An analysis of racist content in American films and cartoons

“Even today the motion picture has not quite outgrown its immaturity. It still uses talented Negro players to fit into the ~d stereotypes of the loving Mammy and comic servant…”

-Edith J. R. Isaacs in “TheaterArts, “August 1942

Racism is a peculiar topic: on one side, no member that is part of a civilized society is supposed to treat it as an ideology. The race has nothing in common with mental capacity, morals and other characteristics of any particular human being. On the other side, as the time passes, racism and racial discrimination, acquires new, sometimes quite peculiar forms in the shape of microaggressions or incidental racism.

This issue, which has been debated since the abolition of slavery in 1886, has deeply polarized Americans due to contradicting information which proves it critical to discuss and write accurately on racism for succeeding generations.

Racism in film is so connected to the fabric of America that it has become virtually undetectable, much like carbon monoxide, until the fatal damage has occurred. The film is a reflection of society and society, in turn, is influenced by film.

Ever since the Lumiere brothers created the first film in 1896, it has been an astoundingly useful racial propaganda tool. As the first universal mass medium, it efficiently utilized high drama through the fixation of emotional sequences. Put simply; effective propaganda starts precisely where critical thinking ends. (Chengu, 2016)

So, should be racism censored?

The biggest issue with censorship is that it is subjective and inconsistent. For example, there can be strong arguments for a cartoon or film being censored, when it involves violence, sexual innuendos, drug use, racial stereotyping, heavy alcohol consumption or suicide. However, there were many independent studios between 1930 and 1950 that produced thousands of cartoons that would be considered shocking to the modern audiences. It is known as the golden age of animation. Some of them were relics of a different era, and some were deliberate attempts of animators to include adult material. Some are certainly not suitable to be viewed by children, and some are important historical documents that should be publicly available.

There are many cases of racial stereotyping in popular media. Radio shows, movies, animations and comic strips were filled with caricatures of Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, and many other ethnic groups.

There were frequent occurrences of racism in the early American film. It rose with the dissemination of racial stereotypes to large audiences across the world. Early silent movies such as The Wooing and Wedding of a Coon in 1904, The Slave in 1905, The Sambo Series 1909-1911 and The Nigger in 1915 perpetuated negative depictions of Blacks through an exciting new mass medium. (Chengu,2016)

Inside the White House, on February 15, 1915, US President Woodrow Wilson was watching the screening of the film “The Birth of a Nation,” considered a masterpiece at the time.

Today, the film would not have a chance to be screened at the White House, because it is deeply racist. The film, based on the successful book “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon, is praised radical racist organization Ku Klux Klan (KKK), known for its harsh anti-immigrant policies and actions, and antisemitism. Moreover, the “Birth of a Nation” blacks are listed as rapists and a threat to American values. President Wilson greatly appreciated the film, in a time when black people did not have equal rights with whites and were considered inferior beings.

Behold, now, a century from the time this film comics, things have changed a lot, and in the White House lives a black president.

Some ugly truths can occasionally be found in the dusty bins of animation history as well.

The double-meaning of this ad would have been more evident at the time of its publication in 1925 when the Ku Klux Klan claimed millions of Americans as members and exerted significant influence over American culture. (Amid Amidi, 2012)

In a 1941 cartoon, The Crows from Dumbo, the elephant sees a band of 5 black crows who sing in a manner associated with African-Americans. They are portrayed as poor and uneducated and having ‘black voices.’

Jungle Jitters (1938)

African savages with big lips sing and dance. A traveling salesman tries to peddle his wares to the natives but soon finds himself in a cooking pot.

The Isle of Pingo Pongo (1938)

The Islanders are primitive savages, but they know the words to “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and “Sweet Georgia Brown”. They are all drawn with small craniums, big lips, and bones in their hair.

All This and Rabbit Stew (1941)

For many millennial Americans, the first exposure to Muslim “others” was the 1992 Disney classic Aladdin, in which most good characters were Westerners and the savages were invariably dark skinned. The children’s movies song lyric is instructive:

I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam / Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home(Chengu.2016).

