Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs (1943, Robert Clampett)

screened Friday, January 19 2007 on DivX in Brooklyn NY IMDb

Moreso than the much-feted Tex Avery or Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett has been my favorite of the Looney Tunes artists. He still is, though watching unabashedly racist spoof of Disney's Snow White (banned from broadcast or distribution by Warner Bros.) give me pause.

After reading Adrian Danks' take on the film in his invaluable Senses of Cinema bio on Clampett, I have a renewed sense of why I love Clampett the most of any Looney Tunes artist, and how this disturbing work figures into that love. I am inclined to agree with Danks' position that Clampett, more than Jones or even Avery, was able to blow wide open the possibilities of animation to reinvent reality and thumb its nose at every kind of convention. The first time I noticed this was Porky in Wackyland (1938), which is like a Luis Bunuel experimental short starring Porky Pig (inhabiting more of an Elmer Fudd square loser-type role). Seven minute wonders like The Long Grey Hare and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery are incredibly playful and plastic, turning on a dime with manic glee at their own overabundant creativity. The latter features Daffy Duck excitedly devouring the latest Dick Tracy comic, leading to a deranged "Duck Tracy" daydream - pointing to a lampooning fascination with pop culture on Clampett's part.

I mention this because Clampett's biplolar attitude towards culture is what's at stake with Coal Black, a film that on first glance seems irredeemably racist. It's not that easy to dismiss though, because it's clear just how fascinated Clampett is by black culture, and there's this weird dual impulse to both lampoon and revere it running throughout the film. It's clear that he's enamored of the rhythms, the flair, the plain exoticism of jazz and jive and blackness, as if he were Porky in Wackyland. At the same time there's a part that insists on holding it at bay, as if he's self-conscious of his own desire to immerse, and thus be like one of those wigga wannabes who desperately and comically seek to emulate what they're not (some things haven't changed).

I only wish that this tension was more in the foreground instead of something that might be something I'm reading into based on what I see here and have seen in his other films. As it is there's no question the film is offensively racist, something that Clampett's fans (Danks included) seem too eager to sidestep. But a question like whether this film is racist or not isn't that interesting anyway -- the real question is what that racism means, what it has to say about the creator -- his fascinations and his conflicts between himself and the other. In that way it is also about us.

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