Even in 2009, one should not underestimate the accomplishments, no matter how great or small, African Americans make on American culture. With this weekend’s nationwide premiere of Disney’s film The Princess and the Frog reaching No. 1 in the box office and grossing $28 million in ticket sales—we must be proud. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Keith David, and Jenifer Lewis, the movie contributed a positive image and perception for little black girls and our culture as a whole. However, the history of black animation in film and television hasn’t always been so enlightning and favorable, and the principal dynamic of some of the imagery displayed in black animation has drastically been the opposite of what Disney displayed this weekend.
Sadly, before the 1950s, African-American animation started with many of us being depicted as minstrels and animals. As progress was made in civil equality, animation unfortunately did not follow the times, and we went from personified donkeys and monkeys to stereotypical roles of housekeepers and farmers—remember Li’l Eightball and Bosko. The physical stereotypes placed on us in animation were over the top, to match the over-the-top mannerisms and characteristics placed on us as well. Let’s examine how black animation in film and television has evolved since then, and for the heck of it, take a walk down memory lane, because it would be an understatement to tell all our little Princess Tianas: We’ve come a loooooong way.
Fat Albert, 1972
Shout Outs To: Creator Bill Cosby, Executive Producer Norm Prescott
Familiar Voices: Bill Cosby
Premise: The educational adventures of a group of inner-city kids receiving well-taught life lessons that they put into practice each episode after watching their favorite show Brown Hornet.
How Can You Forget: “Hey, Hey, Hey”
Lasting Effects: The first Filmation-produced cartoon that changed the game for Saturday morning programming, and arguably could be considered Cosby’s greatest efforts. The cartoon showcased real heavy issues like divorce and drugs imparting morals and values, without being overtly preachy. Fat Albert garnered five daytime Emmy nominations and rightfully won one in 1981.
BeBe Kids, 1992
Shout Outs To: Director Bruce Smith, Writers Reginald Hudlin and Robin Harris
Familiar Voices: Faizon Love, Nell Carter, Maques Houston, Vannessa Bell Calloway
Premise: Robin Harris tries to impress the object of his affection, a girlfriend named Jamika, by caring for her son and the children of her friend Bebe. The children present a challenge for Robin by being the most obnoxious, ill-mannered kids he has ever taken care of.
How Can You Forget: “We don’t die, we multipy.”
Lasting Effects: Filled with bright cinematography, well-acted action scenes, and some great “yo mama” jokes. The film won the 1992 Annie award for best animated feature. The portrayal of the modern, single-family black home was relatable and poignantly real. The film helped defy the stereotypes of Black men’s lack of concern for children, shed light on racial profiling, and highlighted the strength of black love.
The PJs, 1999
Shout Outs To: Writers and creators Eddie Murphy and Larry Wilmore
Familiar Voices: Eddie Murphy, Loretta Devine, Janet DuBouis, Jenifer Lewis
Premise: The comical adventures of Thurgood and his wife, Muriel Stubbs, as superintendents of an urban housing project.
How Can You Forget: Homeless recovering crack addict Smokey.
Lasting Effects: Although the PJs wasn’t in the least bit PC, the television series was an overwhelming witty masterpiece that was cleverly written and undoubtedly memorable. The first black animated series to use Will Downings’ foamation techinque (clay animation) won three primetime Emmy’s three years in a row and allowed the audience, without self-consciousness, to embrace the term ghetto.
Little Bill, 1999
Shout Out To: Another Bill Cosby creation
Familiar Voices: Doug E. Doug, Phylicia Rashad, Gregory Hines, Ruby Dee
Premise: An über-imaginative 5-year-old boy deals with the day-to-day obstacles of being a little tyke.
How Can You Forget: Little Bill’s forehead.
Lasting Effects: Based on Bill Cosby’s children’s books, this endearing cartoon taught families collectively to support strong family relationships and honesty. One of the first animated series to use jazz-inspired soundtracks in production, Little Bill has received an Image award and two daytime Emmy’s for providing children with clean, wholesome TV.
The Proud Family, 2002
Shout Out To: Writer Mark Swinton
Familiar Voices: Kyla Pratt, Tommy Davidson, JoMarie Payton
Premise: Teenager Penny dealing with her eccentric family and opinionated friends.
How Can You Forget: Penny’s gangsta grandmother Suga Mama.
Lasting Effects: The Disney channel series to have the most guest stars ever taught valuable lessons on cultural diversity and sexual equality. It won a BET award and an two Image awards in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
Shout Out To: Writer Aaron McGruder
Familiar Voices: Regina King, John Witherspoon, Gary Anthony Williams
Premise: Main characters Huey and Riley make a major move from the city into the suburbs with their grandfather, causing huge socio-political and socio-economic adjustments.
How Can You Forget: Uncle Ruckus, the African-American white supremacist. Lasting Effects: Originally a comic strip, the show explored many racial, economic, and political issues in the black community, while making good use of satirical comedy. The one-line messages usually served as a stinging indictment of how illogically African Americans view life, and it captured the attention of both African-American revolutionaries and rebels.
The Cleveland Show, 2009
Shout Out To: Creators Richard Appel, Mike Henry, and Seth MacFarlane
Familiar Voices: Sanaa Lathan, Nia Long, Regan Gomez
Premise: Spin-off of FOX’s hugely popular Family Guy, character Cleveland Brown starts a new life with his high-school sweetheart and her two children.
How Can You Forget: “Oh, that’s nasty.”
Lasting Effects: Still in its first season, the show has not been favorably accepted and has failed to make any type of significant distinction in forming its own identity from Family Guy.