Right now, racial tensions are at an all-time high. It doesn't matter what side of the fence you're on, there's a lot of scary things in the news going on. Sometimes I want to just sit in my house and put on a Disney movie. How about something nostalgic and simple and apolitical...
I'm not going to pussyfoot around it: I love this movie. But I get the controversy surrounding it. I do. But I love it just the same. And here's another controversial statement: I think there is no better time for Disney to release it than now:
Um...let's wax some history first.
Time for Backstory...
Race in American cinema has always been...iffy, to say the least. Al Jolson popularized blackface in the first talkie in 1927. The first blockbuster glorified the KKK. And do we even need to go over Warner Brothers' "Censored Eleven"?
Walt Disney loved the Joel Chandler Harris stories of Uncle Remus as a kid and wanted to badly adapt them for the silver screen. It was a difficult task in and of itself, not just because of its meandering narrative that only loosely connects the Br'er Rabbit stories, but even in the mid-forties, Walt understood the ramifications of such a politically-charged movie involving race relations. He hired writer Dalton Reymond, a writer known for his leftist tendencies, to draft a script around the Br'er Rabbit stories, and place greater emphasis on being more sensitive to the racial aspect. At least, for the forties.
Song of the South premiered November 12th, 1946, in Atlanta, Georgia, in the still-segregated south. At the box office, the movie didn't make back its budget. Critics at the time just kind of wiggled their hands and said "Meh." However, at the Academy Awards, Song of the South was nominated for best score, won for best song "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah", and one pretty cool bonus: The man who played Uncle Remus and voice of Br'er Fox, James Baskett, also won an Oscar. It wasn't a best actor or best supporting Oscar, it was an honorary Oscar, and he was the very first black man to win an Oscar, beating Sidney Poitier by about 15 years. (Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for mammy in Gone with the Wind, making her the first black person to win one. Incidentally, she played Aunt Tempy in Song of the South)
There were plenty of high-brow critics back then who found the movie boring, and the NAACP hated it. It struggled to find a niche, but the movie had re-releases in 1956, 1972, 1980, and 1986. Each time, it got a welcoming reception, and everyone continued singing "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah". Also in the eighties, Disney built a ride called Splash Mountain, a log flume ride that utilized animatronics of anthropomorphized animals from an outdated Bicentennial attraction in Disneyland's Tomorrowland. It became a huge hit, spawning reproductions of it in Florida and Tokyo.
Then it just kind of...disappeared.
Yeah, after its theatrical re-release in '86, it hadn't been seen in theaters again. We continued singing the song and riding the ride, but we couldn't see the movie. Even when it was the decade where Disney was mass releasing all its old animation titles on VHS, the movie was just not anywhere to be seen. We'd see the characters in promotional art amongst other Disney characters, or we'd see a clip here or there, but not the whole movie.
In the early 2000's when the Disney marketing machine was running at full tilt, there was still nothing. Merchandise was almost non-existent, and even the new Disney park gimmick, the pins and pin trading, which thrived on obscure Disney characters for fans, were few and far between. Disney, at the time, was also mass releasing DVD's with popular titles getting the "platinum edition" treatment, the lesser ones the "Gold collection" label, and for the REALLY old/obscure stuff - the cartoon shorts, Davy Crockett, the war propaganda cartoons, Zorro, et al - was getting released on the "Walt Disney Treasures" line, complete with bonus features and context discussions by noted film critic Leonard Maltin. And don't forget the flurry of sequels to the animated features that flooded the market, too! In the shuffle of all those DVD's, it had to have made its way in, right? Nope.
So here we are, 70 years later. No DVD, no Blu-ray. No commemorative lithograph, no pin set, no plush toys, no buttons from guest relations, Not even a keychain. Worse, despite its popularity with the song and the ride, despite the Oscars and the childhood memories, it's gotten the reputation of being "racist" and "forbidden".
Now, seeing as this is an opinion piece, I'm entitled to my opinion, and everyone is welcome to disagree with me. Especially when it comes to movies. See, as far as I'm concerned, movies are art, and all art is subjective. I see Song of the South as a beautiful movie. I'm also a 30-year-old white guy from New Hampshire, so what do I know? That said, I can't convince those who have made up their minds about it being racist or detrimental to the African-American community. I can't speak on their behalf nor do claim to be an authority on black cinema. All I can do is show you folks why I think this movie shouldn't be forced to be hidden in the bowels of the Disney Vault.
First question: Do you have a problem with this?
How about this?
Or maybe this?
If you said "No" to any of them, why not? The "Injuns" in Peter Pan sing "What Makes the Red Man Red?", something that is pretty racist to Native Americans. We'll throw big hissy fits over the minor and historical inaccuracies details in Pocahontas, which actually TRIED to be accurate in their portrayal, but I have yet to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about the ones in Peter Pan.
