Cinematic success has been the driving force of the Walt Disney Company since its inception back in the 1920s. From Mickey Mouse to Snow White to Mary Poppins to Zootopia, the studios has prided itself on creating timeless, wholesome family entertainment whether it be animation or live-action. Once in a while these films are taken out of the Disney vault, given a good dust and touch up, and repackaged for a new generation of audiences.
However, one film continues to gather the dust and remain locked at the back of the vault, destined to remain hidden from public eye. This film is Song of the South, one of Walt Disney’s first animation/live-action hybrid creations, premiering in 1946.
Based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, it follows a young boy called Johnny who goes to live on his grandmother’s plantation. When he learns that his parents are separating and that his father has returned to Atlanta, he packs a sack and plans to leave the plantation. Whilst running, he overhears Uncle Remus telling stories about a critter called Br’er Rabbit and he ventures nearer to find out more. After meeting Uncle Remus, they strike up a friendship and Uncle Remus continues to enrich Johnny with the morally implicating tales of Br’er Rabbit. Not everybody is pleased with this friendship, particularly Johnny’s mother, and she tells Uncle Remus not to spend any more time with her son. Saddened by this, Uncle Remus leaves the plantation for Atlanta and Johnny follows him, fatally injuring himself in the process. Whilst Johnny lies in a coma, his father returns and reconciles with his mother. However he shouts out for Uncle Remus who returned due to all the commotion and upset. Telling another tale about Br’er Rabbit and the Laughing Place, Johnny eventually wakes up and survives.
It is these tales of Br’re Rabbit and his antics with Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, that throw us into the film’s beautifully animated sequences and provide us with the film-making that Disney is famous for.
The difficulty I find with Song of the South and expressing one’s opinion comes in not honestly knowing what to make of the film without being acutely aware of the controversy and urban legends surrounding it – mostly to do with racism and those attitudes regarding the story itself. I’m not one to profess myself knowing everything there is to know about Song of the South having only watched it twice (incidentally that is probably more than other people), but there is a lot of discussion out there about why Disney have censored the film for so long. From what I’ve read and heard, most of it has come from Disney themselves. Year upon year at shareholder meetings, questions have arisen about Song of the South and CEO Bob Iger takes it upon himself to become a politician, dodging the deep hole that continues to be dug every time it is mentioned. The way I see it, saying that the film is “antiquated” and “fairly offensive,” is not at all ‘satisfactual.’ What does he actually mean? Where is his proof? Is that his true, personal informed opinion, or is it a pre-fabricated statement made to shut down any sort of discussion? To continually censor the film is ultimately providing inquiring minds to probe and scrape away at those many layers protecting it and the Disney Studios as a whole. And moving on to Disney in general, what does it say about them when they do in fact continue to promote Song of the South through the Splash Mountain attraction in Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland, have characters wandering around the parks providing autographs, and also have Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah as an important and well-known anthem – the latter being something I’ve already discussed in a previous blog post.
That contradiction is almost ironic.
I’m digging and asking away because Song of the South is one of Walt Disney’s classic films that has touched me and taught me a lot about ignorance and the dangers of misconception. I may have only seen it twice, but those viewings have stuck with me and reminded me that nothing is clear-cut. Stepping back and looking at the film analytically, I understand why it is perceived to be racist, why some people have a problem with how the characters, settings, and parts of the story are portrayed but that is not how I see it.
Let’s split this up:
The story itself
As previously stated above, the film is based on the Uncle Remus tales written by Joel Chandler Harris, which are based on folklore. Most of the racism charges have in fact been placed on the initial stories and not the film, and Walt Disney was aware of this when the studios began to adapt the film. These stories are ingrained in southern American culture and folklore so essentially it is fiction, based on fiction that has continued to be changed and added to as it has passed down through the generations. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out if they have been re-told and adapted as much as the fairy tales we hold in such a high esteem.
In any case, the film was never intended to be an accurate historical documentary of Reconstruction or the lives of African Americans at that time. Walt Disney’s intention was to show that people, particularly children of all races and different social situations could play together as friends, learn moral lessons from stories, and survive difficult times, by finding a laughing place.
Whilst it is not officially stated, Song of the South is set during the American Reconstruction, post Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. We know this because Uncle Remus was free to leave the plantation, and he did so very easily. There is also no forced master-slave relationship between Uncle Remus, Tempy, Ned, and the plantation owner Miss Doshy.
Uncle Remus and his relationship with Johnny
Most importantly he is a father figure to little Johnny, a pillar of wisdom and advice. He uses the tales of Br’er Rabbit as a coping mechanism for Johnny because he is unsettled at the idea of his parents staying separated, and they keep him happy. It is clear that Johnny learns from these stories so it is a good way of instilling morals and wisdom in a way that is accessible and enjoyable to him. One piece of advice he takes away is that “being little an’ without much strength, we have to use our heads and not our foots.”
Johnny also doesn’t care about the racial distinction between him and Uncle Remus. He sees a storyteller, a father, and an advisor.
