THE COMING AND PASSING OF “SONG OF THE SOUTH”

In 1986, moviegoers were treated to a trailer for a Disney film re-release. The familiar, enthusiastic voice over that accompanied all Disney trailers, once again welcomed audiences of all ages back to an American classic. The bouncy melody of the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” filled the theater, and the huge, old-fashioned letters of the film’s title overwhelmed the screen:

“Song of the South” in brilliant Technicolor. There were ads in all major newspapers and magazines, as well as on television. No editorials or commentaries appeared, and Disney received no direct criticism. No one was offended or outraged. Brief mentions in People Magazine and Newsweek were typical of the response. The film’s reputed racist content was dismissed as misguided, noting that James Baskett’s dignified and heartfelt portrayal of Uncle Remus undermined any undercurrent of racism. The article in Newsweek merely suggested that parents be prepared to answer childrens’ questions concerning the period of history depicted in the film, informing them that it simply isn’t realistic, nor is it meant to be. After a three-week run, a bit short for Disney re-releases, but still quite successful, the film went back into the vault for another seven or eight years.

Beginning with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” its first animated feature, Disney was in the habit of re-releasing its animated classics about every seven years. This was so every American child would be able to experience each one in a theater, as if it were a brand new film. The practice did not change with the advent of television in the 1950’s, or even home video in the 1980’s. There was one exception, however, “Song of the South,” which would never be released to the American public in any form ever again. Except for a Japanese laser disc and a brief VHS release in Britain, “Song of the South” has virtually ceased to exist. Routine re-releases in 1972 and 1980 were lucrative and met with no resistance. But when its turn came up again in 1996, coinciding with its fiftieth anniversary, the film was nowhere to be seen. It had, in fact, been indefinitely pulled from distribution. The situation remains unchanged to this day. Although there’s no such thing as an officially banned film in the United States, “Song of the South” still cannot be seen, as if it never existed at all, a perception that Disney wants to encourage.

Unfortunately, the company doesn’t admit to this cowardly evasion of responsibility. It just wants “Song of the South” to go away. At a 1998 celebration of Disney animation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an official archivist and spokesman for its animation library responded to a question concerning the status of “Song of the South” by avoiding eye-contact and mumbling “Well, I don’t know,” before wandering off. The film has become unmentionable, like some horrible war crime that no one wants to acknowledge. This is an awful lot of consternation over what is nothing more than an innocuous family entertainment. In fact, millions of people grew up with “Song of the South.” It was seen over and over, at least every decade or so, just like “Snow White,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Winnie the Pooh,” and a hundred Bugs Bunny cartoons.

So what changed?

One is a culture of apology, in which past wrongs too great to be easily ameliorated in any meaningful way are instead dealt with through contrition and deference. In essence, we can’t change the past, but we can be sensitive and understanding. We can’t immediately improve the circumstances of millions affected by racism, poverty, sexism, etc. But we can be sorry. That these apologies are almost invariably hollow, and little more than pyrrhic victories, if not actually insults, seems not to matter. If an emotional pound of flesh is demanded, it can be easily given, especially when it comes to the ephemeral embarras-sments of popular culture.

The question, then, becomes, Does “Song of the South” require any sort of apology? It seems ridiculous to wring hands over this trivial, and even forgettable, example of family entertainment. We can easily accuse the film of being hokey and sentimental, but it is otherwise without consequence. Critics of the film, and of others of the period, will no doubt also condemn it for its sugar-coated view of slavery, an idyllic southern fantasy land where happy slaves sing spirituals and there’s no pain or oppression. It fails to deal with the true reality of slavery, a grave sin of omission. But the same can certainly be said of “Gone with the Wind,” a recognized classic that has never been banned or restricted, and has been available on television and cassette and DVD since the inception of home video. It also received a full Technicolor restoration and re-release in first run theaters. Obviously, MGM had no qualms about this project and the attention it garnered. Just the opposite, in fact. The film has always been, and remains, one of the studio’s crowning achievements and it has exploited it at every opportunity. There were no objections or public outcries. If no one objects to GWTW, to which it’s often referred, then SOTS, as website fans call it, is hardly worth mentioning.

