Disney's Song of the South: Hollywood Scapegoat
|Consider some facts about Song of the South
- 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
|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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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