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Disney's Song of the South: Hollywood Scapegoat

Consider some facts about Song of the South (1946):
  • Song of the South was one of Disney’s first films to successfully combine live-action and animation.
  • Song of the South features the first Oscar-winning performance by a Black man (James Baskett won an honorary Oscar "For his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world").
  • Song of the South was the first film to feature performances by two Oscar-winning Black Americans, James Baskett and Hattie McDaniel, a feat which would not be repeated until 2001 by Rat Race, which featured Whoopi Goldberg and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (this is progress?).
  • Song of the South won two Academy Awards in 1948. In addition to James Baskett winning an honorary Oscar, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” won for Best Song.
  • “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” sung by Baskett in the film, is one of the most famous songs in the Disney library.
  • Song of the South is one of the first Hollywood films to feature a Black man as a main character and was released uncut in the South. Many Hollywood films at the time, if they featured Black characters at all, would shoot duplicate scenes without Black characters, for release in the South. For example, in Hold Your Man (1933), starring Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, two versions of the wedding scene were shot: one with a Black minister and one with a White minister.

Despite these achievements for Black Americans, Song of the South has been unfairly labeled as racist and hidden from view in the United States by the Walt Disney Company. Despite the fact that Splash Mountain, based on the Brer Rabbit characters ("Brer" is short for "Brother"), is one of the most popular rides at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and despite the fact that the songs are still some of the best loved in the Disney canon, the film remains unavailable on VHS or DVD in the US (though it has largely been available in Britain and Asia).

So what is it about this movie that is so offensive? To be honest, nothing really. It’s been made into a scapegoat – a boogeyman who’s legend is far worse than its reality. And it’s reality is a wonderful film that deserves to be seen.

I first saw Song of the South in one of its re-issues in 1972. It was one of the first movies I ever got to see in a theater. My younger sister cried when it was over because she didn’t want to leave Uncle Remus. I saw it again for the 1986 re-release, and was thrilled with the chance to share it with my son. When I first rode Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World, I thought that since Disney had built a major ride around this movie, surely it would be re-released in theaters or released on video. Was I surprised to find out that it wasn’t, and that the film had apparently been shelved in the US. So, I started doing some research, and that’s when I learned of the film’s tainted reputation. I’d never thought of the film being racist in any way. In fact, the theme of the movie is just the opposite – it’s about love, tolerance, and understanding our fellow man. Heaven forbid we should let our children watch that! Every time I go to Walt Disney World and ride Splash Mountain, it has made me want to see the film again. Well, I finally tracked down a copy and now that I have seen it again, I’d like to do my part to set the record straight. I feel that this film has been unjustly maligned and been made the victim of a great deal of misinformation. I invite you to have an open mind as you read this article.

See Oscar-winner James Baskett sing the Oscar-winning song, "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" (QuickTime, 10.2 MB). You'll have a hard time seeing it anywhere else.
Watch the complete "Tar Baby" story and judge it for yourself with an open mind (QuickTime, 45.3 MB).

For more information on Song of the South, we highly recommend

Background on Brer Rabbit and the Tales of Uncle Remus

It’s always best to put things in historical perspective. The tales of Brer Rabbit and his fellow critters originated in Africa and were brought over orally by slaves. Once here, the tales were adapted to their new environments, with the stories’ locales moved from African villages to Southern plantations. For example, one of the most famous (and most maligned) stories, "The Tar Baby," was originally called “Wakaima and the Clay Man,” which can be found in some collections of African folk tales. Author Julius Lester (who is Black) provides an excellent historical background on the stories in his The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, in which he has updated the stories for modern children and modified the language to make them more readable, while still retaining the flavor of Black speech (more on that below). Another interesting comparison can be found in J.J. Reneaux’s Cajun Folktales, which contains a couple of stories that fit perfectly into the “Brer Rabbit” mold. Reneaux’s stories are quite interesting in that many of them are a combination of African, European, and Cajun influence, with a little voodoo thrown in as well. Nowhere else will you find a story where the villain is dispatched with cayenne pepper.

