The film is notable for being an all-black parody of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow-White, known to its audience from the popular 1937 Walt Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The stylistic portrayal of the characters, however, is an example of classic racist darky iconography (see blackface), which was widely accepted in white American society at the time. As such, it is one of the most controversial cartoons in the classic Warner Bros. library, has been rarely seen on television, and has never been officially released on home video. However, it is often named as one of the best cartoons ever made, in part for its African-American-inspired jazz and swing music, and is considered one of Clampett's masterpieces.
Clampett intended Coal Black as both a parody of Snow White and a dedication to the all-black jazz musical films popular in the early 1940s (i.e. Cabin in the Sky, Stormy Weather, etc.). In fact, the idea to produce Coal Black came to Clampett after he saw Duke Ellington's 1941 musical revue Jump for Joy, and Ellington and the cast suggested Clampett make a black musical cartoon. The Clampett unit made a couple of field trips to Club Alabam, a Los Angeles area black club, to get a feel for the music and the dancing, and Clampett cast popular radio actors as the voices of his main three characters. The main character, So White, is voiced by Vivian Dandridge, sister of Dorothy. Their mother, Ruby Dandridge, voices the Wicked Queen. Zoot Watson is the voice of "Prince Chawmin'". The other characters, including the Sebben Dwarfs, are voiced by standard Warner voice artist Mel Blanc.
Originally, Clampett wanted an all-black band to score the cartoon, the same way Max and Dave Fleischer had Cab Calloway and His Orchestra score the Betty Boop cartoons Minnie the Moocher, The Old Man of the Mountain, and their own version of Snow White. However, Schlesinger refused, and the black band Clampett had hired, Eddie Beals and His Orchestra, only recorded the music for the final kiss sequence. The rest of the film was scored, as was standard for Warner cartoons, by Carl W. Stalling.
The rich, wicked queen then appears, depicted as a "food hoarder", with a large repository of items that were on ration during World War II: rubber, sugar, gin ("Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin" brand) and more. After stuffing her face with candies (from a box marked "Chattanooga Chew-Chews"), she asks her magic mirror to "send her a prince 'bout six feet tall", but when Prince Chawmin' arrives in his flashy car, he declares "that mean ol' queen sho' is a fright/but her gal So White is dyn-a-mite!" Finding So White hard at work doing the laundry, the prince takes her hand and the two swing out into a wild jitterbug. The queen sees this and hires "Murder, Incorporated" ("We rub out anybody for $1.00; Midgets: half-price; Japs: free") to "black-out So White".
The assassins kidnap the girl, but set her free in the woods unharmed. Just before they drive off, the assassins are seen covered with So White's lipstick, giving evidence of exactly how she earned her freedom. Wandering through the woods by herself, So White runs into the Sebben Dwarfs, seven diminutive army men in uniform who sing "We're In The Army Now", with two dwarfs singing "it takes us cats...to catch those rats" at the end, and So White declares in a 1940's swing-style singing voice, "I'm wacky over khaki now!" They immediately recruit her as their squad cook, and she spends her days "fryin' up eggs an' pork chops too" (to the tune of "The Five O'Clock Whistle") for the hungry soldiers.
Meanwhile, the queen has learned that So White is still alive, and pumps an apple full of poison to give to the girl and kill her. The queen disguises herself as an old peddler woman, and arrives at the Sebben Dwarfs' camp and gives So White the poisoned apple. One of the seven dwarfs (obviously derived from the "Dopey" dwarf in Disney's film) alerts the others that the queen has caused So White to "kick the bucket", and the entire squad hops into its vehicles (a Jeep, a "Beep", and, for "Dopey", a "Peep"). As the queen makes her escape over the hills, the dwarfs load a cannon with both a war shell and "Dopey". The shell sails over to the queen, stops in front of her in mid-air, opens, and "Dopey" appears, knocking the crone out with a mallet.