A slow-talking black boy modeled on a “coon” stereotype made famous by Stepin Fetchit, tries to capture Bugs Bunny. Bugs outwits, tricks, and dances his way to safety time and again. Finally, the boy gains the upper hand, but Bugs distracts him by rolling some dice. Bugs clean the boy out while playing craps; mimicking the boy’s clothes, posture, and speech patterns. (Banned Censored and Racist Cartoons, (accessed January 06, 2017)

”Song of the South” remains a big controversy. Although it’s no worse than films like ”Gone With the Wind” in its overly cheerful manner of the African-American experience in the late 19th century, its status as a movie for kids makes it more controversial than other films with that setting. Despite occasional rumors and rumblings that Disney is looking for a way to release it, ”Song of the South” remains unavailable in the U.S. (Sara Franks-Allen, July 9th)

Movies, sometimes just like jokes, talk about things that we can not discuss in other contexts, that we cannot understand or address out in the open. Two recent films are questioning one of the most complex social phenomena and controversial in history – slavery and racial segregation mechanisms.

The film ” is ” shows how racism persists and only change their representatives. We know that emancipation was not put into practice immediately after the Civil War and that the North American and class privileges continued. What is less known, and see in ”Free State of Jones” is that wealthy Southerners have returned to their possessions and maintained it by power abuse and violence. And what the film tells indirectly is the historical fact that in the Southern states laws that prevented interracial marriage continued to operate until 1967, when the Supreme Court declared lawful marital relationship between men and women of color and their fellow whites.

Up to the mid-twentieth century in Hollywood, Blackface was used in well over 90 instances. There eventually was a transition from Blackface to whitewashing, which marked the simultaneous, and intertwined persistence of white supremacy and so-called present day post-racialism. Whitewashing, whereby white actors depict characters of color without the use of Blackface is the poster-child of post-racialism: the idea that America is devoid of racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. On the contrary, post-racialism is, in fact, the new racism. Post-racialism pretends that there is equal opportunity while ignoring the institutional and economic racism that infects inner cities and fills prisons. (Chengu, 2016)

Throughout Hollywood’s history Black entertainers and directors have always been ghettoized and segregated from mainstream film. Northern Blacks resorted to making silent movies of their own known as “Race movies” that were highly critical of American racism. To this day, Black narratives are ghettoized within a separated Black films industry. In America, Black is not merely a skin color it is also a movie genre, for films made by Blacks for Black people because the understanding is that whites could not possibly be interested in films with Black characters. (Chengu,2016)

Racial stereotypes in cartoons date back to the silent era. Occasionally an Asian might be shown in the laundry business, and Pat Sullivan, Disney and other studios depicted their stars encountering cannibals in Africa. By the early sound era, unflattering caricatures of almost every race and nationality had appeared in animated cartoons.

The racism in animated cartoons originated to a great part with newspaper comic strips from the turn of the twentieth century. The typical depiction of a black person is similar across both media and the pioneers of early animation were frequently comic strip artists, to begin with. What is more, newspaper moguls regarded those cartoons of the Silent Era as ways to promote the comic strips and hence sell more newspapers. Therefore, cartoon characters appeared both in the print and movie media. A prime example is Winsor McCay and his comic strip “Little Nemo,” created in 1905, which became an animated cartoon “Little Nemo in Slumberland” in 1911. A character common to both works is Impy, a grass skirt-wearing cannibal who utters gibberish such as “google-vicious-gimpleg-bumble.” (Sampson 1). Black cannibals would appear over and over again in cartoons. Other highly influential men who made the transition from comic strip to animation were Pat Sullivan, Walter Lantz, John Randolph Bray, and Paul Terry. (Dubb, 2013)

Animator Shamus Culhane remembers that when he worked at Fleischer Studios in New York City in the early 1930s the staff was more or less unsophisticated and their humor and social behavior included telling racist jokes, calling friends unflattering racial names and joking about each other’s nationalities. Culbane implies that most staff members were unaware that some people might find their caricatures offensive.