The Brer Rabbit stories were first collected by newspaper writer Joel Chandler Harris, who worked for the Atlanta Constitution. Harris had grown up in Georgia and knew many of the stories from his youth. He created the character of Uncle Remus as a Black man who lived on a Plantation after the Civil War (Uncle Remus was never depicted as a slave, neither in the original tales nor in the Disney film) and related his stories to a young White boy. The stories were originally published as a column, then later collected into separate volumes. This is where much of the resentment towards the Brer Rabbit tales begins -- Uncle Remus is seen by many Black Americans as an “Uncle Tom.”

Harris went to great lengths to preserve the speech of the slaves from whom the tales originated. Harris had a great deal of respect for the language and felt that the stories lost something if not told in their original dialect. In addition to many Black Americans finding this oddly offensive (isn’t this the root of Ebonics?), it does pose a problem in making the Harris volumes very hard to read. Lester addresses this openly in his introduction and supports Harris’ efforts by making his versions more readable while still retaining the Black American flavor. However, he also eliminates the character of Uncle Remus and lets the stories stand on their own.

Background on the Disney Version

The Walt Disney Studios were nearly decimated by World War II. In addition to being drafted by the war effort to make training and educational films (which can now finally be seen in the new DVD release Walt Disney Treasures - On the Front Lines) by the US Government, the Disney Studio also suffered a strike by the animators in an attempt to unionize. By the end of the war, Walt had neither the manpower nor the resources to complete an animated feature. He tackled this problem two ways: by creating “package” features, such as Fun and Fancy Free and Make Mine Music, which were anthologies of short subjects, and by finally venturing into live-action. But Walt being Walt and always seeking to do that which had never been done before, he decided to to not just do live-action, but to combine it with animation. This wasn’t the first time he’d done this, though. Walt’s first films, the Alice comedies, featured a live-action girl in an animated world. That was nothing, though, compared to what Walt had planned for his first feature release combining the two. The sequences of James Baskett interacting with the animated environment, particularly when he sits down to fish with Brer Frog, are still impressive today.

A Brief Overview of Song of the South

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, the following is a brief synopsis:

Young Johnny travels with his parents to his Grandmother’s Plantation. He is excited about the opportunity to finally meet Uncle Remus, of whom he’s heard a great deal, and to also hear first-hand Uncle Remus’s stories about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Upon arriving, Johnny is crushed to learn that his father is returning to Atlanta alone. His parents are planning to split up, which is the real reason for their trip.

Johnny runs away and is found by Uncle Remus who tells him about Brer Rabbit’s own attempts to run away from trouble (“there ain’t no place that far”). Johnny also befriends Toby, one of the Black children on the Plantation, and Ginny, a poor White girl who lives nearby. Johnny also runs afoul of Ginny’s older brothers.

Uncle Remus uses his stories to teach Johnny, Toby, and Ginny valuable lessons about life and to help them deal with difficult situations.

The Case Against Song of the South

Here then, are the complaints you will hear about Song of the South, coupled with my responses:

The film inaccurately depicts slaves as happy, singing folk who just love their Masters and life on the Plantation.
False. This is, perhaps, the biggest misconception about Song of the South. The story actually takes place AFTER the Civil War, during the period known as the Reconstruction. Uncle Remus and the other Black characters are not tied to the Plantation and are free to go at any time. In fact, during one part of the film, Uncle Remus plans to leave for Atlanta because he doesn’t feel useful on the Plantation. While the Black characters do sing several times, singing is as much a part of Black culture as telling folk tales. Furthermore, this is a 1940s Disney movie. Disney movies were known for their music (hence the title, "Song of the South"). Another fact that is routinely ignored by this film’s detractors is that many former slaves actually did stay on the Plantations, even after they were free to go. They had been born into slavery many generations before (the slave trade was ended a good century before slavery actually was -- and just for the record, the slave trade was started in Africa by Africans, exported by Arab traders, and brought to the American colonies by the Dutch) and knew nothing about supporting themselves. As repulsive as the thought may seem, some former slaves actually did feel that they were better off under slavery. This is true throughout the course of human history, from the Isrealites who complained to Moses after being freed from Egypt to the Russians who complained to Boris Yeltsin after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Uncle Remus is an Uncle Tom, and the other Black characters are all negative stereotypes.
False. One of the things that impressed me while watching the movie was how the Grandmother, who owns the Plantation, speaks to Uncle Remus as an equal. Uncle Remus shows the White characters respect, but as an individual and employer, not as a former slave. He also goes against the wishes of the Mother and Grandmother when he sees what’s best for the little boy, Johnny. While Hattie McDaniel’s character, Aunt Tempy, can possibly be seen as more of a stereotype, it’s still a far cry from her Mammy character in Gone With the Wind, which is celebrated as one of the greatest films ever made (ranking #4 on AFI’s Top 100 list). In James Baskett’s Oscar-winning performance, Uncle Remus is portrayed as an old man who tells great stories and is seen as just that, with no regard to his skin color. This is an amazing feat for a film that was made when Hollywood films were routinely filled with racial stereotypes and White actors in make-up often portrayed people of color (such as Charlie Chan, who was never once portrayed by an Asian actor). Actually, all of the characters in Song of the South are somewhat stereotypical in some form or other, both Black and White. This is just Hollywood shorthand found in all movies made from the Teens to the 50s. But none of them are done so to be offensive, unlike other Disney films, such as Dumbo and The Artistocats (both of which are available on video), where racial stereotypes are used for comedy.

