This month for Saturday Morning Cartoons, we're going to be screening the much-beloved Kirikou and the Sorceress, directed by Michel Ocelot. In celebration of this lovely film and of Black History Month, I wanted to take some time to focus on Black voices in animation.
Always the Bridesmaid...
Just taking a look at the image below gives us an idea of the variety of Black animated characters that have captured our imaginations over the decades here in the US. But take a closer look: what do all these characters have in common? All the examples I chose for this collage are side characters in stories that focus on white people and white experiences. I'm sure you can see why there is a dearth of Black main characters in animation: lack of representation in the writer's room and in production at large leads to a lack of representation in media overall, a remnant of American chattel slavery and the unequal treatment of African Americans in society that is reflected in the workplace and in our institutions. However, there is a rising trend of animation that feature Black folx as central characters. In this Top 5, we point with laser-focus on television and feature-length animated works that prioritize Black characters and experience and highlight Black voices and creators in independent and mainstream cinema. But first...
A Little History...
The first Black core cast member to be featured prominently in an animated series was Valerie Brown from Josie and the Pussycats, which was put out by Hanna-Barbera (creators of Scooby Doo, the Jetsons, etc) from 1970-1971. As popular comic books from the 50's and 60's moved over to television in the 70s, Black characters came with them. While these characters typically weren't exactly nuanced or even three-dimensional, this was an important step on the road towards better representation, considering it was preferable to nothing at all.
These minor appearances paved the way for other Saturday morning cartoons such as Fat Albert and the Super Globetrotters that featured all-Black ensemble casts, the first of their kind. Unfortunately, both of these shows today are derided for perpetuating racist caricatures and stereotypes. Fat Albert in particular played an important cultural role in the history of Black representation in animation, but was unfortunately created by a certain grandfather of the American sitcom that turned out to be a horrible person, so I will refrain from spending time amplifying his work. That said, it makes sense that one of the biggest figures in cementing the figure of the Nuclear Black Family in American consciousness via TV sitcoms would have a hand in Black animated TV shows as well. But all of that is just a preamble to more recent media that focuses on Blackness in a more positive, holistic way.
Thus, I introduce to you my humble list of the Top 5 Most Influential Black Cartoons!
5. The Proud Family (2001-2005)
The clear inheritor of the 'Black Sitcom' structure is the TV show that clocks in at #5: The Proud Family. The show was - and is! - immensely popular, and features a theme song by the legendary Destiny's Child (headed by the inimitable Beyoncé). Each of the characters is hilarious and relatable, and in true sitcom fashion the show contains everyday moral lessons, some of which comment on Black identity and history. Emerging on the Disney Channel and paving the way for other narratives that focus on Black girls in particular (I'm looking at you, That's So Raven), The Proud Family also has a feature-length film that is equally delightful. While it was hard to hand #5 over to this show over the classic kids' detective series Fillmore, which aired around the same time on ABC, to make it up to you here's a link to the entire first season on YouTube. You're welcome!
4. The Princess and the Frog (2009)
While unfortunately relying on quite a few Black stereotypes and tropes, Disney's Princess and the Frog nonetheless was seminal in inducting the first - and only - Black Princess into the Disney canon. Featuring catchy tunes and stunning 2D animation, this classic fairytale story features a wide cast of Black characters that are diverse and lovable. The biggest complaint I've heard about this film is that of course in the one movie with the Black Princess she's a frog the entire time, but that critique doesn't erase the love that many little kids have for Tiana, who is arguably the most hard-working and kind-hearted Disney Princess.
3. Static Shock (2000-2004)
Based on the hit comic book series, Static Shock zapped home TV viewers in the early 2000's with his electrokinesis and upbeat attitude. While Static does fall into a strangely specific trope concerning Black superheroes and electricity, his presence in the DC Universe cemented a pantheon of black superheroes and villains. Virgil Hawkins (Static's alter ego) is a geeky STEM kid with a cracking wit who loves comic books got his powers from being exposed to a mutagen gas (Who doesn't love mutants!) Even his abilities are cool: his signature moves include flying around on trashcan lids and tapping police radios. Edgy! That said, the show manages to tackle a lot of tough subjects for a kids program, such as gang violence and even school shootings, making it still resonate with us today. While his adventures still live on in his comics, I'm hoping we'll get a live action reboot soon!
