‘From Jackson 5ive to Boondocks’ explores African- Americans in animation

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Bruce Smith has worked as an animator for over 30 years and is best known for feature films such as Space Jam (above), The Princess and the Frog, and Tarzan. He is the keynote speaker at the Heritage Center’s symposium on African-Americans in animation. Bruce Smith has worked as an animator for over 30 years and is best known for feature films such as Space Jam (above), The Princess and the Frog, and Tarzan. He is the keynote speaker at the Heritage Center’s symposium on African-Americans in animation.

The word “animation” conjures up the glorious childhood routine of plopping in front of the television on Saturday mornings for hours on end. However, that’s just a small glance at an incredibly varied and ever-evolving genre.

Early animation ranged from magic lanterns and zoetropes to flipbooks and silent films. Today, it’s a genre that holds everything from “The Simpsons” and “Adult Swim” to “The Proud Family” and Pixar shorts. Increasingly, there’s an appreciation for work like the latest Hayao Miyazaki feature-length narrative film, The Wind Rises (currently in theaters), and Waltz With Bashir, an animated documentary about the 1982 Lebanon War. However, despite its popularity and versatility, animation is rarely addressed from any perspective other than that of a viewer or consumer. It’s difficult to define and analyze production values or develop critical engagement with such an adaptable and varied genre. The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center seeks to change that with an upcoming symposium, titled “From Jackson 5ive to Boondocks: African Americans in Animation in the Post-Civil Rights Era.”

The symposium is the first in the biannual Heritage Center at the Edge series, which seeks to celebrate and explore the artistic and cultural productions of African-Americans. “From Jackson 5ive to Boondocks” provides a closer look at the animation genre and its role in defining and encouraging African-American participation in pop culture.

As people around the country celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the Heritage Center identifies this landmark legislation as a transformative moment in the history of American animation. Historically a genre prone to perpetuating negative racial stereotypes, American animation was deeply affected by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In the 1960s, the genre began evolving in ways that would dramatically change the perception of African-Americans over the ensuing five decades. These changes not only led to an increase in positive depictions of people of color, but also an increased presence of African-Americans working as practitioners of the medium and innovating new methods of animation.

The change didn’t take place overnight though. In fact, immediately following the Civil Rights Act, there was actually a sharp decrease in African-American depictions in animation, which only began to steadily climb again in the early 1970s. Viewed widely on television, in movie theaters, and emerging from the pages of comic books, a greater diversity of depictions started to become available and African-Americans enjoyed more extensive character development within the genre.

Since then, the proliferation of handheld devices and personal viewing options has grown the impact of animation as an agent of social awareness and change. Heritage Center Executive Director Andrea Douglas wants to engage the conversation. “With the immediacy and increased availability of such images, it is important to understand what kinds of messages about African-American culture and people are being delivered,” she said. The symposium will bring scholars and practitioners to the table to explore these issues.

Animator, director, and producer Bruce Smith will deliver the keynote address on Friday. Perhaps best known for his animation work on Space Jam and “The Proud Family,” Smith has also worked on Disney features including The Princess and the Frog and Tarzan. Saturday’s guests include Richard Breaux, assistant professor of ethnic and racial studies and history at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse; Carmenita Higginbotham, associate professor of art history and American studies at UVA, and Christopher P. Lehman, author of the award-winning book The Colored Cartoon.

In addition to the engaging talks programmed during the symposium, the Heritage Center made sure to include more hands-on events for those who want to experience animation from the perspective of a practitioner. An animation workshop for teens and a workshop on stop-motion animation (open to all ages) reinforce the holistic and innovative view of the genre provided by the symposium.

“We are partnering with the graduate program at VCU’s kinetic imaging department because we want to be sure that we are including practices that are defining the advancement of the medium,” said Douglas. Animation is also currently taught at Monticello High School, Charlottesville High School, and Light House Studio, but the Heritage Center’s workshops provide a short-term and inexpensive way for youth (and adults) to test the waters.

Maybe this all sounds great, but you really just want to watch some cartoons. Well, you’re in luck! The Heritage Center is also hosting a Saturday morning cartoon screening as part of “From Jackson 5ive to Boondocks.” A variety of short, animated works will be shown, giving an entertaining yet historical overview of the work discussed by symposium speakers. Free for kids under 8, this is a great reminder that animated images carry meaning and foster childlike wonder at any age.

The Heritage Center at the Edge symposium, screenings, and workshops take place in the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center Auditorium on March 28-29. For more details visit jeffschoolheritagecenter.org.

What’s your favorite Saturday morning cartoon memory? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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