With the December 2009 release of Disney's The Princess and the Frog and the continued airing of the animated series The Boondocks (November 6, 2005-Present) and Little Bill (November 28, 1999-July 2, 2007), television viewers and movie goers seem to forget that just over forty year ago, it was rarely if ever a time when non-stereotypical, minstrel-type caricatures did not represent the only images of African Americans in animated film or television. The Jackson 5ive animated series (September 11, 1971 - September 1, 1973) became only the second animated television series starring more than one non-stereotypical African American character to air on a major television network, and was one of the longest running cartoons with non-stereotypical African Americans as title characters excluding Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids (September 9, 1973 - August 29, 1984) until 1999. In many ways, the Jackson 5ive animated series was to cartoons, what Michael Jackson was to MTV (Music Television). Rather than the first (MTV played Joan Armatrading, Gary Bonds, Tina Turner, and Prince before Jackson), both helped the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson appear as creators of media equal opportunity for future Black entertainers while opening more doors for white and black media capitalists to profit from black cultural production and expression.
Motown and White television executives organized the idea of the series around at least three selling points: 1) young African Americans were a viable target audience; 2) "bubble gum" soul and soul music artists could have enough Black/White listener appeal to become pop artists; and 3) that Black cultural and economic power brokers and discourses whether defined as "cultural bargainers," "moral crusaders," "alienated reformers," or "alienated revolutionaries" could be commodified in such a way that neoliberal White and Black audiences viewed the Jackson Five animated series as a fulfillment of Martin Luther King's interracial dream. At the same time, parents who advocated popular Black cultural, social, or economic nationalism claimed the pioneering and non-stereotypical depictions of Black children on television as a positive affirmation of television presence as empowerment. In either case, the Jackson 5ive cartoon paved the way for I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali, Mister T, Hammerman, and a number of other animated series starring real and fictionalized animated Black characters.
This essay explores Motown Productions and Rankin/Bass Productions Incorporated collaboration to bring the Jackson 5ive cartoon to the American Broadcasting Company's (ABC) Saturday morning line-up and the place of the Jackson 5ive cartoon in the history of Black characters in animated television and film. Because the Jackson 5ive series was one of the first animated series on Saturday morning television with a non-stereotypical all-Black title cast, Michael Jackson and his brothers hold a permanent place of importance in the public's consciousness and the collective memory of those who were children and parents who struggled to understand Civil Rights and Black Power ideologies during a period when both were being increasingly commodified in popular culture.
The Jackson 5ive Cartoon Paved theWay
I was already a devoted fan of film and animation by the time "The Jackson Five" Saturday morning cartoon show started appearing over network television in 1971 ... but being a cartoon character pushed me over the brink into a full-time love of the movies and the kind of animated motion pictures pioneered by Walt Disney. I have such admiration for Mr. Disney and what he accomplished with the help of so many talented artists...I loved being a cartoon. It was so much fun to get up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and look forward to seeing ourselves on the screen. It was like a fantasy come true for all of us. -Michael Jackson, Moon Walk (1988).1
With the December 2009 release of Disney's The Princess and the Frog and the continued airing of the animated series The Boondocks (November 6, 2005-Present) and Little Bill (November 28, 1999-July 2, 2007), television viewers and movie goers seem to forget that just over forty year ago, it was rarely if ever a time when non-stereotypical, minstrel-type caricatures did not represent the only images of African Americans in animated film or television. …