The crows in Dumbo have been lampooned frequently as being examples of racism. Much, much more so than Peter Pan's "Injuns". The crows, stereotypical in their attitudes, clothes, and mannerisms they may be, are still fun-loving and helpful, which is more than I can say for the Chief, who goes from threatening burning kids at the stake to being all "paleface brother" over a misunderstanding. Even Family Guy referred to the crows as "Good old-fashioned family racism".
And what problem do I have with the dwarfs? I don't, but lest we forget, they're adults, just afflicted with dwarfism. They're full grown adults. Most of them have long white beards, suggesting they're older than middle age. So why are they treated like children? Sure, they're short, but that's exactly the kind of prejudice little people have to fight against on a daily basis.
So why do we give a pass to these movies, but not Song of the South?
Well, for one thing, we're not allowed to see it. With the mystique of a movie that is a ghost to the general public, no one can form a new opinion. While anyone can sit down and watch Dumbo or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney refuses to release a movie and let new audiences sit down and watch it. The average moviegoer has only rumors and gossip to go on for information. As we all know, it's not the most reliable source.
The other reason is they're entertaining. Say what you will about Peter Pan, it's a fun movie full of fantastic moments, from flying to pirates, Peter Pan is a movie full of classic Disney iconography. So is Dumbo. And Snow White. While Song of the South has an insanely famous song and one of the most popular rides in their theme parks, what do we know about the movie itself?
The sad fact of the matter is the movie, as a whole is pretty boring. The main plot of the film revolves around little Johnny (played Bobby Driscoll), whose father has left him and his mother on Miss Doshy's plantation. Johnny is, at first, distraught, and tries to run away to get to him. Instead he meets Uncle Remus, who comes in as a stand-in paternal figure for Johnny. For the rest of the film, Johnny comes across various obstacles, mostly involving the nasty Joe and Jake Favers, who bully Johnny. But therein lies the problem: They're obstacles, not a conflict. The movie lacks overall tension, or stakes of any kind really. Even the whole issue of his father leaving just kind of gets forgotten about after Uncle Remus tells the first Br'er Rabbit story. This results in a movie that feels slowly paced and uneventful. When the truly sad moments happen - Uncle Remus being told he can't see Johnny anymore and Johnny getting attacked by a bull - they fall flat because the buildup feels unearned.
There can be a way to make dramatic tension happen with seemingly small stakes. But the movie plays with them as if they were just inconvenient issues rather than something that could mean Johnny or Uncle Remus have something to lose.
But I bet you guys have a bigger question in mind:
Is the movie actually racist?
At the risk of sounding extremely pretentious, I say it depends on what you mean by "racist". Let's ask a few questions first:
- Does the movie promote an anti-black agenda, and was it intentional?
- Do any of the stereotypes negatively affect anything, in the movie or not?
- How overt are the negative stereotypes? Would children pick up on them?
- Does the fact that it was made in the forties change anything?
If Song of the South is racist, it's done in an accidental way. And I don't mean it was done under the guise of complete and blissful ignorance. I mean that in 1940's, the notion of racism was much more obvious and overt than today's standards, where racism need only be implied and people would complain. But don't get me wrong: these are legitimate complaints.
First, let's consider that there is zero malice from any of the black characters. True, most of them are in an ensemble cast, but even when Aunty Tempy or Aunt Chloe get huffy with the children, its clear they do it for the kids' best interest. Toby, Johnny's playmate, is more of a goofy kid who was appointed to look after Johnny, and becomes a close friend. Uncle Remus is the personification of the "Magical Negro" trope, where an older black character mentors young white protagonists. So the movie doesn't even imply that black people are bad in any way: at most we get the Favers boys and of course, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear, but the latter two are only in the animated segments. The Favers are more sort of the "white trash" archetype, to use an similarly unpleasant moniker, than anything else. So it's not the tone the movie takes.
The stereotypes in the movie are there: the black people have over-exaggerated dialects that can be cringe inducing, the community is overwhelmingly and literally harmonious, and...that's really it. Sure, there's the tar baby, but given that in both the original story and the movie, it's personified as a doll made of, y'know, tar, I give it a pass. As far as I'm concerned, it's like getting mad at the little China girl in Oz the Great and Powerful. Yeah, it can be used racially, but since it's an actual girl made of China, I don't see the issue.
Do they affect anything? Surprisingly no. In the scenes where we see all the workers singing (By the way, they're not slaves. Disney has officially established that the movie takes place in the Reconstruction period, despite minimal indications in the movie.), they are the Greek Chorus. They are there to just set the mood and tone. The accents were to evoke a sense of authenticity and charm the Old South had, and if even the Favers boys speak in even more fractured English than the black characters do, then I call that an even playing field. Except...if Johnny, his mother, father, and grandmother are supposed to be from Atlanta, Georgia, where are their accents?
Ultimately, the story can be still told with any race in any setting with few tweaks, and you'd get the same thing. Race is never brought up in the movie, and that's a HUGE point in its favor. If anything, there's actually more classism than racism, like in a scene where Miss Sally attempts to dissuade Johnny from inviting his friend Ginny to his birthday party.