Conversely, if there is a worthy target for the cultural crusaders of the black community, it should really be the utterly indefensible “Birth of a Nation.” No affectionate nickname for that one. Although film critics are quick to emphasize the film’s triumph as a landmark of epic storytelling and cinema-graphic composition, they’re equally quick to point out that its portrayal of blacks at the time of Reconstruction is so laughable that it virtually destroys the film’s value as drama. One shot of all those leering caricatures, without exception white actors in blackface, is enough to condemn it as the embarrassing joke that it is. One cannot take it seriously as anything but a technical exercise. This is not merely the best candidate for the vitriolic contempt of critics and scholars, it’s the only one. There is no other film that compares in this regard. That we can take what we need from GWTW, while soberly rejecting the rest, rather than denouncing and banning the film entirely, makes the disappearance of SOTS that much more absurd and baffling.

Of course, since the explosion of identity politics and the so-called culture wars, some would have you believe differently.

The notion is that just about every film but those made by black directors has some outrageous racist component, as if it’s a natural function of non-black filmmaking. This is, in a word, nonsense. In fact, at the time of this country’s most repressively racist, the 1950’s, when the civil rights movement was barely a flicker on the horizon, Hollywood films reflected an astonishing open-mindedness. This, ironically, is actually the aforementioned fantasy land. Despite the cruel racial reality of daily American life, with segregation and repression at their heights, Hollywood seemed to go out of its way to promote a vision of tolerance and self-examination. This is not a reference to the socially conscious high profile racial dramas of the previous decade, such as “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947), “Crossfire” (1947) and “Pinky” (1949), or even that quintessential 1950’s racial tearjerker and camp classic “Imitation of Life.”

Of particular interest here is the long list of standard issue films in which the story is not specifically racial, but contains a very clear racially progressive aspect. There are numerous films such as “The Well” (1950), in which a young black girl disappears in a small town, igniting a race riot, or “Kings Go Forth” (1958), a World War II drama in which Frank Sinatra condemns Tony Curtis for dumping a young French girl after he discovers that she’s half black. There’s also the astonishing “Lost Boundaries” (1949), in which Mel Ferrer plays a light-skinned black doctor who passes as white so he can get a job in a small all-white town. Inevitably, the townspeople find out he’s really black. Although they feel betrayed at first, they decide that it doesn’t matter and all is well. In “Till the End of Time” (1946), three World War II veterans are approached by white supremacists in a bar and, rather than join up, beat them up in a brawl. Just before the fight, they exchange sympathetic looks with a black veteran who’s still in uniform. In “No Way Out” (1950), Richard Widmark is a virulent racist criminal who won’t allow doctor Sidney Poitier to operate on him. “Man in the Shadow” (1957) is a particularly potent dose of smalltown real-ism. Although an updated knock-off of the classic, and far superior, “High Noon,” with Jeff Chandler in the Gary Cooper role, the film manages to tackle racism, fear of miscegenation, mob justice and McCarthyism, all in a snappy eighty-two minutes. These are just a few examples, but the list is virtually endless. Watch enough old movies, and the trend becomes not only apparent, but overwhelming.

You will not, however, find even one example of its opposite. Aside from the aforementioned “Birth of a Nation,” there are simply no films that promote racism, directly or otherwise. Movies have always compensated for our shortcomings in real life, in America and just about everywhere else. In India and Japan, for example, movies have always been redress for the subservient roles of women in those cultures. The women in Bollywood musicals are always strong and respected, the pillars of the community. In Japanese horror movies, stories often revolve around a female ghost, correcting her life’s injustices after death.

Further, cultural warriors and academics eager to demonstrate their left wing street cred cite westerns as a particu-larly egregious example of the legacy of American racism and sexism. Now it’s true that there are almost no black characters in westerns, even in subservient roles, when about a quarter of all cowboys were black. The Old West was full of Chinese, and there are almost none of them either. Conspicuous omissions, to be sure. But there are a lot of Mexicans and Indians. The current campus opinion is that virtually all westerns denigrate and disparage Indians, and the Mexicans are either props or villains. The fact is, most westerns are not even about Indians in any substantial capacity. They’re about cowboys and ranchers. The heroes are cowboys and so are the villains. The classic western climaxes in a shootout between the weary and reluctant hero and some violent, amoral gunfighter he was forced to chase down. Indians are usually irrelevant, and Mexicans tend to represent a more settled and thoughtful lifestyle, in contrast to that of the wandering, unsatisfied Americans still searching the frontier for meaning.

