Wednesday, February 8, 2012

018 Little Black Sambo

Title: Little Black Sambo
Studio: Iwerks
Date: 02/06/35
Animated by U.B. Iwerks
Processed by Cinecolor
Produced by
Celebrity Pictures
Series: -
Running time (of viewed version): 8:01
Commercial DVD Availability: Complete Weird Cartoon, Attack of the '30s Characters?

Synopsis: Kid with prank prone dog is chased by tiger.

Comments: There's something about the blackface in this that feels more offensive than in other cartoons; maybe it's that it's in color, maybe it's just Iwerks's art style, being a little more advanced than some of the simpler styles, but still not fully developed, puts it in an offensive uncanny valley, where the characters are growing more realistic and so the white Homer-muzzle looks more garish and out of place than it does in more abstract designs. The cartoon itself isn't really offensive other than the black face and the mammy trappings (with, I think there's a guy in a cauldron in a painting; and the baby powder is black, which may or may not be problematic; oh, and the dog does a limp wristed impression); no stereotypical behavior. Big rubbery arms on the mammy. Did the little black Sambo story take place in India, what with the tiger and all? It's certainly somewhere tropical; was there a significant population of blacks from the American south in some tiger infested country? Some sort of Dharma Initiative project maybe. Isn't the tiger supposed to turn into butter? (In the original story, Sambo was a Tamil; the name was also supposedly of Hindi origin, as a form of Shiva. The look in the original book was supposed to be of a golliwogg, a doll based on minstrels, but distinct from the blackface look. This was converted into a more regular blackface in American editions; Sambo was also supposedly already a racial term in some European languages, and was furthered in English as a slur by the story (even tho the story was not about an African or African American character, did not have the name based on the slur, and was a positive story about the character). The mirror tiger trick is kind of a cheat. The tiger ends up pissed off and alive at the end of the cartoon; hope Sambo isn't interested in walking around in the outdoors ever again.

This cartoon is reportedly sampled on Public Enemy's Fear of Black Planet; I have the album, and can't figure out where the sample is. It's also supposedly used in Spike Lee's Bamboozled.


  1. "There's something about the blackface in this that feels more offensive than in other cartoons..."
    Somehow I'd have to agree—your "uncanny valley" theory seems about right. MICKEY'S MAN FRIDAY had black characters who should theoretically have been more offensive: they were humanized monkeys interpreted as Caribs, yet the basic look somehow wasn't as bad as this.

    How much racism is willful here? Most seems unintentional—but at the very start of the titles, before the film's running theme song begins, the seven-note fanfare that precedes it is actually sampled from "Massa's In De Cold Cold Ground."
    Perhaps the most offensive point is simply the way the filmmakers were in effect saying "all [blacks] look alike to me"; an Indian setting is blurred with generic Africa, and because the characters are black, Mom has to be a Southern (American) mammy stereotype even though it doesn't make sense.

    Keep up the interesting analysis.

  2. I blame the interesting analysis on this having been written in 2010. By the time we hit May, we'll be into the pointless meandering of 2012, where I'll primarily talk about how I remember stuff from childhood, and will just generally be solipsistic... (But thanks.)

  3. You're right that the more the cartoons got away from the rubber hose style of animation, the more the continued reliance on the white muzzle black charactures come across as, if not deliberately offensive, at the very least condescending in a "it's not a big concern to try and improve our animation here" sort of way (and going back to your '43 blog, the same blackface image is even more disturbing to see on Mandy in the debut Little Lulu cartoon "Eggs Don't Bounce". As bad as it might be in a mid-30s cartoon, it's really bad in a mid-40s short when you knew the animators and directors could do better).

  4. I'm not certain the design itself is an issue of improving the animation here so much; Mickey's Man Friday uses the simplified stereotype muzzle design, and the feeling I get there is no more "we cut corners" than any other Disney cartoon for the era. Again, I think it's actually the opposite problem; they _were_ trying to advance the tech, but as they're developing a stereotype, it feels additionally problematic. Instead of it just being a cheap throwaway image that's easy to use, they had to think through the stereotype on how to make it more dimensional while remaining fundamentally stereotypical. I think something like Lil' Eightball or Pal's Jasper seem less offensive because the designs are more innovative; they have some stereotypical features in common with the generic caricature, but they're also clearly individualized characters from a design point of view.

    This isn't unique to racial design in this time period of course; there's a genericism to much of Iwerks work (and Terry's, etc.). But the discomfort of the racial stereotypes really brings out the issue. The same design forces that lessen the racial caricatures in later years lessen overall genericism. The later trouble might be more along the lines that the studios had trouble creating more unique minority characters, but then the major protagonists were mostly funny animals in that era.