A Letter Regarding Racist Cartoons

September 18, 2011 — 4 Comments

This was an email originally sent to Dave Chen in response to a couple of emails sent into the /Filmcast. You can find them here and here.

Hi Dave,

I just read the two e-mails you posted regarding the issue of Warner Bros. releasing the eleven banned Looney Toons shorts on DVD and I felt compelled to write in.

To put it very simply, it is Warner’s duty to release those cartoons. They should be released. The must be released. There is absolutely no question in my mind on this front.

I feel this way for two very important and interrelated reasons.

1. Those cartoons are part of our shared cultural heritage, and Warner Bros. has a duty due to copyright ownership to protect those pieces of art.

Art is art, and any art that is released and consumed by the public becomes a part of the culture. Though some pieces of art go forgotten, the fact is their entire existence remains inextricable from the culture to which they were given. Warner Bros. may have banned exhibition of those shorts, and rightly so to a degree, but banning from exhibition does not have to mean removal from all eyes. Many of those cartoons are incredibly racist, and it’s true, they should not be consumed simply for the purpose and context of entertainment, but they should be available to those who would like to see them. Just was we still publish annotated versions of Mein Kampf and just as we get upset at George Lucas for not releasing the original version of Star Wars, we must not accept the act of a copyright holder attempting to remove a piece of valuable cultural heritage from said culture.

2. The whitewashing of racial struggles and racism in our history for the sake of political correctness is not only dumb, it’s actually destructive to our perception of history and the context of our modern world.

It is not for nothing that we have the phrase, “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Just as it is wrong to obscure a piece of cultural heritage, so it is with historical heritage. We shouldn’t be frightened of offending people with the racism or sexism or any ism of the past. Warner Bros. releasing these cartoons does not mean they support racist depictions, but to not release them at all is to pretend as though such racism never existed. Warner Bros. released Gone With the Wind on Blu-ray last year, and that has some pretty striking racism, particularly by today’s standards. But they also had the good sense to include special features about the context of the racism within that time. Kino will soon be releasing Birth of a Nation on Blu-ray. That film, as impressive a technical achievement as it was, was so effective in its racism that black people were actually attacked outside of screenings, and in some cases lynched. Does that mean that we should pretend the film never existed? Of course not. That’s why Kino will surely be including features that detail the storied history of the film’s deplorable racism.

And that’s what Warner Bros. would be doing with the banned Looney Toons shorts. They didn’t include random ones on the bigger collections, nor will they. Instead, their plan is to release them as a set, all together, and with features that will provide the shorts with their proper context. Something of an educational piece. No only is this the only responsible way to release such material, it’s actually helpful to the cause of eliminating racism. We can’t get rid of something we are ignoring. We must confront the history of racism and learn from it in order to do away with it.

It’s for these two reasons, the fact of the shorts being both an important cultural and historical artifact, that Warner Bros. is right to release the films, and have a duty to do so. So long as they also provide the context for the shorts, I see no reason why anybody should be offended by their release on DVD. Offended by the content of the shorts? Sure. They are most definitely offensive, but we must separate the content of the shorts from the fact of their existence. Because the fact is simple: these shorts do exist, and it would be wrong to sweep them under the rug just because we naively think we have moved past their woeful implications about our society.

Thanks,
Corey Atad

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4 responses to A Letter Regarding Racist Cartoons

  1. 

    In the right context I think it’s ok to republish historical pieces of art even if they have racist content. As long as you have some informative text that gives the whole picture. There are so many works that are that way. Tintin for instance. While I’m a fan of those comics, the early album from Kongo really has some unpleasant stereotypes. But to just put it in the trashbin pretending it never existed won’t take it away. On the contrary – efforts to “hide away” such material can even make it more desirable and interesting for racists.

  2. 

    Excellent points. I completely agree.

    • 

      If feel like at this point I’m slowly transforming into a crusader for good film restoration and preservation, as well as for the intrinsic duty of copyright holders in the light of stupidly long copyright terms.

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