While diversity in many shows today, live-action or animated, is quite commonplace, African and African-American representation in cartoons for a quarter of a century was still quite sparse until recently. Few programs sought to address or represent the lack of minorities or merely had “token” characters of color to fill a begrudging quota on the show. Nevertheless, a few notable outliers stuck out as commendable or even exceptional representations of Black characters and their lives.
To that end, let’s look at some of those standout Black characters, animated shows, and movies.
Hailing from Africa, teenager Kwame (voiced by LeVar Burton) was bestowed a magic ring that gave him control over the element of earth. The de facto team leader of a quintet of international eco-evangelists dubbed “The Planeteers”, the group traveled the world thwarting the maniacal machinations of a number of colorful, recurring eco-villains. Watching the show, I would always look forward to his signature phrase, “Let our powers combine.” right before his comrades chimed in to summon the show’s headlining superhero “Captain Planet” in the climactic third act of each episode.
It was quite uncommon at the time to see a (young) Black man in a leadership position, which was very endearing to me growing up. Aided in no small part by its animation, strong environmentally conscious messaging, and a catchy ending theme song, “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” ran for 6 seasons, comprising of an original run from 1990 to 1992 and from 1993 to 1996 under the name “The New Adventures of Captain Planet”.
I would also be remised if I didn’t mention the spirit of the earth herself, Gaia (voice by Whoopi Goldberg, and later Margot Kidder), who acted as a motherly, guiding figure for our teenage heroes who gave them their missions in each episode.
Created by Scott M Gimple, “Fillmore!” starring a 12-year old juvenile detective (well, “safety patrol officer”) named Cornelius Fillmore (voice by Orlando Brown). Drawing on popular procedural police dramas and cliché detective shows, the cartoon had the former career kid felon turned law enforcer solve petty but complicated crimes at his middle school.
The intelligent straight man Fillmore would be accompanied by his female goth partner and fellow reformed delinquent, Ingrid Third (voice by Tara Strong). While it was the last series produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, Fillmore’s relatively novel premise and clever execution gleaned a cult following when it aired. It however only lasted 2 seasons, running from 2002 to 2004.
Perhaps, like its cousin “The Proud Family”, with enough outpouring from the show’s fans, it could see a revival on Disney+ in the future.
8. The Cleveland Show
Hoping to capitalize on the success of the derisive and low-brow animated family sit-com “Family Guy”, “The Cleveland Show” was a spin-off starring one of its many secondary characters, that of the sedated, slightly chubby best friend Cleveland Brown. Created and produced by the same trio as “Family Guy” (Seth MacFarlane, Richard Appel, and Mike Henry), it wasn’t hard to see that the show essentially boiled down to a “Black” version of its predecessor; down to the fact, each main cast member was an analog of those in the original show. Cleveland (voiced by Mike Henry) and his son Jr. (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) would move to Stoolbend, Virginia with an old flame there, Donna Tubbs (voiced by Sanaa Lathan) and her two kids, teenage daughter Roberta and 5-year old Montclair “Rallo” Tubbs (voiced by Reagan Gomez-Preston & Mike Henry respectively).
This show’s biggest detriment was its lack of originality. Unlike the sister show “America Dad” which had its own identity, “The Cleveland Show” adhered too closely to the format and formula executed in “Family Guy”. This would be reflected in its lukewarm reception by viewers and critics when it aired. It managed to etch out 4 seasons, from 2009 to 2013 before its cancellation. Cleveland and his family reverted back to “Family Guy” proper after this.
It’s hard to say whether the production of “The Cleveland Show” was indeed an earnest effort by its creators to branch out with representation in mind or a veiled attempt at franchising with the hope of capitalizing on the character’s race to appeal to a demographic.
7. Gerald Johnssen
Back in 1996, Nickelodeon premiered a slice of life animated show called “Hey Arnold!”, starring a blond-haired 4th Grade kid with a football-shaped head living in the inner city with his friends, family, and neighbors. One of its supporting characters was Arnold’s best friend, Gerald Johanssen (voiced by Jamil Walker Smith). An easy-going cool kid, Gerald stood out with his signature elongated hi-top fade and red shirt with the number 33 on it.
