At the Disney’s D23 Expo earlier this year, actress Whoopi Goldberg received the honourary title of Disney Legend, their equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. Shortly after, Goldberg used her newfound legend status to call upon Disney to re-release their most controversial film: Song of the South. Released in 1946, the live action-animated musical set in the Deep South was a family favourite for The Walt Disney Company, with numerous re-releases until the 1980s, where its heavily criticized, racially insensitive depictions led to it being swept under the carpet, and never receiving a proper home release in the United States. Accusations and arguments of its content have been debated for years, but is it right to keep it hidden away, or should it be released for a modern audience?
Is the film racist?
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Is the film actually racist? Well, I believe that the answer is not intentionally. The film is set in the years after the American Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era after slavery was abolished. The only problem is that the film never actually states this on screen. There is never a title describing when the film is set, and no character mentions the war, the Confederacy, or even slavery. This doesn’t help when all of the African-American characters are working on a white family’s plantation as workers or household staff, and singing rather happy tunes. If the film had cleared up this misunderstanding, then perhaps the film would not have had a controversial reputation, or at least not such a toxic one.
The one hint that the film is set after the civil war is that Uncle Remus, the film’s charming storyteller, played by James Baskett, actually tries to leave the plantation and no one tries to stop him. It is likely he was once a slave and has been for his whole life, being an old man by the time of the film’s events. Hattie McDaniel, who previously appeared in Gone With the Wind in the role of a plantation family's servant, also plays a similar role here. Both Baskett and McDaniel were the first two African-American actors to win Academy Awards. Disney have since explained the film takes place after the war, but this comes only after they banned their own movie.
The lack of explanation and understanding on the film’s setting is a major contributor to its controversy, and the confusion of whether or not it was set before or after the abolition of slavery in America. Upon the film’s release, Walter Francis White, the secretary for the NAACP telegraphed newspapers, informing them that Song of the South was set in an antebellum setting. White, however, had not actually seen the film, and the telegraph was based on the memos sent by two of his fellow staff members, both confused by the film’s time period. African-American civil rights groups protested the film’s release.
However, the mistake by Disney cannot be written off as a minor blunder. The depiction of the African-Americans can be jarring to say the least, particularly in some of the language used. Song of the South was made in a time where politicial correctness remained uncommon, and while the film is labelled as the most racist film ever, there are worse depictions. Just look at the heavy use of blackface is The Jazz Singer, which revolutionised the industry with its use of sound. Disney’s portrayal of a minority in the film wouldn’t be the last. The crows in Dumbo are often accused as being racial archetypes (one has the official name of “Jim Crow”). And let’s not forget how the Native Americans in Peter Pan appear, being literally red-skinned, speak in broken sentences, and threaten to murder children.
And before anyone starts pointing fingers, by no means was Walt Disney a racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic. He got on well with the female members of his studio, and hired numerous employees of various minorities – to name a couple, songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman are of Jewish descent, animator Floyd Norman is African-American, and Tyrus Wong, best known for his work on Bambi, was half Chinese.
"Don't You Know You Can't Run Away From Your Troubles"
Being one of the world’s biggest providers for family entertainment, Disney must maintain a squeaky clean reputation. Any film or product that gains the slightest bit of controversy is often swept under the rug, Song of the South being the most notorious. They have completely disconnected the animated characters of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear from the film, but instead linked them to the log flume ride, Splash Mountain, currently standing in Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland, reimagined as its own contained universe rather than being connected to Uncle Remus or the 1946 film.
To our modern standards, Song of the South remains heavily racist, but that isn’t all there is to it. The film does have a lot of charm to it, and remains a significant film to Disney, even if they pretend it doesn’t exist. It was their first film to combine live action with animated sequences, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah won the Academy Award for Best Song, and again, James Baskett was the first black actor to win a film award for his portrayal as Uncle Remus. The character is by far the best part of the movie, and perhaps the only human character in the cast who has the only character arc per say.
Bobby Driscoll, Disney’s first major child actor, plays the protagonist Jimmy, who is a bit of a boring character. However, it can’t be denied that a young, white boy finding a father figure in an elderly, black, former slaver could be considered a significant pairing in film history. Jimmy’s mother makes the wrong decisions for her son, while his snarky grandmother knows what needs to be done, but does nothing to change things for her family. Uncle Remus can be seen as a stand-in for Walt Disney himself, having a similar role and demeanour as a warm, grandfatherly storyteller.
