time it was realeased at and hopefully shouldn’t be received well by anyone now.

    However, I have to agree that not allowing these to be seen now is a shame. To see what kind of openly racist material was mainstream only 60 years ago is shocking, no matter how familiar you are with the era.

    I think this should be incorporated into history courses in high school. Rather than teaching out kids that the U.S. was an enlightened land of equality fighting evil, racist Nazis we should show them the world has many more shades of gray. While the U.S. was fighting the most hideously racist regime in history, we were busy oppressing minority groups at home.

    Showing kids the real, ubiquitous racism that existed only two generations ago will hopefully educate them on how far we’ve come since then and how far we have to go.

  • http://www.mcgath.com/blog Gary McGath

    Cartoons are, more or less by definition, caricatures. How much does Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam represent an actual white human being?

    The use of dialect as an element of humor was common in the forties, and not restricted to blacks. Taking the most obvious Warner’s example, look at the Pepe le Pew cartoons. Those make me cringe because I know how little Pepe’s language has to do with actual French, but no one could say that the intent is to present him as stupid. (He’s blind to his own defects, yes, but that’s shown by other means.)

    There are other Warner cartoons of the period that clearly are racist. “All This and Rabbit Stew” may be the most blatant; it shows a black kid who’s slow, stupid, and addicted to gambling. “Confederate Honey” has a really disgusting moment in which the blacks picking cotton are shown as lazy and doing hardly any physical work. If it’s desirable to show examples of racism in cartoons to modern school kids, I’d choose those two as among the most obvious.

    But portraying “Coal Black” as racist requires applying a different standard to it than to other cartoon work of the same period.

  • http://highbridnation.com Mike Belgrove

    Juan over at Highbrid Nation did a nice piece on these racist cartoon showing up on the net which made me go looking to see what others have said. My opinion on the whole thing is that these cartoons need to be soon and should not be sweeped under a rug or locked in a vault. They are part of our history. Our society (Whites and blacks alike) seem to want to hide or “ban” anything viewed as racist. Whats the end goal? To say “look. no racism”. We need to look at things such as these cartoons so we can understand how deep rooted racism is and was. Only then can we move forward. Pretending like they don’t exist doesn’t help.

  • http://highbridnation.com Mike Belgrove

    Juan over at Highbrid Nation did a nice piece on these racist cartoon showing up on the net which made me go looking to see what others have said. My opinion on the whole thing is that these cartoons need to be soon and should not be sweeped under a rug or locked in a vault. They are part of our history. Our society (Whites and blacks alike) seem to want to hide or “ban” anything viewed as racist. Whats the end goal? To say “look. no racism”. We need to look at things such as these cartoons so we can understand how deep rooted racism is and was. Only then can we move forward. Pretending like they don’t exist doesn’t help.

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