Friday, April 23, 2010

Disney's Third Rail

I’m a little hesitant to write this post. After all, I actively fight racism. If someone uses a racial slur or tells a racist joke in my presence, I call them out on it -- loudly. I nearly got beat up by a football team at a party once because I took umbrage with their racist remarks. (I thought I deserved credit for not commenting on how sad it was that years after graduation the team still traveled as a unit, but that’s life in small-town Ohio.) Why do I feel the need to state this so emphatically? Because I’m going to grab a hold of the third rail of Disney history; Song of the South.

You know there’s a controversy. You know that if Disney won’t release something people are asking for, it’s not because Disney doesn’t want to make money. But a goodly portion of the population has actually never seen the film, so they have no idea what the fuss is about. Here’s a brief description of the film, along with my thoughts.

Song of the South was released on November 12, 1946 and based on the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. The live actors provide the frame story, in which Uncle Remus relates the adventures of Br’er Rabbit and his friends. These anthropomorphic animal characters appear in animation. The hit song from the film was "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", which won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Song and is a beloved Disney classic. The film inspired the Disney theme park ride Splash Mountain.

The movie is set in Georgia, shortly after the American Civil War. Seven-year-old Johnny is excited about what he believes to be a vacation at his grandmother's Georgia plantation with his parents. When they arrive at the plantation however, he discovers he is to live in the country with his mother and grandmother while his father returns to Atlanta to continue his controversial editorship in the city's newspaper. Johnny, distraught because his father has never left him or his mother before, leaves that night under cover of darkness and sets off for Atlanta with only a bindle. As Johnny sneaks away from the plantation, he is attracted by the voice of Uncle Remus, telling tales of a character named Br'er Rabbit. Uncle Remus befriends the young boy and uses his tales of Br’er Rabbit to convince Johnny not to run away.

Johnny also makes friends with Toby, a little black boy who lives on the plantation, and Ginny, a poor white neighbor. However, Ginny's two older brothers, Joe and Jake (who are meant to resemble Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear) are not friendly at all. They constantly bully Ginny and Johnny. Johnny uses more lessons from Br’er Rabbit to deal with these two thugs.

Johnny’s mother (Sally) eventually feels that Uncle Remus’ stories are having too much of an effect on Johnny, and insists that Uncle Remus quit telling them. Uncle Remus, saddened by the misunderstanding of his good intentions, packs his bags and leaves for Atlanta. Seeing Uncle Remus leaving from a distance, Johnny rushes to intercept him, taking a shortcut through the pasture, where he is attacked and seriously injured by the resident bull. While Johnny hovers between life and death, his father returns and reconciles with Sally. But Johnny calls for Uncle Remus, who had returned in all the commotion. Uncle Remus begins telling a tale of Br'er Rabbit and the Laughing Place, and the boy miraculously survives.

So why all the controversy? First, some people feel that the film gives the impression of “an idyllic master-slave relationship”. They criticize the film for “making slavery appear pleasant” and “pretending slavery didn’t exist”. I must point out that the film takes place after the Civil War, when slavery was abolished. If it idealizes anything, it would be the plantation economy during Reconstruction (apparently Sherman’s March to the Sea bypassed this portion of Georgia entirely). Besides, it’s a work of fiction. There are singing birds, talking rabbits and a scheming fox, but the part that the critics find unrealistic is that people were actually capable of being nice to each other? I don’t get it.

There is also some criticism aimed at how some of the characters are treated. For example, critics claim that Johnny gets too much attention, and that Toby is virtually ignored. My response is: “Gee, the main character is the focus of the attention? I can hardly believe it.” (Does the sarcasm come through clearly there?) Further, they say that Uncle Remus’s pain at having to leave Johnny is a sign of “the blacks sublimating their own lives in order to be better servants to the white family”. What a load of crap. This moment in the film is immediately followed by the scene where Johnny risks his life to get to Uncle Remus, and is horribly injured. It is a testament to how much these to characters care about each other; no more, no less. I think it’s a beautiful story of a relationship that did not let race differences get in the way.

So, do the benefits of releasing the film outweigh the merits of the controversy? Obviously I think so. After all, Disney can’t pretend the film doesn’t exist. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is practically a Disney anthem, and the characters are all over the theme parks. I think the best way for Disney to put this controversy to rest would be to release the movie on DVD with an introduction by someone like Leonard Maltin. Just be very candid and say that this movie was made in 1946. Hopefully, we’ve learned a lot about race sensitivity in the last 60+ years, and can look at the film through that filter. I also think it’s worth mentioning that James Baskett (Uncle Remus) was the first male black actor to ever win an academy award, and he received it for his role in this film.

You know what I think, but where do you stand? Speak out at!

1 comment:

  1. I think you said it perfectly! Sadly, we probably never will see this film again (unless one of us befriends Bob Iger and he lets us have a secret screening.)
    Such a shame that America always has to "over-correct" because people can't see past their preconceived notions.
    Thanks for posting this!