‘Funky Turns 40’ Highlights Revolutionary Black Cartoons

Fat Albert was the first positive black cartoon series to appear on primetime television. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of UnCut Funk collection)

Fat Albert was among the first positive black cartoon characters that revolutionized television in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Photo via the Museum of UnCut Funk collection)

The world of Saturday morning cartoons changed for good in the 1970s.

For the better part of the 20th century, black characters in animated features and films only reinforced degrading racial stereotypes. Animators and producers parodied and portrayed them as subhuman minstrel characters.

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, observing the runaway commercial success of black musicians and athletes, TV producers slowly began to broach new territory; they began to introduce realistic and positive black characters into animated shows for the first time. Franklin joined “Peanuts.” The Jackson 5 scored a Saturday morning cartoon series. Fat Albert and his crew worked together to solve everyday problems on “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” Prepubescent private eye Billy Jo Jive fought crime on “Sesame Street.”

These cartoons and cultural icons weren’t just entertaining – they were revolutionary.

Funky turns 40

The exhibit features 60 cels from beloved 1970s cartoon shows. (Photo by Antonia Massa/Voices of NY)

“Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution,” presented by the Museum of UnCut Funk at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, celebrates the very first positive black cartoon characters. The exhibit pays homage to the warm, funny, curious, courageous and relatable black characters that began to populate Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s.

The exhibit features dozens of cels, or transparent sheets with hand-drawn animation, from beloved shows. Black superheroes, crime fighters, shape-shifters and school kids appear suspended in time, in frames plucked from episodes of their various TV series.

Loreen Williamson, who co-curated “Funky Turns 40” with Pamela Thomas, grew up with Saturday morning cartoons like “Fat Albert” and “The Jackson 5ive.” She said the shows instilled her with a sense of pride as they shifted the status quo.

“These were colorful, fun characters who were true to what black people looked like and acted like and talked like,” Williamson said. “I don’t think people think about how revolutionary that was. Back then all kids watched the same cartoons, so it really influenced people.”

Billy Jo Jive, a prepubescent super sleuth, and his sidekick Smart Susie Sunset appeared in animated segments on Sesame Street in the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of UnCut Funk collection)

Billy Jo Jive, a prepubescent super sleuth, and his sidekick Smart Susie Sunset, appeared in animated segments on Sesame Street in the 1970s and 1980s. (Photo via the Museum of UnCut Funk collection)

Williamson has collected cels for about 15 years. A lifelong fan of cartoons of all genres, Williamson said that when she first began to visit animation galleries, she noticed something odd: It was much easier to find and buy cels from, say, Looney Toons or Disney animations than it was to get cels from shows with predominantly black characters. She dug deeper, contacting studios directly, and began to amass a collection of cels with some of the most popular black cartoon characters of the 1970s and beyond.

“To find cels from shows with all-black characters, it’s a little more difficult. It takes a lot more work. But it’s possible,” she said.

Cels from the Museum of UnCut Funk collection provide the bulk of the exhibit’s content. To add historical perspective, acting curator Mei Tei Sing also used the Schomburg Center’s richly varied archives to showcase some of the quintessential Jim Crow-era caricatures that positive black cartoon characters broke away from. She also displayed magazine covers that show the rising fame of real-life black heroes of the time period, like Muhammad Ali and Berry Gordy.

Astrea was the first black female superhero to be featured in a Saturday morning cartoon series. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of UnCut Funk collection)

Astrea was the first black female superhero to be featured in a Saturday morning cartoon series. (Photo via the Museum of UnCut Funk collection)

“We were able to put this era of black animation into a meaningful context,” said Sing.

Sing arranged the cels against colorful walls with what she calls an “old-school animation film background” to make each image pop.

Williamson said that as visitors browse the exhibit’s cels, from Schoolhouse Rock’s “Verbs” to the Harlem Globetrotters’ TV series, she hopes it may pique their interest in collecting cels of their own.

“They’re great things to own,” she said. “The important thing is just for people to collect their culture. It’s important for us to tell our own stories in our own context.”

“Funky Turns 40” will be on display at the Schomburg Center until June 14. It will be go on tour to the DuSable Museum For African American History in Chicago from July 13 – October 20, and to the Northwest African American Museum  in Seattle from November 22 – March 1, 2015.

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