Every once in a while, there’s a wagon train attacked by Indians, or an Indian raid on an encampment of settlers. But the film’s narrative is always such that this is an exceptional occurrence. Most Indians in films co-exist with whites, and if not exactly friendly, are not hostile either. More significantly, there’s almost always an undercurrent of deference to the Indian population. Hostile acts perpetrated by soldiers and cowboys are opportunistically blamed on Indians. The hero always finds out the truth and gets the real villains. The hero is also usually familiar with the different tribes and has a rudimentary knowledge of their language. The implication is that the Indians are a lot more civilized and complicated than the settlers give them credit for, and might actually teach them something. Even John Wayne, that enduring symbol of ultra-patriotism and xenophobia, invariably comes off as a UN ambassador in his westerns. He’s always comfortable with Indians, having a relationship with a chief or warrior of mutual understanding and respect. With the exception of “The Searchers (1956),” you will not see John Wayne hating or killing or even insulting Indians as a group.

Hollywood didn’t have to go out of its way here, either. This is standard western storytelling. Among the thousands of westerns made by Hollywood since the early days of silent films, there were almost none about the genocidal policies of the United States government toward American Indians until “Cheyenne Autumn” came along in 1964. And this film, as did others in subsequent years, took the side of the Indians. When “Dances with Wolves” hit screens in 1992, the reaction was one of astonishment, as if a great injustice had finally been corrected. Although a great western, and the first in almost twenty years to have substantial commercial and critical success, “Dances with Wolves” was hardly unique in its sympathy toward Native Americans. It’s nearly im-possible, in fact, not to have sympathy for them, in either a dramatic context or otherwise. This is why the issue of their abuse, neglect and genocide has been mostly avoided. The cynical view is that Hollywood is run by liberals who promote liberal po-sitions in their stories. But the truth is simply more prac-tical. Movies are a vicarious art form, and Americans like to imagine themselves as fair and honest. Filmmakers are not going to portray the west honestly because the result would be too unpleasant. No one wants to identify with a movie hero who kills Indians and abuses women. Indeed, if real cowboys had been as respectful of Indians, Mexicans and women in real life, it would have been a place of extreme sophistication and civilization, rather than one of violence and lawlessness. It’s also much more interesting, and much more dramatic, to employ Indian characters that have an equal, if distant and perhaps superior, relationship to the cowboys. Let’s face it, in the movies, Indians are just plain cool. Much cooler than the stereotypical scummy, toothless cowboy that doesn’t like them and wants to kill them indiscriminately. He’s usually the same guy who tries to rape the heroine, only to be ignominiously gunned down before the finale.

The remaining issue is that sin of omission. By marginalizing or neglecting blacks in film after film, cinema as an in-stitution condemns them to second class status and reinforces racism in the public realm. Do this for sixty to seventy years and the effects are hard to undo. No matter how many films, big or small, have a humanitarian “nod” to a minor black character, it’s a drop in the ocean. In sum, most films are not about blacks and most major characters are not black. The message is undeniably clear. However, what interprets and qualifies that message is not the movies themselves, but the context of the larger society in which they’re made.

In other words, there’s no such thing as corrective enter-tainment. If there were, all we’d have to do to address a social problem is make the right movie about it. Hardcore white supremacists, for example, do not hold their views because of a given movie or series of movies they’ve seen. And conversely, their opinion can’t be altered by films containing wholesome, humanitarian portrayals. Indeed, the effect may in fact be just the opposite. Films during the glory days of Hollywood were routinely altered for southern audiences, so not to offend them. Dance numbers in musicals where the white heroine was in the same frame as a featured black performer, thereby implying equality or intimacy, were always avoided. They were shot in such a way to allow the offending scene to be completely excised without creating dramatic confusion, and a less racially inflammatory scene could be substituted in prints going to southern theaters. In the 1930’s, studio heads even went so far as to sanitize films before sending them to Germany and its occupied territories. The area constituted a large financial return, and characters or stories that seemed “too Jewish” were muted or avoided, and anything even remotely interracial was out of the question. The practice was stopped when Germany invaded Poland, and trade as a whole was restricted to Nazi Germany. This is all the more amazing con-sidering that the heads of most of the major Hollywood studios were Jewish immigrants.