As far as stereotypes go, I strongly believe that films today, such as Bringing Down the House and Soul Plane do far more to reinforce racial stereotypes. For example, in Bringing Down the House, Queen Latifah’s character, Charlene, just got out of prison and is a tough, loud, pot-smoking, overtly sexual, jive-talking Black woman. The filmmakers completely ignore the sexual tension between her and Steve Martin’s character and instead hook her up with the pervert played by Eugene Levy.

Where James Baskett’s Uncle Remus is a fully-realized character with wants and a complete character arc, today’s Black actors are largely stuck with what Spike Lee has termed “the Magic Negro,” who’s sole purpose is to make life better for the White man (see Bringing Down the House, The Green Mile, Family Man, Bruce Almighty, The Legend of Baggar Vance, etc.). Worse still, in my mind, is Amistad, which tackled the issue of slavery through the eyes of a bunch of white people while ignoring the Black man who was the central character (and this film was produced by Debbie Allen).

Song of the South is extremely racist.
False. If anything, Song of the South is the exact opposite and amazingly ahead of its time for a film made in 1946. Its message is pure Rodney King. You have White kids and Black kids playing together without a care for race or social standing (just like Our Gang/The Little Rascals). The kids look up to and respect Uncle Remus. You can’t help but love him. The “bad guys” (the Favers boys, Grandma, Mother, and Father) are all White. Uncle Remus becomes a father-figure to Johnny since his own father abandons him. This is racist?

The most racist film ever made has got to be Birth of a Nation, which features most of the Black characters portrayed by white actors in blackface; the mulatto characters as all crazy because their mixed race has mixed up their heads; black characters eating fried chicken, drinking whisky, and putting their bare, dirty feet on the desks during a meeting of the Reconstruction government; a Black man attacking a White woman, driven crazy by her purity; and finally, the Ku Klux Klan charging on horseback to the rescue at the end. This film, as well as Gone With the Wind, is widely available on VHS and DVD. Furthermore, if Song of the South is so racist, why does Disney sell it in Britain and Asia?

Of the animated sections, the story most singled out is "The Tar Baby." Yes, the tar baby harkens back to an age of Black stereotypes, such as the Mammy and the Minstrel, but those arguments only stand up for people who know about its past history. For children watching the film today, they only see a figure made of tar and don’t see the cultural reference at all. In Splash Mountain, the Tar Baby is replaced by a honey-filled beehive. While this smacks of being rather PC, it does actually work well for the ride. In the section at which this part of the story appears, the Imagineers only had a few seconds to convey this portion of the story (you’re going uphill towards the big drop), and the Tar Baby would take too long to establish. Historically, the tar baby itself was created by the tale’s original Black authors, not Joel Chandler Harris. In fact, Lester leaves it intact in his retelling.

As Compared to What?