Gerald and his family were the only African-Americans on the show, which made his presence stand out all the more. Throughout the show, Arnold & Gerald are practically inseparable, sharing in the (mis)adventures and hijinks of many episodes. While he never stole the spotlight, Gerald was only arguably overshadowed by the cartoon’s recurrent antagonist and self-proclaimed nemesis, Helga Pataki. “Hey Arnold!” would retire in 2004 after 5 seasons, producing 2 feature-length movies in 2002, and 15 years later in 2017.
The super-chill cryo-kinetic Frozone (real name “Lucius Best”, voiced by Samuel L Jackson) is the long-time best friend of one Bob Parr and partner in crime-fighting to his super-strong alter ego, Mr. Incredible. Frozone is the main hero’s wingman and family friend in the first film, “The Incredibles” (2004). While his overall role was relatively minor, Frozone is the only other prominent superhero in the movie.
His comedic presence garnered a small fan-favorite following. In the long-overdue sequel (2018), he was relegated to the third act of the animated film. Still, he was an integral part of its climax. The family-friend animated action movies may be about the Fantastic Four-eques family, but Frozone still managed to steal the spotlight whenever he was on screen.
Marketed as Disney’s last 2D/traditionally animated movie, 2009’s “The Princess and the Frog” – a musical romantic comedy – would invariably be the swan-song to the decades-long era of feature-length animated masterpieces produced by the industry juggernaut since 1937. Based on the fable “The Frog Prince”, the story is set in 1920s New Orleans. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is an African-American waitress who dreams of opening her own restaurant to fulfill a shared goal she had with her late father.
With the arrival of a foreign noble to their town named Prince Naveen, Tiana is employed by her friend Charlotte, a White southern belle, to woo the prince into marrying Charlotte with Tiana’s famous cooking. This is complicated by the interference of voodoo witch doctor, Dr. Facilier (aka The Shadow Man, voiced by Keith David), who – in vizier Jafar-style – uses dark magic to slither his way into wealth and prosperity. Prince Naveen and Tiana are subsequently turned into frogs, leading them on a quest to undo the spell.
The animated film does not skimp on the Disney tropes but takes full advantage of the history and culture of its setting. Tiana herself, as the main protagonist, has a lot of character development and personality, and she does not come across as an antiquated cliché, but a genuine person. It goes without saying that Tiana is the first, long overdue, and currently only Black Disney princess.
“The Princess and the Frog” received praise and critical acclaim; dethroning both “Lilo & Stitch” and “Tarzan” as the studio’s most successful animated film at the time. It also received three Oscar nominations, only losing to “Up” (Best Animated Feature) and “Crazy Heart” (Best Original Song) respectively.
4. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids
Debuting in 1972, courtesy of the prolific animation studio Filmation, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” was the brainchild of the affluent comedian and TV star Bill Cosby, based on his friends and experiences growing up in Philadelphia. Cosby not only helped create the show but had bookend cameos in each episode and provided the voices for many of the show’s characters. Both an entertaining and educational program, it focused on a group of Black teenage boys, depicted as exaggerated caricatures, who lived in the impoverished and troubled inner city.
In an effort to not shy away from real-world problems and difficulties faced by African-Americans living in poverty and disenfranchised neighborhoods at the time, the show gave moral anecdotes and advice to its viewers. Bill himself became a sort of “Aesop” stand-in, highlighting the life lesson learned or explored in each installment. These covered the gamut of the consequences of telling lies and stealing, to deeper issues such as gambling, bullying, and drugs.
The principal cast comprised of the titular “Fat” Albert Robertson and his posse “The Cosby Kids”. There was James “Mushmouth” Mush, “Dumb” Donald Parker, William “Bill” Cosby, Russell Cosby, “Weird” Harold Simmons, “Rude” Rudy Davis, and Bucky Miller. They weren’t the brightest bunch, with lapses in judgment from time to time, but were always ultimately well-meaning or had good intentions. This was the basis of the show, to have flawed characters that were easy to identify with and learn from. The series ran for an impressive 8 seasons up to 1985.
If you can extricate the show from the now grossly infamous and tarnished reputation of its creator and host, “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” was the first cartoon series starring an All Black cast that succeeded in addressing social issues to a young demographic through the medium of animation. And for that, it should be commended on its own merits.