Throughout the film there is the argument that Uncle Remus is happy with his situation. Deep down, what if he isn’t? I think he tells the stories of Br’er Rabbit to keep himself upbeat because he knows that stories can offer him something that solitude can’t. Sharing these tales gives him companionship, friendship, and a purpose, and it is only after Johnny’s mother tells him to stop filling the boy’s head with stories that he decides to leave – then he returns because Johnny was asking and wanting only him.
Secondly he originally stays on the plantation because it is his home and it is the only one he has known. It is not mentioned but it is more than likely he knows that it would be harder to make a home for him elsewhere outside the plantation. If Sally can treat him – unbeknownst – with ignorance, other people would be the same, and even worse.
What was once considered culture and accurate for the time period, is today well known to be stereotypical and can therefore be seen as offensive. One example in Song of the South is the spoken dialect, which during the 1940s was still in use. Had there been no dialect, Disney would have still received backlash due to misinterpretation. By keeping it in the film, but simplifying it, it shows that Disney was still trying to recreate culture that was accurate for the time. It’s just a case of times and attitudes changing.
Another common complaint for the film is that characters such as Uncle Remus, Toby (Johnny’s friend), and Ned are subservient. For example Uncle Remus takes off his hat and bows to Miss Doshy when he talks to her. To me this isn’t subservience but a sign of respect for a matriarchal figurehead. Because this chivalry is almost non-existent in today’s society it is seen as archaic and old-fashioned, but all men would have shown chivalry towards women at that time. In any case, if it had been Johnny’s father or any other white character who performed those acts or any other, would a question of subservience ever been considered?
Out of all the animated sequences in the film, this is the one that generates most of the controversy and counts of racism. To summarise the sequence, in order to entrap Br’er Rabbit so that he is completely stuck, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear make a baby out of tar. Br’er Rabbit comes across the tar baby as he is wandering down the lane, and because he believes it to be rude and impolite, he starts fighting it. The more he fights and struggles, the more he becomes covered in tar and gets stuck.
When looking at this expression, there are two definitions we need to keep in mind:
- A racial slur
- A troublesome situation that is made worse by attempts to extricate oneself from it. (Collins Dictionary)
A troublesome/sticky situation is what I deem it to be. I think the film makes it quite clear that Br’er Rabbit is meant to be stuck because when he kicks and struggles with the tar, he becomes even more entangled. I have read a few analyses over this particular tale but to me it is clear enough that Disney were utilising the sequence to refer to the common idiomatic expression. In any case, the story originated with Joel Chandler Harris’s original tales. If anyone wants to point a finger and criticise, why not do so at the original tale as well as Song of the South? It might have been Disney who adapted the tale for film cells but that doesn’t mean that they entirely deserve the controversy and criticism to come from the story.
The main three antagonists of the film are Sally and Ginny’s two brothers – Sally because she stops Uncle Remus from sharing his Br’er Rabbit stories, and Ginny’s brothers because they bully both Johnny and Ginny. In the tales, the Favers brothers are personified by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.
What all of this boils down to is this – Song of the South is a film of its time. Despite the fabled objections, particularly in regards to the NAACP, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be released. The truth of it is that the NAACP has no current stance on the film, and any objection they initially had was back at the film’s premier. Not to mention, even then Walter White (executive secretary at the time) based his statement on second-hand opinions.
If Disney were to re-release it, it wouldn’t be any bother for someone like Leonard Maltin (a well-known Disney historian) to film an introduction for Song of the South, giving a background to the film and informing audiences that what they see is a product of its time. He has done this for various other Disney shorts made during the 1930s and 40s that have now been re-released after due consideration. Apart from the executors’ own fears and misconceptions, there is nothing to stop Disney from re-releasing it so we can make our own informed decisions. Besides, people who believe Song of the South to be racist then have the choice to not purchase and watch it. It is as simple as that.
By locking it away, Disney continues to make matters worse. Over the years they have created this idyllic, idealised, stylistic image, but when you look into it, it is far from perfect, and Song of the South proves that. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how but one day I don’t doubt that this volcano will erupt. Until that happens, bootlegs of the film will continue to circulate, and we can fulfil our enjoyment by listening to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah or riding the attraction. For in any case:
“You can’t run away from trouble, because there ain’t no place that far.”
Thanks for reading and sticking with this – the history graduate inside of me just couldn’t stop, I guess. I didn’t intend for it to be this long but I believe a film like Song of the South deserves all the attention it can get.
If anyone wants to know more about Song of the South, you can go to:
– www.songofthesouth.net (a website dedicated to preserving the film and the Uncle Remus stories)
– Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Pod podcast episode 23 by Aaron Wallace (available through Itunes)
– A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom, also by Aaron Wallace (in particular the section talking about Splash Mountain) (available on Amazon in kindle and paperback formats)
– Who’s Afraid of Song of the South? And other forbidden Disney stories by Jim Korkis (available on Amazon in kindle and paperback formats)