“Halle Berry is here, whose win last year broke down barriers for unbelievably hot women.”
-- Steve Martin, presenting at the Oscars

And now for a few words about Hollywood itself. I’m all for breaking down barriers of racial prejudice (and who isn’t, unless you’re in the KKK or the Nation of Islam?). But it irks me to no end when a wonderful, ground-breaking film like Song of the South is unjustly reviled while real racism flourishes every day in Hollywood. Actors love to get on stage and blame the rest of America for all that’s wrong in the world, while completely ignoring the glaring problems in their own back yard. If Hollywood is so tolerant, why did it take 75 years for a Black woman to win Best Actress? How many have even been nominated? When Halle Berry gave her fiery acceptance speech (for Monsters Ball, a film that has also been argued as racist), everyone in the crowd sat in agreement, shaking their heads at their neighbors, when they should have been looking in a mirror. Steve Martin got it right when he said she “broke down barriers for unbelievably hot women.” Women who look like Halle Berry will always get work in Hollywood, no matter what their skin color. But has there been any progress since? Halle’s closer to the top of the list of actresses who get first dibs on the latest scripts, but she’s up there alone.

Likewise, Phylicia Rashad just became the first Black woman to the Tony for Best Actress in a play (as opposed to a musical), and New York is supposed to be even more progressive than Hollywood.

If Hollywood is so progressive these days, why do they keep churning out gangsta flicks starring rap stars posing as actors (a fact which Samuel L. Jackson has decried) and hip-hop comedies like Soul Plane? Mario Van Peebles addresses this in a recent interview in Filmmaker (Vol. 12, No. 3), in which he discusses his new film Baadasssss!, which depicts the making of his father’s film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song:

"I called them up and they came over to my house – the Hudlins, [John] Singleton, Vondie [Curtis Hall], [F.] Gary Gray and Rusty Cundieff. We all started talking and I said, “Look at us, man – most of us knew our fathers, weren’t in a gang, haven’t shot anybody, have had some education, and yet most of us aren’t getting to make movies about most of us! Our crowd is still considered by the studios to be the kids with the big sneakers, the 40 ounces and the baggie pants. ...We aren’t being allowed to grow as filmmakers and do something about us -- where are we culturally? Our choices are to start directing films about the dominant culture, or stay in the hood cinematically and do the black comedies and the hood flicks. That’s the glass ceiling."

Granted, some progress has been made, with the Hughes Brothers directing From Hell, the story of Jack the Ripper, and, most notably, Antoine Fuqua directing Bruce Willis in Tears of the Sun and the forthcoming King Arthur. But that’s where the progress ends. Creative Screenwriting tackles the scarcity of Black screenwriters in their latest issue (Vol 11, #3) but couldn’t find very many people willing to discuss the matter for fear of industry backlash. I have to ask once again: This is progress?

Walt Disney should be praised for having made Song of the South, for helping to break down the color barriers. I truly do not understand why many people of color revile those who took the hard knocks before them in the entertainment industry, such as Hattie McDaniel (who famously said “I’d rather play a maid than be one”), James Baskett, Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams (who took over the characters of Amos n’ Andy when the series moved to television), and especially Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry -- and how is he any less of a stereotype than Snoop Dogg?). Without their efforts, there would be no Sidney Portier, Angela Bassett, Bill Cosby, or Denzel Washington.

Judge It For Yourself, But With An Open Mind

Most people that despise Song of the South have not actually seen it. The few that despise it and have, I fear, have viewed it looking for reasons to hate it. Just like the people who watched The Passion of the Christ and proclaimed it Anti-Semitic, while ignoring the daily Anti-Semitic rants of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. I ask you to view it for yourself with an open mind, and see just how wonderful this film is. The problem is, that’s easier said than done. You may be able to find it on eBay, or from some other online retailers. It’s one of the most sought-after “bootleg” films. If I could, I’d post the whole movie here for you to download, but bandwidth and Copyright laws prevent me from doing so. However, I do offer you the Tar Baby story and James Baskett singing "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah." I ask that you forget the cultural past of the Tar Baby itself and judge the sequence on its own merits. Keep in mind, also, James Baskett won an Oscar for his portrayal of Uncle Remus and also did the voice of Brer Fox (the speed at which he delivered his lines for Brer Fox posed quite a challenge for the animators). There were quite a few achievements for Black Americans with this film. It would be a shame for them to be lost forever to future generations, Black or White. And by keeping the film hidden in America, they only perpetuate the myth that there is actually something horribly racist about it.