Sunday, August 17, 2008

Singing a Song of the South


“This heart of mine is in the heart of Dixie
That's where I belong
Singing a song, a Song of the South”
- Song of the South

“I’ve never heard of this one…Song of the South.”
“Oh, nobody wants to see that anymore!”
“How bad could it be?”
- Journey to the Disney Vault

“That’s good old fashioned racism.”
- Peter Griffin, on the crows from Dumbo


Song of the South (1946) is the only Disney film that hasn’t been re-released on video, and, considering the number of crap sequels they made (Cindarella 3? Really?!) you’d think they’d cash in on the controversy related to Song of the South, which is supposedly quite racist.

In fact, the movie is the basis for one of the more popular Disney rides. Splash Mountain:


The signs on the line even quote parts of the movie: “not your time, but not yet my time,” as just as an example, and use songs like “How Do You Do?”, “Laughing Place,“ and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”


On the surface: yes, this film is racist. But not in a way of blatant inferiority as mocked by TV Funhouse’s lyrics or even proposing some black people necessarily enjoyed being slaves (like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.) The story is about a Antebellum young boy named Johnny who goes with his parents from Atlanta to visit his grandma’s plantation and the lessons he learns from Uncle Remus and the stories of Brer Rabbit.

Tangentially, the film stars a young Bobbie Driscoll, who you might recognize as the voice of Peter Pan, as Johnny. Hattie McDaniel, the Oscar-award winner from Gone with the Wind, plays another slave here, as Johnny’s house maid. She, if you recall, doesn’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies.


Johnny runs away when he finds his father had left the plantation without him. He finds a slave camp, singing some of the stories “Uncle Remus said” and catches the storyteller as the rest of the camp goes looking for Johnny. He makes friends with a white girl named Ginny and a black boy named Toby. He soon learns to not miss the support of his father, and instead long for the support of Uncle Remus.


In fiction there was this idea of “the magical negro,” and there is not a more magical negro than Uncle Remus as he uses the stories of Brer Rabbit and the other “critters” to teach Johnny (like not running away from home.) The stories of the Brer Rabbit take place in a “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” kind of day, where the critters (who talk in the black vernacular,) were closer to the folks (there are no people seen in the film with the animals besides Uncle Remus) and Uncle Remus posits things might have been better. Ok…that’s just a tinge racist.


And yes, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is from this movie.

The use of both live action and animation used together here would later be refined in films like Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But it’s still fairly convincing.


Lessons from the Brer Rabbit stories:
1) “You can’t run away from trouble…there ain’t no place that far.”
2) Be cautious and aware of potential trouble. “Don’t mess with somethin’ you got no business with in the first place.”/”Use your heads and not your feet.”
3) “Everybody’s got their laughing place.”

Important lessons to learn on the plantation.


The argument here of a “happy plantation” covering up the horrors of slavery is a decent one, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Even keeping in mind, I found a good mix of “positive” and “negative” white and black characters, so I don’t think it’s a fully accurate representation of “a simpler time” but at least there isn’t a whole cloth “whites are good/better, blacks are bad/worse” argument presented. One of the strongest counterpoints here are the “Faber boys” two little white brothers who act like the critters Brer Fox and Brer Bear (small and fast talking vs. big and slow.)


Despite some…stereotypes and hackneyed representations of African-Americans, this film is not too racist (with films like Birth of a Nation for comparison.) And this is not keeping into account some of the equally racist objects in Disney films that have remained uncut like:

“What Makes the Red Man Red”:

“We are Siamese if you please”:

The “Good Neighbor” propaganda dyad that is Saludos Amigos/The Three Caballeros:

And, of course, the crows from Dumbo (note one of those crows is named “Jim,” and there is a joke about hanging from a tree a little before this song starts):

So, if these things are okay, I don’t quite understand why this film isn’t part of the Disney capitalist machine while all these others have had some kind of subsequent rerelease.

And yes, the film is racist, but so are the above, so are a lot of films. It’s the responsibility of parents to discuss these kind of issues with kids. Yes, slavery was and is bad, and these attitudes have become outdated, but instead of trying to discuss these anachronistic attitudes in these films (and others), these sorts of scenes are cut for being racially insensitive in many films.

Dialogue is better than repression.


So, in six words: not as bad as I expected. But then again, I was expecting stuff like watermelon-eating, "yassuh" "nosuh" and "We done like it down here, suh." But any controversy is definitely unwarranted.