The Legend Of Song Of The South
This is a subject that I've been wanting to write about for awhile, but, with the advent of Avengers: Infinity War, I kept putting it off. Now that there is a little lull before the summer movie season begins, I thought I'd take up the topic again.
I wanted to explore the legend that Song of the South is Disney's most racist movie. I'm not saying the film isn't racist. In fact, I understand why its gotten the scorn it has. It portrays this idyllic antebellum life where Black people still happily worked on plantations with nice plantation owners. It is far from D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 film The Birth of a Nation that depicted the Ku Klux Klan as the hero and cast white people doing blackface. But, it is completely tone deaf.
If anything, Walt Disney was guilty of not recognizing his own privilege even when trying to be aware of it. He had wanted to translate Joel Chandler Harris's stories to the big screen long before it was released. For Walt, I think he saw the Uncle Remus stories as parables of hearth and home. The man had made his career of trying to recreate his home. And, because of that, why wouldn't anybody want to find the happiness home has to bring? For him, his home was about the nostalgia of being a child in a small town. The only problem was we were not talking about white turn of the century Marceline, Missouri, but of black post-Civil War Atlanta, Georgia.
That said, I don't believe that Walt Disney was attempting his own A Birth of a Nation. He was aware that there was a tightrope he was walking. He hired Maurice Rapf, who he perceived as a "radical," to work on the script because he wanted to avoid the Uncle Tomism the stories could portray (although, Rapf was eventually taken off the project due to differences with screenwriter Dalton Reymond). He even contacted the NAACP and asked then President Walter White to oversee the script revisions. Sadly, the script revision meetings never happened. Most people also assume that the film takes place BEFORE the Civil War during the time of slavery, so Disney did itself more disservice by not being clear about the time frame (although, conditions for African Americans even during the Reconstructionist Era were not much better).
I think Song of the South is such an odd bird. Disney will not put it out in home release due to its tainted reputation, yet, the movie has produced one of Disney's most famous songs and that there is an attraction based on the movie, Splash Mountain, at Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland.
Again, I am not saying the film is not racist. But, is it more racist than some of the other racial depictions in Disney's history that have been released in home release? For example, why is this worse that the crows in Dumbo? Let's take a look at that. First of all, the crows are portrayed in stereotypical "Stepin Fetchit"style with white men mimicking what they thought sounded black "jive" talking. To add insult to injury, the lead crow's name is Jim Crow, the name for the law that allowed racial segregation.
"What Makes The Red Man Red?" from Peter Pan contains horrifyingly stereotypical images of Native Americans and more than once, in both Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, Asians are portrayed as buck-tooth with exaggerated "Engrish" accents. Sebastian in The Little Mermaid was a stereotypical Jamaican character singing about trying to avoid hard work.
One can even look at Pocahontas as portraying racial relationships between white colonizers and Native Americans as being idyllic if it weren't for that pesky Governor Ratcliffe.
Is one kind of racism better than another?
The shame of it all is that the film actually is a huge landmark for Disney. Famous song aside (which won the Oscar for best song), Song of the South is Disney's first live action film. It was a technological achievement for the studio with its successful combination of live action against an animated background. It featured James Baskett, the first African American male actor that Walt Disney hired. For this role, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award, making him the first male black actor to receive an Oscar. Although, ironically and sadly, he was barred from attending the premiere in Atlanta because of segregation laws. It also featured Academy Award winning Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar ever. And, honestly, subject matter aside, the animation itself is, technically, some of Disney's best. It might be one of the most famous/infamous films very few in this new generation have seen.
I do think that Song of the South could be released as they did with the old Disney Treasures DVD series where Leonard Maltin gave context to films. I do believe that, if it is ever released, that it needs to be given that context - of what Walt was trying to accomplish and what eventually ended up on screen. But, to ignore the film all together I think does both a disservice to Disney history, but the discussion of racism itself. I don't think most people understand WHY it has the reputation that it does, but have somehow let themselves believe this is racism at its worst while completely forgiving Dumbo, Peter Pan and The Aristocats because there is no ban on those films.