Which leads me to the next point, the nuances. And here I say again, since race is never brought up and discussed, it's difficult for kids to pick up on it, especially when the characters seem to converse freely on an intellectual level with each other, as if they were only neighbors. Sure, we see the black people almost always working and wearing shoddy clothes while the white people lounge around in finer garments, but I still see the Favers as the great equalizers, in their dirty overalls, bare feet, and unpolished drawls.
As adults, we see subtleties and nuances everywhere from an adult perspective. While kids are often smarter than we give them credit for, they rarely look at the world the way we adults do. For example, when it comes to sex, we know what it means to us adults. We see a nude figure, man or woman, and regardless of context, we do all we can to block our children from seeing it. Why? Because nudity equals sex and children shouldn't be exposed to sexual intercourse. But what we forget is that kids aren't yet able to interpret a nude figure as sexual. It doesn't matter how drop-dead gorgeous he or she is, kids may interpret attraction, and they'll notice men and women's bodies are shaped differently, but it's not until the hormones of puberty kick in do they realize there's more to it. This movie is very similar in a lot of ways. We see a lot of black people, we let our collective experience, for lack of a better word, "color" our perceptions. Sure, there will be kids who might pick up that the black people live in shacks and Johnny's family live in a mansion, but how is that different from real life that people, regardless of race, live in different kinds of homes?
As for the Forties perspective, it's pretty amazing that it's as well crafted as it is. In the era where Jim Crow "Separate but Equal" laws were the norm, this easily could have been a wildly offensive movie, like Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves or Cannibal Capers. It's only become an issue because we, as a society, have gotten better at picking up social cues of what is and isn't okay.
As I pointed out before, there are plenty of other movies made before and after Song of the South that are more detrimental to blacks and other minorities, and much more beloved by people. It's just the fact that it's overall pretty dull that has made us remember that there's black people who talk funny in it, ergo, it's racist.
Gone...but not Forgotten
But it's not completely forgotten about, much to the company's chagrin. Thanks to Splash Mountain and "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah", Disney is still forced to refer to the movie in their official descriptions. Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear, who headline the ride, do meet and greets in the parks, but still often get shoved away for the more popular characters. They'll still appear on promotional art, but only to promote the Frontierland/Critter Country ride.
In 2011, they even got to be in the "Disneyland Adventures" Kinect game on the XBox 360, where the trio were shown and portrayed in their full glory, accents and all. Took us all by surprise, really.
In the shareholder meetings, current CEO Bob Iger has had various fans request for the movie to be out and available to the public, but Iger uncomfortably dashes hopes away each time. Since the Disney company is so fiercely image-conscious, they've become afraid to admit they made a movie that could be perceived as racist. Again, Peter Pan. Iger worries about the backlash, and like any responsible CEO, he should at least consider that. However, there are problems with the current approach.
1. Internet pirates have made millions poaching whatever they can of the movie and selling DVD's, something most companies frown upon.
2. Had they released it among the slew of DVD's and VHS's back when they flooded the market, it would have been so easy to slip Song of the South in and not made a big deal about it. But they've missed their shot. Now, with Blu-rays, they're releasing the titles much more methodically, it would get much more attention. Much like Area 51, the more Disney keeps pretending it doesn't exist, the more we want to probe deeper, and ask "What's the matter? Is it...embarrassing? If there's nothing wrong with it, why are you hiding it?" In other words, it's become forbidden fruit.
3. Most significantly, they have to, thanks to "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" and Splash Mountain. It's easy to pretend Charlie the Lonesome Cougar or Victory Through Air Power don't exist because they didn't leave anything significant in their legacy in the popular consciousness.
But here's the rub. As I said at the beginning of this article, with #Blacklivesmatter stirring up civil unrest all over again, now couldn't be a better time to release Song of the South. Discussions about race are inevitably going to come up at dinner tables and in classrooms, and we want our kids to understand the struggles that have plagued America when it comes to racial tension. Have teachers show it in class and initiate thoughtpiece discussions. Get historians - film, animation, civil war, American history, African-American - to sit down, discuss, and analyze the impact it's left on cinema and American history. Release it on Netflix streaming as see how people react. Air it on Turner Classic Movies with said historians. Heck, if Disney's worried about the backlash from a wide release, then let's see them release park-only copies in Splash Mountain gift shops.
Disney should own up to it. They made it, there are fans, and there's no use in pretending it doesn't exist anymore. We know they're hiding it, and the best thing for them to do is be mature and release it numerous disclaimers and bonus features. Inevitably, there'll be parents who will raise Cain because it's "racist", remember not only what I said about Peter Pan, but that Disney is used to getting flak from outraged groups.
I love Song of the South. I think it's a lovely movie that deserves better than to be hidden from the world. If you don't want your kids to watch it, I understand. But I kindly ask you not to tread on my right to watch it. Once it gets an official Blu-ray, Netflix, or televised released, things'll be mighty satisfact'll.