What is the Censored Eleven? The racist Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons banned since 1968
These 11 cartoons haven't been seen on TV in America for decades
Long before Pepe Le Pew's appearance in Space Jam: A New Legacy was scrapped because of a furore over the animated French skunk's alleged contribution to "rape culture", 11 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons were pulled for being too offensive.
The cartoons, which were produced and released by Warner Bros, were withheld from syndication in the US in 1968 by United Artists, a US digital production company founded in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D W Griffith as a way of allowing actors to control their own interests.
To this day, the short animations have remained off-air, resurfacing online and at a TCM Classic Film Festival in 2010, according to reports.
Why were they so offensive?
Each of these cartoons contained storylines or characters depicting racist stereotypes, particularly of African Americans.
For example, All This and Rabbit Stew from 1941 follows Bugs Bunny – the only one of the 11 episodes that includes such a big Looney Tunes "star" – as he battles a black hunter that is supposed to be a caricature of the American comedian and actor Stepin Fetchit, who was of Jamaican and Bahamian descent.
Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears, released in 1944, meanwhile, is a parody of the original tale referenced in the title, but is reimagined with an all-black cast, as the Three Bears are turned into jazz musicians. It features many characters in blackface.
Angel Puss also came out in 1944. It is the only one of the Censored Eleven to have been directed by notable Warner Bros animated filmmaker and cartoonist Chuck Jones. The main character, an African-American boy called Li'l Sambo, portrays all kinds of offensive cliches, from his appearance to his superstitious beliefs.
This cartoon even spurred Herman Hill of African-American weekly newspaper Pittsburgh Courier to write an editorial vehemently opposing its showing, particularly as it ran in Los Angeles alongside short film Americans For All, with its theme of fighting prejudice and stereotypes.
An animated masterpiece?
Perhaps the most famous of the bunch is 1943's Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. While even the title emphasises its undeniably racist overtones, the short film is also widely recognised as one of the most masterfully made cartoons of all time, particularly by animation industry professionals.
Directed by Bob Clampett, the Merrie Melodies cartoon is another all-black parody, this time of the 19th-century German Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White. Set in the Second World War, the story's characters speak in rhyme and are based on jazz musicians of the time.
It has been said it was meant to be called So White and De Sebben Dwarfs, but the title was changed over concerns that it was too similar to the original.
For the storyline, Clampett had apparently been inspired by the book Harlem as Seen by Hirschfeld by American caricaturist Albert "Al" Hirschfeld, as well as by a Duke Ellington performance, after which the jazz great and his cast suggested the animator make a musical cartoon that focused on "black" music.
“I worked on Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and I think it was one of the best things I ever worked on,” recalled animator Virgil Ross in an interview with John Province in 1990, according to Cartoon Research. “Bob took us into downtown Los Angeles, into the nightclub section, to watch the latest dances and pick up some atmosphere. Some of it was pretty funny stuff that we actually used in the picture: real tall guys dancing with real short little women, and they’d swing their legs right over the tops of their heads.”
No matter what the origin of the story is, this cartoon would certainly not jive with a modern audience today, not only because of the African-American stereotypes, but also because of its anti-Japanese jokes, as it was made the year after the Pearl Harbour attack.
Here's a full list of cartoons in the Censored Eleven:
1. Hittin' the Trail for Hallelujah Land (1931)
2. Sunday Go to Meetin' Time (1936)
3. Clean Pastures (1937)
4. Uncle Tom's Bungalow (1937)
5. Jungle Jitters (1938)
6. The Isle of Pingo Pongo (1938)
7. All This and Rabbit Stew (1941)
8. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943)
9. Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943)
10. Angel Puss (1944)
11. Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears (1944)
Updated: April 11, 2021 11:31 PM