By 1935 the studios were being more cautious about the content of their films and were educating their staffs about what was and what was not acceptable.

At Warner Bros., Racist images abounded. Dozens of cartoons had bombs going off and the light skinned-star transformed into a caricature of an African American when the cloud of smoke cleared away. It was not until the end of the forties that racist images of African Americans disappeared in Warner Bros. Cartoons.

Cartoons were becoming more expensive to produce, and it was financially prudent to steer clear of anything that would potentially alienate any portion of an audience. It would also seem that advocacy groups were becoming increasingly vocal against racism. Note that the bulk of documented protests do not date until after the 1940s. (Dubb, 2013)

At the same time, a popular new medium was slowly eroding the theater audience. Cartoon studios found a new source of income in re-releasing old cartoons in their vaults for television. But first these cartoons needed scrubbing. For example, Mammy Two-Shoes, the black housekeeper in over a dozen Tom and Jerry cartoons, had her dialect voiced by a black actress named Lillian Randolph (Sampson 2) replaced with an Irish brogue voiced by June Foray (Maltin 302), an irony since Randolph was one of only three actual blacks who did cartoon voiceovers. White people imitating blacks did the vast majority of voiceover work for black characters. Blackface gags were edited out. Any cartoons where the black stereotypes were too pervasive to be edited, such as the Little Lulu series with Mandy, the maid, were simply not shown. The studios have buried the worst offenders, never to be seen by anybody but the most persistent scavenger scouring the World Wide Web and then only in unpreserved, poor quality prints. It is all very well to censor offensive images, but the result has been that blacks are rendered nonexistent. Nothing has replaced them. One could conclude that any depiction of blacks is offensive. (Dubb,2013)

The majority of people in America are minorities, and yet this year every single Oscar nominee was white, and ninety-five percent of Oscar voters were white. It is hard for Black actors and actresses to gain prominence when white people are playing their roles.

Films that show black people as complex, layered and authentic are being made right now by indie filmmakers who are black. Just because they are not on mainstream TV or cinemas doesn’t mean they do not exist! We have always been there.  Let’s also remember as people of colour we have Nollywood and Bollywood.” (Lorenzo,2016)

Historically, the portrayal of minorities in movies and cartoons is less than ideal. Whether its appearing in disparaging roles or not appearing at all, minorities are the victim of an industry that relies on old ideas to appeal to the “majority” at the expense of the insignificant minority.” All blame, however, cannot be placed on the white males who run the industry, for a small number of black entertainers perpetuate these stereotypes as well. Even though they defend their actions as an “insider’s look” into the life of a particular minority group, they are guilty of the same offenses that opponents have indicted the media, film and entertainment industries of. We cannot contribute to the viscous cycle that is the unconscious racism of the press, film and entertainment industries; instead, we need to break the cycle and formulate a new industry that is more representative of the reality that is American society today. (Horton, 1999)


Movies, television, news and animations are all guilty of what most people would consider racist beliefs and acts. Despite the time that has passed, decades of reforms should produce results significantly more substantial than those that we have witnessed. It is a problem to force the major networks and film producers when their shows, newscasts, and movies continue to make money. This is a result of the portrayal of the majority and the negative portrayal of the minority. The vast population can sustain its market niche, thus enabling the industry to post profits even without the support of the minority. As in any industry, the biggest focus is money.

Although we would like to see more significant changes and reforms in these industries, one cannot but think of the fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Though the rabbit was speedy and conniving, the slow and steady tortoise eventually proved to be more successful in its endeavors. Patience is a virtue, and it represents the changes that will eventually encompass the entire industry. We need to take an introspective look at ourselves and realize that for us to achieve our eventual goals, we must not give in to the monetary benefits of producing self-disparaging movies and television shows. Only when we have succeeded this, will our status as second class citizens begin to evaporate.