Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Inevitable Song of the South Post

The Song of the South... The phrase that instantly sparks some kind of emotion into most Disney fan's hearts.  These words most often lead to feelings of injustice, either that Disney has hidden a classic film from the public for so long, or that Disney would produce a film with racial controversy in the first place.  To many, the film is shrouded in mystery, having never seen it in its entirety, yet heard plenty of rumors about it over time.  Having grown up with the Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah "Sing Along Songs" video tape almost permanently in my VHS player, I became quite interested in the film's true identity as I became more and more educated in Disney history.  So I watched the film and, more recently, read Jim Korkis' new book "Who's Afraid of the Song of the South" and I feel like I have a better understanding of what happened with this film and its infamous reputation.

From Wikipedia

Walt Disney grew up hearing Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus tales of Brer Rabbit and his fellow critter characters, including Brer Bear and Brer Fox.  They had really had an effect on him as a child, and with technology progressing in a way that live action and animation could be combined Walt felt it was finally time to give the tales their due credit in a feature film.

Others did not agree with his venture though, and he met a great many obstacles in the process.  From people refusing to work on the project, to drafts after drafts as writers disagreed over what was racially appropriate or not, to group protests outside theaters.  Nevertheless this was clearly a film Walt wanted to see through til the end and believed was worth making.

This is the main point here: From what I read in Korkis' book, one could have seen Disney's tackling of this controversial subject as either extremely pioneering or extremely naive in the subject of race.  And to me, that's where the confusion, and ultimately the distaste, for Song of the South seems to originate.  We tend to air on the safe side when it comes to a situation with which we are not comfortable.  At the time the film was made (1940s), Americans weren't handling racial issues as tactfully as most of us do today.  In fact, today we are still not proud of the mid-century missteps and perhaps Disney executives choose to just file Song of the South under that category without properly viewing it in context.

In said context, Walt switched the original metaphor of Brer Rabbit as the slaves and Brer Bear and Brer Fox as the masters to stories that related Brer Rabbit to Johnny, the young boy and main character. He faces many struggles that little kids often encounter and kind Uncle Remus uses his critter tales to help little Johnny out.  The film also takes place after the Civil War, and the characters are not slaves and owners.  The film does not make it extremely clear, however, and as a result more eyebrows have been raised.

The fact that Disney refuses to introduce this film to the public is bewildering.  With the interviews and words of so many who worked on the project at our disposal so easily, as well as resources like Korkis' book, the mystery that shrouds Song of the South would be gone.  The profit that could be made for Disney, as well as a newfound appreciation from the public for things like Splash Mountain, are just a few of the benefits of dusting off this old treasure.

From Disney's site
To be honest, it baffles me that Disney is intent on sweeping Song of the South under the rug, but has no problem using its characters in the E-ticket park ride.  I can only imagine how many modern guests accustomed to seeing Disney characters in attractions these days would be confused and even curious about the characters and songs they just experience as they exit Splash Mountain.  How many have been so curious that they began to research a film they didn't really know existed?  If Disney is really motivated to ignore the film's presence, it seems counterproductive (and a little bit hypocritical) to tease guests with the parts they find convenient.

I encourage you to read Who's Afraid of the Song of the South for so many interesting bits of history, as well as other "forbidden Disney tales."  I obviously don't want to post too much here because it is worth it to read the whole thing.  It's a shame to see how something Walt was so passionate about was almost doomed from the start.

A few gems from the book:

Walt naïvely treated the film as another Disney fantasy (evident by those strong Mary Blair color stylings, even in the live-action scenes) without realizing that using real people would make audiences think it was authentic (p. 60).

*Regarding Disney's reluctance to release the film to the public* As the character of Uncle Remus says in the movie: “You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.” (p. 65)

Song of the South was not a malicious attempt to reinforce the foolish stereotype of the inferiority of the black race, but rather an attempt to show that children of all races and different social statuses could play together as friends, learn important moral lessons from stories, and survive times of trouble by finding a place to laugh (p. 67).

Check it out, watch the film if you can,  and form your own opinion, but don't let Disney dictate it to you or you may miss out on something truly special.

Korkis, Jim (2012-11-30). Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories. Theme Park Press. Kindle Edition.


  1. I honestly think this much to about nothing. I recently downloaded the movie from YouTube and watched it. What's the big deal? Slavery and the post war reconstruction period are both part of American History. I thought the Disney company did a reasonable job weaving the story, typical Hollwood license from facts into a good and harmless movie.

    1. I agree with you. If Disney keeps telling us it's controversial then it's gonna be controversial. Own up to both the beauty of the film and the mistakes that may have been made to make some call "racism." Then people can decide on their own whether they want to like it or not.

  2. I finally saw SotS a few years ago, and liked it... especially the animated sequences. James Baskett is great as Uncle Remus, but I can understand modern audiences being uncomfortable with the character.

    As somebody else pointed out, it is a bit odd that "Gone With The Wind" is still watched without any significant criticism of the Mammy and Prissy characters, and they ARE slaves. Perhaps they were considered too minor?