The animated sequences remain the one part of the film that have been repurposed by Disney, with the characters frequently appearing in the Disney theme parks. The segments offers strong messages like facing your troubles, enjoying life, etc. And, of course, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah remains as popular as ever. And while it does away with the more controversial elements of the film, Splash Mountain acts as some sort of tribute to Song of the South, or at least the characters created by Joel Chandler Harris, minus one Uncle Remus.
A Plunge into the Briar Patch
Back in the 1980s, Splash Mountain was opened in Disneyland’s Critter Country, a small land thematically designed around the Deep South, in a world where animals and humans lived in harmony (as hinted in Song of the South). The ride layout and story is based on the idea that the public knew the characters quite well, who don’t really get a proper introduction nor are their relationships established for the same reason. And though Uncle Remus is physically absent, his presence is still hinted at, the queue line being decorated with quotes from the character.
The version at Walt Disney World is a little different, designed in the wake of Song of the South’s banishment to the Disney attic. Any and all references to the film’s setting are absent, as is Uncle Remus. It also goes to great lengths to hammer in just who the attraction’s characters are from beginning to end. The role of Uncle Remus is given to Br’er Frog, while numerous other background critters sing the film’s melodies, commenting on how mischievous and how evil Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox are. This goes on and on throughout the ride’s story, likely to make up fot the story’s detachment from the movie.
In a more interesting bit of trivia, Disneyland’s version of the ride features recycled animatronics from the closed attraction America Sings. It seems like Splash Mountain is a place where forgotten things go to survive.
The censorship of Song of the South remains in place to this day, clearly made present in Walt Disney World’s version of Splash Mountain. The lingering cries of racism have hovered over the film for years, and have since led to people accusing Walt Disney and his company as been bigoted racists with little knowledge of the man or his history.
On the other hand, Disney does have a habit of perfecting old Uncle Walt as more of a flawless, magical man, which is all in good intentions, but it also makes him sound boring and uninteresting as a human, despite the wonders he made. It is possible to theorise that Disney have shelved Song of the South not only for the benefit of modern sensitivities and respect, but also to remove the idea that Walt was racist.
So, Should It Be Released On Home Video?
At this point, let’s return to the suggestion by Whoopi Goldberg to release the film back into the public. Disney has addressed this idea in the past, current CEO, Bob Iger, stating that the film’s scenario was “antiquated”. Others have suggested the film should be released as it is an important piece of Disney’s history. Roger Ebert, the late film critic, gave the interesting argument that the movie should not be released, as Disney films have a heavy influence on American children who could interpret the film the wrong way, but did support the idea that film students should be allowed to see it.
Whoopi Goldberg has previously called for the release of other animated productions with dodgy depictions of minorities, and acted as a host for a Tom & Jerry classics collection, which featured the character Mammy Two-Legs.
The reputation of Song of the South has made it impossible for the film to likely get a release anytime soon. There is quite a lot going for the film - the popular characters, the songs, the animation, its historical significance for Disney, the performances of James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel, the vocals of the Hall Johnson Choir, the impressive special effects made decades before Roger Rabbit to blend the animated characters with live action, and the fact its existence led to the creation of one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions.
Speaking personally, Song of the South is a fun, charming movie. By no means is it a great film, actually getting quite dull when Uncle Remus and the cartoon characters aren’t on screen. I never remotely found the film to be racist in the slightest, the same applying for Dumbo’s crows, though my views on Peter Pan have changed slightly.
Should the film be re-released? In my opinion, at some point in the future, most definitely. Film is a type of art, and art can be interpreted in countless ways, and the film would be judged accordingly should it ever be allowed to see the light of day again. Disney remain very image-conscious and generally don’t promote any of their own products that could be considered offensive (or were box office failures). This includes Song of the South.
Rather than future generations growing up hearing tales about the black sheep of the House of Mouse, it would make much more sense to watch the film themselves. It should released by Disney, and not in some poor quality video posted on YouTube, so our descendants can be allowed to judge the film for themselves. Getting people to properly discuss it in classrooms and in university papers would be a great idea. Perhaps film historians could have special introductions or commentaries on it. Pretending the film doesn't exist is not the best way to handle the problem.
To quote Uncle Remus, you can’t run away from your troubles. There ain’t no place that far.