2. Into the Spider-verse (2019)
Other than being a princess, what is the biggest dream for children of all ages? Being a superhero! Not only is Enter the Spider-verse an incredible feat of animation in and of itself, it allows the audience to place themselves in the shoes of the endlessly endearing Miles Morales, AKA Black Spiderman. (Well, technically *pushes up nerd glasses* Afro-Latino Spiderman.) Picking up where Peter Parker left off, Miles sling-shots onto the scene to lead an inter-dimensional cabal of Spidermen (and women) in this jaw-dropping adventure film. Amazingly, it's still in theaters! So catch it now so you can root for it this year at the Oscars.
1. The Boondocks (2005-2014)
The Boondocks is a modern classic even outside the realm of animation for its sharp wit and incendiary satire. While it suffers from the same casual misogyny and homophobia as most shows on Adult Swim (see also: Black Dynamite) the Boondocks was crucial in providing hot takes on American politics from a Black perspective during an era of extreme conservatism within American society and government. Pretty much the complete inversion of The Proud Family, The Boondocks throws respectability politics to the wind, detailing the daily life of the proto-revolutionary Huey and his dysfunctional, non-nuclear family as they transition from living on the South Side of Chicago to an uptight, mostly-white suburb. Huey speaks truth to power, not shying away from making his neighbors - and viewers - uncomfortable and even outraged in the process. Highly controversial due to its critique of Black institutions and public figures as well as its extensive use of the 'n' word, the Boondocks goes down in history as one of the most iconoclastic American animated series made. (Just promise me you won't watch Season 4.... trust me.)
Honorable Mention: Craig of the Creek
While not necessarily "influential" just yet, Craig of the Creek deserves an Honorable Mention because it is groundbreaking. As Toonrific Tariq details in his excellent YouTube video "How to Black", the titular Craig is "just a regular kid", going on regular kid adventures with his regular kid friends. The writing allows Black characters to exist and thrive without any need for explanation or elaboration, and focuses on enjoying being goofy and going on adventures, a trend that I hope continues in American animation in the future.
It's worth saying that after all that (gasp!) I'm white. Ultimately my opinion on this topic is informed by my experience as a white person, so feel free to toss my opinions in the garbage. I am obviously no authority on Black experience, and I listened to the opinions of Black critics - particularly on YouTube - to inform my research (see sources below). Specifically, I would like to acknowledge the work of Toonrific Tariq, whose videos inspired me to make this listicle in the first place. (Smash that subscribe button!)
It's glaringly obvious that Black-centered stories are hard to find in animation, so I wanted to put a spotlight on what work is out there so people can enjoy it. Additionally, I wanted to use my platform - and my privilege - to amplify Black creators in animation so that hopefully we can have more of these stories in the future. And, as always, if you have any suggestions, comments, and yes, even disagreements, reach out to me via the "Contact Us" tab on our main website.
And, for your additional viewing pleasure... short films from StoryCorps celebrating Black History Month! Sponsor me, NPR!!
Sources and Related Readings
Homophobia in the Boondocks (TheStoryteller)
How to Black (Toonrific Tariq)
Top 10 Black Cartoon Characters (MarsReviews)
Autobio comic on making Black characters (Aphton Corbin)
Article on the Boondocks (Kwame Seale)
Cartoon Analysis: Animated Black Characters (MagicalPeachInternet)
Interview with Craig of the Creek voice actor (Cartoon Network)
Into the Spider-verse Trailer Intro (Andrew Liptak)
Black Animation Net
Craig of the Creek Trailer (Cartoon Network)
Animated Feature Oscars 2019 Discussion (Todd VanDerWerf)
Article on Black representation in film (Gendi Alimurung)
Jorge Gutierrez Acceptance Speech for "Book of Life" (Cartoon Brew)
Article on Static Shock (metagravy)
On Black Superheroes having Electricity Powers (Charles Pulliam-Moore)
Static Short Film (David Kirkman)