Song of the South: Subverted American History?

mouselounge (4 Posts)

Gary J. Chambers has been your host of the Mouse Lounge for nearly five years. Gary is a native Californian with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from California State University, Fresno. In his "real life" Gary is a RESNA® Certified Assistive Technology Professional directly involved in improving the quality of life for senior residents of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. Gary first visited Disneyland when he was five and has a fond memory of telling off Honest John Foulfellow so he would stop harassing Pinocchio. As an adult, Disneyland became an annual pilgrimage, first from nearby Fresno, then increasingly far away... from Seattle, New Orleans, and Naples FL., where Walt Disney World became his "home" park. In 2007, Gary returned to California where today he resides on the Central Coast, only three and a half hours drive from Disneyland. He can generally be found in the park once a month meeting with fans, recording fresh footage, or in line at the corn dog cart! Says Gary about the Mouse Lounge Podcast: "The show gives me an opportunity to share my hobbies of Disney History and the Disney Parks in a way that is creative and engaging. I have met many outstanding individuals as a result of my work on the show, some of whom have become lifelong friends. If just for the latter, it's worth all the work. I love writing and producing the show and I hope it will continue to thrive and as Walt once said, "... be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."


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.Song of the South Movie Poster

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.

mouselounge

Gary J. Chambers has been your host of the Mouse Lounge for nearly five years. Gary is a native Californian with a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from California State University, Fresno. In his "real life" Gary is a RESNA® Certified Assistive Technology Professional directly involved in improving the quality of life for senior residents of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. Gary first visited Disneyland when he was five and has a fond memory of telling off Honest John Foulfellow so he would stop harassing Pinocchio. As an adult, Disneyland became an annual pilgrimage, first from nearby Fresno, then increasingly far away... from Seattle, New Orleans, and Naples FL., where Walt Disney World became his "home" park. In 2007, Gary returned to California where today he resides on the Central Coast, only three and a half hours drive from Disneyland. He can generally be found in the park once a month meeting with fans, recording fresh footage, or in line at the corn dog cart! Says Gary about the Mouse Lounge Podcast: "The show gives me an opportunity to share my hobbies of Disney History and the Disney Parks in a way that is creative and engaging. I have met many outstanding individuals as a result of my work on the show, some of whom have become lifelong friends. If just for the latter, it's worth all the work. I love writing and producing the show and I hope it will continue to thrive and as Walt once said, "... be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."

8 thoughts on “Song of the South: Subverted American History?

  • Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 1:29 am
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    As an African American and former Disney cast member and owner of a copy of “Song of the South”, I agree that the film:
    1) Was aimed at children 
     2)That Walt Disney’s meant well when the picture was made and 
    3) That there are a number of  people from all races who don’t feel the film is offensive

    That said, do I think it should be readily available for purchase? Yes. Do I think it should be re-leased in theaters? No. Do I find the film offensive? Yes. And I’ll tell you why…and keep in mind this is my opinion as what you stated above is yours.

    This film was made in 1946 and it portrays blacks in a fashion to make life on the plantation look life in Mayberry. And plantation life was never,ever that good. And we knew that in 1946…it’s not like the writers were nver schooled. SOS is a classic example of how well we can market that slaves didn’t have it bad, dress it up as entertainment and sell it to the masses. The characterizations are way beyond stereotype…it’s full-blown fantasyland stuff. It shows a black man who is just thrilled with his lot in life as a slave.

    That right there renders it a piece of you know what. 

    Each day is filled with singing and storytelling as the wise, old happy slave dishes up life answers to the needy little white boy.The blacks shown in the movie are just plain happy and question nothing. They are devoid of emotion and personality. Disney fell into the same trap most other producers did when showcasing any film depicting slaves…that if you just continually have them smile and sing then people tend to forget what things really like for slaves and everyone can comfortably sit back and tap their toes to the music. 

    Your quote from Dan Hess of the Mouse Guest Presents again shows the inability to connect the dots that a lot of people have with slaves and what their  situation really was. He stated, “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.”

    Of course of lot of them stayed…they didn’t have any where else to go and that’s the true reality! And to then tell me that what’s happening in the film is not historically accurate is the real kicker. Because that’s the heart of the whole damn problem. It’s a dog and pony show. You show people situations like that, especially kids and they think…wow, what a great place to be and everyone is so happy and slavery wasn’t that bad a deal!

    It makes smoke come out of my ears.

    I also have a problem with some of the statements you made.You stated “Song of the South does nothing if but exemplify inclusion and exposure to other cultures.” Sure it does, but it’s a freakin’ lie. There was no “inclusion” for slaves and that exposure to a culture is exposure to a lie, because that type of slave culture didn’t exist…except in the minds of the writers who wrote the script. 

    You also stated “Shall we next burn all copies of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ for all of Steinbeck’s unfavorable depictions of the dustbowl and economic depression?” Terrible analogy. You are equating the dustbowl and the depression with slavery? The drought affected all kinds of people in many states. It was a natural disaster and included issues such as “labor rights” such as problems of finding work, workers rights, hours worked, and unions. Where is the parallel when talking about slavery? The dust bowl was a “labor rights” issue and slavery was a “civil rights issue.” Slaves did not have labor issues…if they did they were sold off or lynched. End of story.

    There are many places in the southern US that didn’t want (and still don’t want) black inclusion and they echo the false harmony of Song of the South.

  • Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 10:05 am
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    I would love to be able to see and appreciate the film.  Especially since Disney has chosen to use its Brer Rabbit story as the premise of a very popular ride within the Parks.  

    Both you Gary and Cheryl make valid points.  Interesting read this AM, thanks!

  • Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 7:48 pm
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    I own a copy as well. We watched it recently and I have to say that I agree with you. I think that trying to hide it does more disrespect then letting it be what it is. 

  • Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 9:35 pm
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    I really appreciate your input, Cheryl.  I have a copy of the film.  To be honest, I knew the song “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” but not much else about it.  So I was really curious when I finally watched it.  What was the big fuss going to be?  At the end, I shook my head and wondered, “What was offensive about that?”

    I’ve read that the African-American community is offended by the film, but I have to suppose that most African-Americans, like most everyone, have never seen the movie.  So your input, having actually seen the movie, matters a lot to me.

    Let me share my thoughts.  Your point about SOS making plantation life look like Mayberry is right on.  BUT, isn’t that what Disney does in general, with everything?  As you put it–fantasyland.  Disney gets criticized for that in lots of areas, with lots of topics–glossing over the bad and emphasizing the good.  But isn’t that what we turn to Disney for?

    When I watched the movie, I never saw the blacks in the film being portrayed as “happy” with their situation.  Were they crying and moaning?  No.  But were they happy to be working in the fields and being subservient to the white folks?  I didn’t see it.  Did they sing?  Sure, but that’s historical fact.  It’s how they passed the long days of hard labor.  It’s where we got the blues. Even in “Roots,” the slaves smiled and laughed on occasion.  I simply don’t see that as portraying the African-American characters as “just plain happy.”  I didn’t see them as any more happy (or sad) than the characters in any Disney movie.

    Here’s what I took from the movie, and why I think it should be released:
    1.  Some of the greatest songs in Disney history
    2.  Some of the greatest animated shorts in Disney history
    3.  A story of inclusion and tolerance

    Let me expand on that last point.  Who does Johnny prefer to be with?  Not the rich white family.  With Uncle Remus and the poor kids.  Who does Johnny look up to?  Uncle Remus.  Is it a bad thing to have a film that shows a rich white kid getting along with poor black kids? Song of the South portrays more than racial tolerance. Remember, Johnny also hung out with the poor white kids, too.  It also shows that people of different socioeconomic backgrounds can (and should) get along.  This was unheard of in 1946, and for that reason alone this film is ground-breaking.

    I think the African-American characters are portrayed in a much more favorable light in Song of the South than in many other movies of the time.  In my mind, the portrayal of the black crows in Dumbo is much more offensive.

    I think the film should be released.  Put it in the court of public opinion and let people decide.  While aspects of this film may be bothersome to some, there are many positive aspects to it that need to be shared.  I think that put into its context, it was an important film in Disney, and American, film history.

  • Saturday, March 31, 2012 at 4:58 am
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    Mark,

    As I said, it’s my own viewpoint and you make wonderful arguements for viewing of the film. As I said before, I have no problem with it being sold….however, given our current class of culture, no one would would learn any lessons from it. 

    I will just leave you with these final thoughts:

    In 1946, Walt Disney had a chance to make this film a true flagship of just how inclusive we should be (and still aren’t) and how we should never tolerate the selling and buying of human beings no matter what the color of their skin, their age or religion.

    It didn’t have to be an over dramatic moment in the film but it could have been a very strong one. 2 or 3 senternces is all it would have taken. Like you pointed out, Disney loved telling life lessons through his films and what better stage than SOS to take a few minutes and do so? If they can take the time to explain the value of life in such animated classics as “Dumbo”,  “Bambi” and the “Lion King” I think it could and should have been done for SOS.

    These were not “animated figures” this was a man and boy.The power of that message then, would have reverberated off the rooftops. Instead they softsoaped it and virtually ignored it and in doing that they gave quiet approval to slavery being viewed as “not that bad.” And that blacks were all to accepting of it. There was no defining of moment about inclusion because they ignored the slavery issue altogether.

    A black man grinning singing and dancing and telling tales with a little white boy does not speak of inclusion or tolerance…it speaks of being typecasted as the “good Negro” and the “zip-pee-doo-dahing” all over the place smacks of racism. The only thing missing was him cooking some fried chicken for the boy and then cutting up some watermelon. 

    They had the chance to do the right thing and as happens all to often in movies (and in real life) they didn’t. Great music and animated shorts non-withstanding, it misses the mark as being a Disney classic for me because of what it didn’t do more than because of what it did.

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  • Thursday, April 5, 2012 at 5:54 pm
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    I find it interesting that there is so much debate and controversy around this movie, and yet Disney does not restrict the release of Peter Pan which contains 
    stereotypes of Native Americans that are, in my opinion, as bad if not worse than those of African Americans in SOS. 

  • Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 1:33 pm
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    Thank you all for your comments.  If I desired to accomplish one thing with this article, it was to inspire open, civil dialogue.  I’m pleased that has occurred.

    I would like to stress one point Cheryl which is of critical importance, though is not an attempt to shoot holes in your opinion.  You repeatedly allude to the life of the slaves during the period.  This film does not portray slaves as the film is set, as I say in my article, during reconstruction.  
    While that does not change many of the stereotypes represented in the film, it should be noted that the attitudes and behaviors represented are under different circumstances than you outline.  

    I will agree much of what we see in this picture is exploitative for entertainment sake, but I stand by my assessment that to subvert the film itself from the public is creating revisionist history.

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