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From the introduction of animated film in the early 1900s to the 1950s, ethnic humor was a staple of American-made cartoons. Yet as Christopher Lehman shows in this revealing study, the depiction of African Americans in particular became so inextricably linked to the cartoon medium as to influence its evolution through those five decades. He argues that what is in many ways most distinctive about American animation reflects white animators' visual interpretations of African American cultural expression.

The first American animators drew on popular black representations, many of which were caricatures rooted in the culture of southern slavery. During the 1920s, the advent of the sound-synchronized cartoon inspired animators to blend antebellum-era black stereotypes with the modern black cultural expressions of jazz musicians and Hollywood actors. When the film industry set out to desexualize movies through the imposition of the Hays Code in the early 1930s, it regulated the portrayal of African Americans largely by segregating black characters from others, especially white females. At the same time, animators found new ways to exploit the popularity of African American culture by creating animal characters like Bugs Bunny who exhibited characteristics associated with African Americans without being identifiably black.

By the 1950s, protests from civil rights activists and the growing popularity of white cartoon characters led animators away from much of the black representation on which they had built the medium. Even so, animated films today continue to portray African American characters and culture, and not necessarily in a favorable light.

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including interviews with former animators, archived scripts for cartoons, and the films themselves, Lehman illustrates the intimate and unmistakable connection between African Americans and animation.

In the first four years of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1961–64), Hollywood did not dramatize the current military conflict but rather romanticized earlier ones. Cartoons reflected only previous trends in U.S. culture, and animators comically but patriotically remembered the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and both World Wars. In the early years of military escalation in Vietnam, Hollywood was simply not ready to illustrate America’s contemporary radicalism and race relations in live-action or animated films. But this trend changed when US participation dramatically increased between 1965 and 1968. In the year of the Tet Offensive and the killings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy, the violence of the Vietnam War era caught up with animators. This book discusses the evolution of U.S. animation from militaristic and violent to liberal and pacifist and the role of the Vietnam War in this development. The book chronologically documents theatrical and television cartoon studios’ changing responses to U.S. participation in the Vietnam War between 1961 and 1973, using as evidence the array of artistic commentary about the federal government, the armed forces, the draft, peace negotiations, the counterculture movement, racial issues, and pacifism produced during this period. The study further reveals the extent to which cartoon violence served as a barometer of national sentiment on Vietnam. When many Americans supported the war in the 1960s, scenes of bombings and gunfire were prevalent in animated films. As Americans began to favor withdrawal, militaristic images disappeared from the cartoon. Soon animated cartoons would serve as enlightening artifacts of Vietnam War-era ideology. In addition to the assessment of primary film materials, this book draws upon interviews with people involved in the production Vietnam-era films. Film critics responding in their newspaper columns to the era’s innovative cartoon sociopolitical commentary also serve as invaluable references. Three informative appendices contribute to the work.
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