Unlike most Americans, I am fortunate to have Song of the South in my film library. In Japan, it was released in the early ’90s on Laserdisc. Eighteen years ago when I lived in Seattle, I was able to acquire the film from the late great film collector, George Lasitos at Scarecrow Video.
At the time I was in my mid-20s and had no preconceptions of the film… no agenda. I was just an animation fan interested to see a film that wasn’t available in the States. I didn’t really understand the rationale behind its lack of availability nor did I question it.
When I saw the picture, I was enchanted! The story, performances, animation, and score are stellar. This movie embodies the best qualities of Disney Feature Animation and I place it among my top five recommendations in the Disney pantheon. It is unfortunate that the picture is left to gather dust and cannot be used as a cultural reference for filmmaking in the 40s and to venerate the oral tradition.
To this day I fail to understand why it has become the designated NAACP celluloid scapegoat of the Disney features, nor why CEO Bob Iger dismisses the film as “antiquated” when older pictures are considered classics and worthy of top tier release on home video.
To better understand why I advocate for the film’s release to the American public, it’s valuable to expose several longstanding myths. Song of the South does not take place during the Civil War, but rather, during reconstruction. Many of the African American characters that populate the film are sharecroppers and clearly Uncle Remus is free to come and go as he pleases. While I’ll grant that this was the beginning of great challenge for African Americans in our nation, the story takes place before the egregious Jim Crow laws, which ultimately led to ‘separate but equal’ facilities throughout the South.
“To truly understand all that is going on within Song of the South, we must begin with a man named Joel Chandler Harris. Born in 1848, Harris grew up during the days of the antebellum South, when slavery was still very much a part of life. He lived on the Turnwold Plantation and spent a great deal of his time with the slaves. One slave in particular, Uncle Bob Capers, told him fantastic stories of anthropomorphic characters. Those stories, along with the unique dialect in which he told them, remained in Harris’ mind, until 1876, when he took over a column in the Atlanta Constitution called ‘Uncle Si’. It can then be said that the tales Walt Disney would later base his movie upon were created with the innocent intent to publicize and thereby preserve the stories of the slaves through literature.” ~ Christian Willis, September 1, 2001. Revised 9/20/01
I agree. Song of the South celebrates not denigrates the black people’s oral tradition. Evolved from that generational sharing and the Southern Creole sensibilities in which it was steeped is African American Vernacular English, or as many non linguists colloquially refer to it, ebonics. It dates back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade itself and is a fusion, or “pidgin” of two or more languages, created in order to communicate among themselves and their captors. These pidgins became fully developed creoles in the Americas. Significant numbers of blacks still speak some of these creoles. While some white Americans vilify the black American’s use of their “bad” or “lazy” English, among linguists there is no debate, as AAVE, like all dialects, shows consistent internal logic and structure. So, contrary to arguments among the film’s detractors the dialect portrayed in the piece is more accurate than “insensitive.” Ironically what is far more unrealistic are the Southern California accents of Bobby Dricoll and Luana Patten.
Any stereotyping being committed is by the ignorant who assume that this particular usage of the English language should be construed as unintelligent. As one who lived in New Orleans, I speak from experience that there are of plenty of Caucasians who communicate in a similar manner, nor did I ever find that these ‘black speech patterns’ were ever inevitably or invariably associated with an inherent level of intelligence.
On the issue of subservience, Dan Hess of the Mouse Guest Presents podcast indicates, “They do bend to the whims of the plantation owners.” In actuality, there is only one instance in the picture we see any direct act of servitude towards a white individual, at the beginning of the film when Ned removes the bags from the carriage. In reality, many of the slaves who worked on plantations stayed on during reconstruction. Again, what we see in the film is not unrepresentative of that which should be construed as historically accurate.
Eric King, co-host of Mouse Guest Presents continues, “It may give children those ideas you know, that there are differences between us, which is something that Disney is totally against now. Their movies are all about inclusion and other cultures and things like that.” Song of the South does nothing if but exemplify inclusion and exposure to other cultures. Johnny, the young protagonist, is seen hand in hand with Uncle Remus and is repeatedly mesmerized by his stories. Following Song of the South and for many years, Disney sanctioned nothing but gentrification and homogenization in it’s film product. At long last these rigid mandates to avoid offense is breaking down with, for example, the introduction of Princess Tiana from the Princess and the Frog.
The actress who plays Tempy is the great Hattie McDaniel. She is best known for playing Mammy in 1939’s “Gone with the Wind,” a role for which she won an Oscar, the first Academy Award handed out to an African American. While true at one time she was criticized by the NAACP for perpetuating black stereotypes, few today would argue that she didn’t also portray a strong female character, regardless of race.
To my mind, fear of a potential backlash from perceived Uncle Tomism is unwarranted. Disney Company CEO, Bob Iger, said that Disney is “…owing to the sensitivity that exists of our culture…” Balderdash! This is a film that needs to be shown and defended, not shuttled off to the archive only to be viewed by Dave Smith (The Disney Company archivist) in a small screening room! We have as a society so succumbed to political correctness and fear of offending anyone that we are purposefully subverting good stories and brain washing the masses that this is the right thing to do. Shall we next burn all copies of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ for all of Steinbeck’s unfavorable depictions of the dustbowl and economic depression?
Not to release Song of the South is censorship. It is a form of withholding of truth and suppression of film history. What do we fear this picture will teach children? Why should we think for a moment that “Song of the South” is somehow a non-stop road to depravity and intolerance? In a world where children are exposed to murder on television and we allow a growing acceptance of violence, it seems incongruous, and more accurately, hypocritical that we would disallow and discount the significant moral tale that is, “Song of the South.”
At its essence this film says to young viewers, “You can’t run away from trouble, ’cause there ain’t no place that far” and holds at its heart, reverence of family and trustworthy friends.