Even though the queen has been defeated, So White is still dead to the world. The dwarfs note, in spoken rhyme:
Upon the dwarfs' invoking of his name, the prince appears and promises to "give her a kiss/and it won't be a dud/I'll bring her to life with my special 'Roooooooose-buuuuud'!". Wiping his lip and leaning over the girl in preparation, Prince Chawmin' proceeds to give So White a succession of highly aerobic kisses, practically swallowing the girl's face whole in trying to awaken her, but without any luck. Prince Chawmin' keeps frantically kissing So White (his efforts underscored by a solo from Eddie Beale's trumpet player), and the efforts literally take the life out of him as he turns into a withered old man, shrugging his shoulders in defeat. The "Dopey" dwarf then saunters over to So White, and, to the tune of "We're In The Army Now," lays a kiss on the girl so dynamic that not only does So White wake up, but her eyes become large as saucers and her pigtails fly straight up into the air (depicted in Rod Scribner's typically extreme animation style) as she jumps into the air.
The worn-out and aged Prince asks "Dopey", "man, what you got that makes So White think you so hot?!" "Dopey" replies, "well, dat is a military secret," implying a sexual innuendo, and lays another kiss on So White, which sends her pigtails sailing into the air again and causes them to turn into twin American flags, to several notes of "Stars and Stripes Forever", and immediately after the kiss, So White shows an obvious "afterglow" in her eyes and her smile. The film then fades to the standard Merrie Melodies "That's all, Folks!" end title text, superimposed over a shot of the little girl and her "mammy" from the opening scene.
The same basic stereotypical elements present in the earlier Censored Eleven films are also present in Coal Black, depicted with more detail and made to conform to Clampett's "wacky" directorial style. The Prince, a vague Cab Calloway lookalike, is depicted as a slender, zoot suited Black man with straightened hair, a monocle, and gold teeth (with dice in place of the front two incisors). Both he and the dwarfs are drawn with large eyes, small noses, and unnaturally large pink lips, derived from the appearance of a white man in blackface rather than that of an actual Black man. The middle-aged wicked Queen is depicted as an overweight, asexual crone, with large lips that are only partially covered with lipstick (the Queen's lipstick only extends as far as it would if her lips were proportionate to her face).
Only So White escapes the extreme caricature given the other characters, although she is stereotyped in a different manner. She is designed as an attractive young woman with a voluptuous figure revealed by a short skirt and a low-cut, cleavage-revealing blouse. The sexualization of So White recalls Walter Lantz's 1941 cartoon Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat, where a young light-skinned Black woman is depicted as attractive while the other Black characters are drawn as extreme caricatures. In both that film and Coal Black, the sexually attractive features of the young women are significant plot devices. In Coal Black, So White is the object of sexual desire for every male character in the picture. This draws upon the stereotype of the young attractive Black woman as an "exotic" sexual being, a stereotype present in roles that African-American actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne played in American cinema.
Clampett would revisit Black jazz culture again in another 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon, Tin Pan Alley Cats, which features a feline caricature of Fats Waller in a repurposing of the wacky fantasy world from Porky in Wackyland (during the opening sequence, the "Fats" cat is distracted by what appears to be a sexy, feline version of So White). Clampett's colleague Friz Freleng directed a cartoon titled Goldilocks and the Jivin' Bears in 1944, essentially Coal Black remade with a different fairy tale, and Warner's director Chuck Jones directed a series of shorts starring a prepubescent African hunter named Inki from 1939 to 1950.
Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs is often praised and defended by film scholars and animation historians, and has often been included on lists of the greatest animated films ever made. One such list, the subject of Jerry Beck's 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, placed Coal Black at number twenty-one, based upon votes from over 1000 members of the American animation industry. Scholarly animation texts including Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, name Coal Black as Clampett's undisputed masterpiece. Despite its being banned, Coal Black is a popular draw at film festivals and small-audience screenings, and is often bootlegged for release on home video.
It has appeared briefly in 1989s Turner Entertainment home video Cartoons For Big Kids, hosted by Leonard Maltin, and in the Behind the Tunes featurette, "Once Upon a Looney Tune" in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 5 DVD box set. Though the box sets are now containing cartoons featuring questionable, racial content, it is uncertain whether or not the cartoon will appear on any future releases of the Golden Collection.