Movies and their content are prominent, but essentially benign. They make an easy target for the hypercritical. At the time of SOTS, movies were only about fifty years old. But human prejudice is some ten thousand years old, and the effects of superficial entertainment can only wear off an hour or so after the closing credits. And this is not a bad thing. If it’s discomforting to know that no amount of well-intentioned humanita-rian propaganda will sway the hateful, then it has to be equally reassuring that no amount of its counterpart will cause the rest of us to re-evaluate our overall tolerance. We can view “Triumph of the Will” or “The Eternal Jew” a thousand times, and like “Birth of a Nation,” we won’t entertain their ridiculous, megalo-maniacal fascism for an instant.

So the question remains, why “Song of the South,” of all targets? A single word is the simple answer here: Disney. The Walt Disney Company is a sitting duck if ever there were one. It manicures its public image as fiercely as Madonna. It desperately fears losing its much perfected reputation as a wholesome, family-oriented producer of uplifting, life-affirming entertain-ment. It takes every criticism and threat to heart, unwilling to be perceived as indifferent to the opinions of every dissatisfied customer, no matter how irrational and indefensible the claim.

When there’s an objection to something in one of its films, a spokesman for the company always apologizes and promises to review the problem. The company always takes it on the chin. Its stance is that it’s always at fault. It never stands up for its product or simply dismisses a criticism out of hand. And this, unfortunately, is not just lip service. To eliminate the problem at the source, it has altered scenes and characters. During the production of “The Lion King,” creators went out of their way to Africanize the story elements, not for the sake of dramatic ef-fectiveness, but to avoid negative attention. It seems to care less about artistic integrity than public relations. But the company can’t win, just because of who it is. When “Aladdin” came out, it was attacked by spokesmen for the “Arab community,” who objected to its negative Arab stereotypes. Once again, Disney apologized. No one seemed to notice that, being a cartoon, yes, the characters tend toward exaggeration. But no more than in any other animated feature. Should white southerners be offended by Foghorn Leghorn? Nor, for that matter, were they negative in any way. But Disney refuses to condemn this as the narcissistic opportunism that it obviously is. The company takes it seriously because it seems genuinely disturbed by the possibility that it’s the cause of anything but happiness and devotion. In most cases, the company just wants to avoid trouble. This is what the SOTS ban is all about.

The irony is, of course, that the film has been unfairly targeted and become a sacrificial lamb in the so-called culture wars. It’s typical of the proponents of identity politics and cultural victimology to pick the most absurd example of its arguments. In fact, there’s nothing more damning to the very concept of this school of thought than the fact that “Song of the South” has been so extensively attacked and reviled, becoming such a public embarrassment that its creators will barely speak its name.

To simply ignore all this nonsense and look at the actual film objectively is to discover quite a different animal. This is something that nobody has actually done since the controversy began. Especially, you cab bet, its harshest critics. You’d think they’d at least have the brains to pick a better example of their disdain. But they don’t, because they’re not really interested in “Song of the South.” They’re interested in the cheap psychological thrill of the petty outrage that always goes with being offended. They don’t seem to notice how embarrassing it is to essentially admit that their lives are somehow compromised by a ninety minute family entertainment, a third of which is a car-toon that millions of people routinely watched for forty years without incident.

But this could be just one reactionary opinion. Perhaps the best way to proceed is with a fully objective and detailed examination of the film itself. For those who haven’t seen it, which, unbelievably, is most people at this point, I’ll recount the entire story and its characters and refrain from analyzing them, to avoid tainting their simple descriptions.

