Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution -- a Retrospective of 1970′s Saturday Morning Animation Art
Get an insider’s perspective on the Funky Turns 40 exhibit from its curators, Loreen Williamson and Pamela Thomas, of the Museum of UnCut Funk.
The Schomburg Center's new exhibition, Funky Turns 40 from the Museum of Uncut Funk, opens on February 5 and explores these black animated characters and the impact they had on a generation of young folk.
From 1900 to 1960, Hollywood’s greatest animators and biggest studios produced more than 600 cartoon shorts featuring black characters. These films reflected the racial stereotypes of the pre–Civil Rights Era, portraying blacks as less than human and as minstrel caricatures. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that Saturday morning television cartoons featured black animated characters in a positive and realistic manner.
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As a kid growing up in the 1960’s, I saw images of Blacks being beaten and tortured. I saw the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and I couldn’t understand why people who looked like me had been treated in this manner.
Then the 1970’s arrived and brought an explosion of color to Saturday Morning cartoons. As a pre-teen, I could see positive Black characters that looked like me and real people that I admired, like the Jackson Five and The Harlem Globetrotters. I was glued to the television.
I couldn’t wait to see these animated characters fill the small screen. These cartoons changed my life…filling me with pride and self esteem. They brought adventure, mayhem and fun to a generation of Black children.
Forty years later, my perspective on these cartoons is a little different. Besides being an integral part of Black children’s lives, these cartoons also benefited white children and the broader society as a whole. A number of these cartoons addressed issues like cultural differences, racism and multiculturalism. It is my belief that these cartoons are national treasures. They are an important part of American culture, and in particular the Black experience. I fondly remember the decade when these revolutionary Black cartoon characters made their mark on animation history.
Picking up where comic strips left off in the early 20th century, theatrical cartoon film shorts portrayed Blacks in a racially derogatory and stereotypical manner as cannibals, coons, mammies and Stepin Fetchit characters with exaggerated features and ignorant dialect. From 1900 to 1960, over 600 cartoon shorts featuring Black characters were produced by some of Hollywood’s greatest White animators and biggest film studios. Several famous Black jazz musicians such as Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong were also portrayed as stereotypical caricatures.
In the 1950’s, several of these racist cartoons were shown on television. As a result of the civil rights movement, in the 1960’s the racial content of many of these cartoons was edited out or the cartoons were pulled from television altogether. Notably, The Censored Eleven, a group of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons were banned from broadcast because they were deemed to be too offensive for contemporary audiences. In the case of The Censored Eleven, racist themes were so essential and so completely pervasive in the cartoons that no amount of selective editing could ever make them acceptable for distribution.
After sixty years of negative cartoon images, it wasn’t until the late 1960′s / early 1970’s that Saturday Morning television cartoons started to feature image affirming Black characters with a modern look and positive story lines that delivered culturally relevant messages.
This 1970‘s revolution in how Black animation characters were developed and portrayed in Hollywood represents historic change and the ultimate manifestation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. For the first time characters of all races lived, played and worked together as equals.
For the first time Black children could see cartoon characters that looked, talked and acted more realistically like them, such as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, as well as more positive depictions of their favorite Black music icons and sports heroes like The Jackson 5ive featuring Michael Jackson and his brothers, The Harlem Globetrotters and I Am The Greatest featuring Muhammad Ali.
For the first time, Black children had cartoon role models who taught positive messages like family values, the importance of education, friendship, civic duty, personal responsibility and sportsmanship.
For the first time cartoons like Josie and The Pussycats, Star Trek and Kid Power featured strong Black female characters and multicultural casts. These cartoons not only changed the way that Black kids saw themselves but the way that white kids saw them as well.
Also, for the first time, Black people like Bill Cosby and Berry Gordy led development of animated television programming featuring Black characters, from concept through to art creation and production.
During this period, 25 Saturday morning cartoon series, 1 primetime cartoon series, 1 weekday cartoon series, 2 after school cartoons and 16 cartoon specials were produced that included positive Black characters, 17 of which had a predominately Black cast.
Back in the 1970‘s everybody watched the same cartoons. Since then, many of these cartoons have re-aired on cable networks reaching new generations of children.
Forty years later, the legacy of these revolutionary cartoons has eclipsed the stereotypical images that came before and have paved the way for a new generation of Black animation like The Proud Family, Little Bill, Static Shock, Fillmore and Doc McStuffins!
Not surprisingly, forty years later, the Black Character Revolution generation is the first to produce and elect the first Black President of the United States.
The Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution exhibition features original production cels and drawings and limited edition cels from this turning point in cartoon history where Black and White animators created positive Black characters and Black stories for all to enjoy, including: Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids, The Jackson 5ive, The Harlem Globetrotters, Valerie – Josie and The Pussy Cats; Lt. Uhura – Star Trek Animated Series, Muhammad Ali – I Am The Greatest, Billy Jo Jive – Sesame Street, Verb: That’s What’s Happening – School House Rock and Franklin – Peanuts.
At one time, thousands of hand-painted cels were created and used under the camera to animate every TV and theatrical cartoon. Today’s animation is all computer generated, so hand painted cels represent a lost art form. As relatively little Black animation was produced in the 1970’s and beyond, original production artwork is scarce and rare. Although limited edition reprints of selected scenes from many cartoons and films have been produced, there are very few that have been created from Black animation.