3. Joe Gardner
While “The Princess and the Frog” would be the first time Disney produced an animated feature film with a Black lead character, it would take another 11 years before they would try again. Co-created with the acquisition of “Pixar” studio, cinemas (and Disney streaming service subscribers) in 2020 were gifted “Soul”, a comedic drama about a recently deceased aspiring jazz pianist and music teacher named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx). Having entered the “great beyond”, the now disembodied Joe tries to scheme his way back to life to live out his dream of becoming a famous jazz performer. In so doing he gets entangled with a reluctant pre-corporal soul named “22”, who has an unenthusiastic view of life in general.
The entire film revolved around the meaning of life, and how some people interpret it and live their lives based on that perception. Needless to say, lessons are learned by both Joe and 22, and the audience. The movie was lauded for its deep message that transcended race and backgrounds, and apt use of jazz throughout. The film went on to win “Best Animated Feature” and “Best Original Score” at the Oscars. It was also named one of the top 10 movies of 2020 by the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute. With its many accolades, “Soul” showed that an animated film starring an African-American character could transcend racial boundaries and become an international success.
2. The Proud Family
Premiering in 2001 on the Disney Channel, “The Proud Family” was an animated family sit-com that focused on the comical escapades of one Penny Proud, a 14-year old, rambunctious daughter (voiced by Kyla Pratt) growing up with her family and friends. Filling out the rest of the family are Penny’s overprotective and hyperactive father, Oscar (voiced by Tommy Davidson); Penny’s levelheaded mom, Trudy (voice by Paula Jai Parker); Penny’s trouble-making infant twin siblings, BeBe & CeCe (both voiced by Tara Strong); and the eccentric and sassy “Suga Mama” (voiced by Jo Marie Payton), Penny’s grandmother and Oscar’s mother. The show also came with an expansive cast of other Black characters.
An animated movie was produced in 2005, serving as the series finale after just 2 seasons. Most recently, the show has been revived by Disney as “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” premiering on 23 February 2022 on the Disney+ streaming service. The relaunch serves as a continuation of the beloved original, seeing a now 16-year old Penny dealing with new teenage issues and dilemmas, but maintaining the same type of lighthearted humor and comedy as the original show.
Crass and irreverent, “Boondocks” was an unapologetic adult animated show starring a host of dysfunctional Black characters that premiered on Cartoon Network in 2005. Based on the comic strip of the same name, created by Aaron McGruder, the show ran for 4 seasons up to 2014. Set in the fictional town of predominantly Caucasians, Woodcrest, ridiculous and hysterically over-the-top scenarios would ensue involving its cast of African-American anarchists. It mainly followed two young precocious brothers, 10-year old Huey & 8-year old Riley Freeman (both voiced by Regina King).
Huey was more the intelligent, levelheaded, and cynical one of the pair, while Riley served as the enthusiastically rebellious counter character. There is also the boys’ legal guardian and grandfather, the curmudgeonly Robert Freeman (voiced by John Witherspoon). The show has a cavalcade of memorable supporting and recurring individuals, as well as a healthy dose of cartoonish parody characters peppered throughout the series. The series had an abundance of snide commentary on racism and adjacent issues – the show’s “bread and butter” – earning it a strong fan following long after it finished airing. This type of exaggerated cynical humor would carry over to a sister show, 2012’s over-the-top action-comedy “Black Dynamite”, starring the voice talents of Michael Jai White as the titular overblown “blaxploitation” protagonist.
While I would have loved to put the stoic pugilist from “Steven Universe” (2013 – 2019) on this list, the fact she wasn’t even human kind of exempted her from nomination. Like her two staple cohorts, Garnet (voiced by Estelle Swaray) is an immortal rebel alien warrior/refugee stranded on Earth, who has been entrusted to raise a young boy named “Steven Universe”. Imbued with incredible physical prowess, Garnet is the strongest of her group, but also possesses precognition and a third eye. Always posed with a deadpan expression and delivery, it’s hard not to recognize the tall garnet beauty with the giant gauntlets and cuboid afro, and sleek visor.
Exuding a commanding presence and sage wisdom, Garnet is the most levelheaded of the show’s main cast. This is all attributed to her being a fusion of two other characters, the strong Ruby and the reserved Sapphire, who fell in love with each other to create Garnet – who perfectly encapsulates their two harmonious personalities. While this revelation did not occur until 2 years later on the show, Garnet became a standout character throughout the series’ long and acclaimed lifespan.
Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.