“Song of the South” begins with a young boy, Johnny, in a horse drawn carriage with his parents, going to his grandmother’s plantation in rural Georgia. Johnny’s parents explain that they’re just visiting. But there’s a reference to some articles, written by Johnny’s father, that have stirred up some unpleasantness back in Atlanta. Just before they arrive, Johnny’s father talks about growing up and listening to the stories of Uncle Remus, whom Johnny is eager to meet. Also in the carriage is the family’s maid, Aunt Tempy, played by the indomitable Hattie McDaniel, known mostly for her Academy Award winning role as Mamie in “Gone with the Wind.”

When they get to the plantation, Johnny is introduced to Toby, a young black boy his own age. At this point, the happy mood is broken by the father’s admission that he’s going straight back to Atlanta. Johnny is distraught, and cries that he’s never left him and his mother. His father explains that he must go back, but the boy whines that he won’t stay if his father leaves. The man tells his son that he has to stay to take care of his mother and grandmother, and then re-boards the carriage and leaves. Night falls and Johnny runs away, presumably to make his way back to Atlanta. He comes across Uncle Remus, played James Baskett, who won a special Academy Award for his role. Uncle Remus is sitting in a clearing telling stories about Brer Rabbit, surrounded by men, women and children, presumably the plantation’s slaves.

Uncle Remus realizes that the boy is running away, and says he’ll go with him. He asks Johnny if he’s brought any food, since it’s such a long trip. When the boy admits that he hasn’t, Remus takes him to his cabin and feeds him. Now it’s too late, he says, to start the trip. Remus suggests that the boy’s vow to never come back to the plantation reminds him of Brer Rabbit’s own vow to leave his briar patch. Johnny begs Remus to tell him the story, upon which the film’s setting becomes animated, with a live action Uncle Remus singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” one of the most famous songs in the Disney repertoire, surrounded by a variety of animated forest creatures. Remus then introduces and narrates the first animated segment in the film. Brer Rabbit attempts to run away, so he no longer has to put up with Brer Fox. No sooner is he on his way, also singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” when he finds himself caught in one of Brer Fox’s snares. While Brer Fox sharpens up his ax and tears down from his lair, Brer Rabbit tries to convince the not-too-bright Brer Bear to free him from the snare. When Brer Fox reaches the snare, he’s amazed to find Brer Bear caught instead. While fox and bear have it out, the rabbit high tails it back to his house and shuts the door.

The first evening ends when Toby bursts into Remus’s cabin and announces that both Johnny’s mother and grandmother are desperately looking for him. Remus walks Johnny back to the big house, and endures a bit of scolding as to why he kept him up so late telling stories. After Johnny’s mother hauls him into the house, Uncle Remus suggests to grandma that Johnny needs his father. She agrees, but adds that when she wants his advice, she’ll ask for it. Remus asks her if she’s mad at him. She dismisses the very idea and tells him of course not, adding that she’s just a stubborn old woman set in her ways. All is well so Remus goes home.

The next morning begins in Johnny’s bedroom, with Toby pouring a bowl of fresh water for him and introducing him to his pet bullfrog. Miss Sally, Johnny’s mother, appears and tells him to put on a suit, because company is coming. The boy protests that he and Toby were supposed to go frog hunting. The next scene finds Johnny in the suit, whose white britches and lace collar make him look like Little Lord Fauntleroy, sitting outside with Toby. Nevertheless, off they go to hunt frogs. On the way, they pass a broken down cabin where the poor white Faver brothers, about Johnny’s age, are playing with a litter of puppies. A young girl named Ginny, presumably their sister, is also pre-sent. She’s noticeably different than the brothers in her clean appearance and nice manners. The boys make fun of Johnny’s suit, calling him a “little girl.” He runs off and Ginny follows him. He gives her the lace collar and she gives him one of the pups, a runt she took away from the two boys, who were going to drown it. When Uncle Remus sees him with the dog, he asks Johnny what his mother’s going to say about it, and tells him to take it back to the Faver brothers because she’ll never let him keep it. Then Remus softens up and agrees to take care of the dog for him.

The next scene opens with a procession of slaves, tools in hand, singing on their way to work. When the Faver brothers spot Uncle Remus with Johnny’s puppy, they demand that he give it back. Remus threatens them with a beating if he hears anymore about the dog. Ginny reassures Johnny that if she gave him the puppy, then it’s his, not theirs, and her mother will back her up on the matter. This confrontation prompts the next animated sequence with Brer Rabbit, and Uncle Remus leads Johnny and Toby into his cabin to recount the story.

Once again, Brer Fox is determined to catch his arch enemy.

He creates the Tar Baby, probably the most enduring reference from both the film and the original stories by Joel Chandler Harris. It’s simply a dummy made from boiled tar, that he puts a hat and clothes on and leaves in the middle of the road. Brer Rabbit happens along and tries to introduce himself to the tar baby, who, naturally, doesn’t respond. After an increasingly heated exchange in which Brer Rabbit is determined to get some acknowledgment from the figure, he assaults it, and is soon trapped in a cocoon of sticky tar. Brer Fox jumps from his hiding place. Now he finally has the rabbit where he wants him. He makes a bonfire and is about to cook him, but Brer Rabbit talks his way out of the predicament with reverse psychology. He convinces Brer Fox that the last thing he wants is to be thrown into the briar patch, which of course is exactly what the fox does to him. Having grown up in the patch, he avoids its needle sharp briars and is free again.

Johnny and Toby subsequently meet the Faver brothers on the road. They threaten to tell Johnny’s mother and grandmother about the dog, which they want back. Johnny employs the same logic from the story and tricks them into telling their own mother instead. She beats them and chases them out of the house, scolding them that the dog is no longer theirs. They flee from the rundown shack rubbing their sore backsides, sorry they ever mentioned it.

The next scene shows Hattie McDaniel puttering around the kitchen, singing and baking. The song is not a spiritual, but a witty blues with a certain level of innuendo. “You’ll a-come knockin’ at my door for my cookin’,” etc. Uncle Remus appears and she chastises him for only showing up on baking day. He helps himself to some pie, but is interrupted by the Faver brothers, who appear on the doorstep demanding to see Miss Sally.

Remus tells them to go away and not bother anyone about that dog again. But she appears and is informed that Remus has been hiding the dog for Johnny. They also tell her how Johnny tricked them into getting whipped. Remus explains that this was due to his excitement over the Brer Rabbit story he’d just been told. Miss Sally tells Remus to give the dog back, and, concerned by the influence of the stories, informs Remus that he’s not to tell Johnny anymore stories of Brer Rabbit. He apologizes and agrees, but goes off clearly dejected.

When Johnny finds out that Remus gave away the dog, he cries and accuses Uncle Remus of not caring about anything. Remus tells him that there was nothing he could do, but Johnny storms off. Miss Sally makes it up to him by throwing him a big birthday party. He runs off to get Ginny, who’s been all dressed up by her mother. Her brothers follow her and Johnny, and their taunting results in Ginny being pushed into the mud and Johnny getting into a knockdown fight with one of the boys. Uncle Remus comes along and breaks up the fight and chases the boys off. This initiates the last Brer Rabbit story and animated sequence, about the laughing place. Brer Fox is about to roast the rabbit once again, but he and Brer Bear are tricked into taking a trip to the non-existent “laughing place.” Brer Rabbit uses their gullibility and curiosity to extricate himself from their clutches once more.

When Miss Sally finds out, she tells Uncle Remus that he must keep away from Johnny entirely. Sad and rejected, he packs up his belongings and leaves the plantation. Johnny finds out and tries to run after him. He takes a shortcut through a bull-pen and is run down by the bull. Lying delirious in bed in the big house, Remus visits and tells him that the real laughing place is at home, where Brer Rabbit belongs, surrounded by everyone who loves him. Still unconscious, Johnny places his small hand in Uncle Remus’s and wakes up. His father has returned and promises that he’s there to stay. The final scene shows Johnny, Ginny, Toby, led by the dog, skipping through the woods singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” An animated Brer Rabbit appears and joins them, along with an animated bluebird, some butterflies and a few other creatures from the forest. Followed by Uncle Remus, they all sing their way over the horizon and the film ends with a chorus of voices adding the last few notes of the song.

The story continues in part two of THE COMING AND PASSING OF “SONG OF THE SOUTH”>>>




Posted on October 4, 2005 in Features by
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